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Indigenous Women and Femmes Are Winning Fights to Reclaim Land

Not only must acres be transitioned back to Indigenous peoples’ stewardship, it must happen in any way possible.

Pricilla Hunter speaks to the community on behalf of Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians along with their inter-tribal relatives are calling for an immediate halt to all logging and extractive industry in the forest, and are working with environmental NGOs to build a visionary forest management plan based on traditional ecological land management and access for cultural healing and regeneration.

Indigenous women and femmes continue to lead in creatively reclaiming Native land, despite barriers put in place to subvert the work of rematriating these lands back to their original caretakers. A responsive movement has formed under the umbrella rallying cry of “Land Back.” The slogan is as clear as could possibly be. “Land Back” means exactly that: land back — acres upon acres of it. Land Back also means care for water protection and access to spaces with cultural longevity so many Indigenous peoples need.

Across so-called North America, Indigenous women are indomitable, and in land repossession work, this is no exception. Land Back campaigns take many forms ranging from land purchasing, creatively accessing and applying U.S. law, reparative tax structures that fuel healthy lands stewardship, media campaigns to increase public awareness, and so much more. Here are a few ways in which Indigenous women and femmes are leading these efforts.

A Legacy of Broken Treaties

“When Indians gave their word and smoked the pipe, they sent the smoke to the Creator. It was sacred, and the treaty was good in the eyes of all. The white men had to go back and ask other white men if they could keep their promises and make good on their word.”

–Vine Deloria Jr., 2014

Treaties between the United States and tribal nations are very rarely discussed in mainstream politics, yet they frame and underpin so much of the legal infrastructure of the U.S. Treaties are legally binding agreements between sovereign states. They can be reinforced by individuals, nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations, and other legal entities such as businesses, but they are fundamentally nation-to-nation agreements. Reinforcement of these agreements means active participation with a tribe in the governance space. They may be service providers, affinity/coalition groups, or provide general operating funds. Basically, any activity done in allyship for the benefit of the tribe.

There is little to no accountability if and when the United States breaks its treaties with tribal nations, yet when other nation-states sign agreements with the U.S., total adherence is demanded. This can be a great source of frustration and tension at times for tribally affiliated people navigating how much or how little engagement with the U.S. government happens in their everyday lives.

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 severely damaged relationships between the U.S. government and the original inhabitants of North America. Beginning with the American Revolution, Native American tribes were treated as independent nations for over 100 years. Treaties were forced upon tribal leadership (sometimes under great duress) in an effort to appear that Indigenous peoples were being treated fairly and not, pun intended, being “railroaded” as was the case.

The self-governance of tribes wasn’t totally eliminated, but it was eliminated if tribes wanted federal funding which, in an era of mass buffalo slaughter, the Gold Rush and westward expansion and the New Deal, meant life or death for hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. government unduly forced tribal nations into this situation with genocidal policies and organized brutality. Somehow, “Do as I say or I will cut off your access to food” doesn’t seem like an honorable or equitable dynamic.

Despite the fact that the United States has left many treaties with tribal nations unratified, discarded and dishonored, hundreds and hundreds of them still endure today. The existence of sovereign tribal nations represents a direct affront to the lies of “manifest destiny” that promised — and of course failed to deliver on — the propaganda of prosperity and equality in “virgin” unoccupied lands.

However, federal recognition or nonrecognition of tribes by the United States government will not stand in the way of Land Back work. The U.S. government certainly does not determine indigeneity, and Indigenous organizers won’t be stopped.

Land Back Is Not a Metaphor

“If […] all you do is vaguely gesture towards sovereignty, and let settlers believe that land is not ‘on the table’ then you’re reducing it to a metaphor,” Chelsea Vowel, Metis from manitow-sakahikan and a Cree language instructor at the University of Alberta, tweeted. “I’m seeing this more and more. Instead of sending folks to engage with materials that flesh out the complexities of Land Back, folks want to take away the sting of it so it doesn’t feel threatening. Land Back is not a synonym for a metaphorical decolonization — it is a required, tangible focus of decolonization.”

Fortunately, many Indigenous women feel the same way, and they’re taking action. Priscilla Hunter is an elder within the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and organizer with the Pomo Land Back campaign in Mendocino County, California. She is one of the many California Indigenous women leading the fight to save the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, the largest state forest in California, representing over 50,000 acres under threat of logging. “Our view of a sustainable forest is a forest that sustains our culture, values and way of life, not one that is managed in order to be cut for profit,” Hunter says at any public or private event she’s at; it’s her primary mission in life. She and others are working to acquire the land in defense of the redwoods and other local flora and fauna.

Hunter’s work serving as chair of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council has led to the formation of a group that consists of 10 local tribes that have purchased 3,900 acres on the Mendocino Lost Coast in order to preserve the forest there and save it from a third clear-cut.

Also in California, the inter-tribal Sogorea Té Land Trust has developed something called the Shuumi land tax reparative justice system, a program which creates pathways for people who wish to voluntarily give monetary contributions to shift the power and economic privilege dynamics of non-Indigenous people living in the lands of Confederated Villages of Lisjan, also referred to as the San Francisco Bay Area. These funds are then used to expand the landholding of Indigenous peoples.

The Importance of Oral Tradition in the Land Back Movement

“The Indian oral tradition which was passed down coincides with the documents the United States has very carefully kept hidden in the archives […] the interpretation of treaties is switching very radically over to a pro-Indian stance because the judges are now seeing that the things that some of these old Indians have said are not lies made up by them, but you can verify those in the federal records.”

Vine Deloria Jr., 1975

Oral tradition has served Christinia Eala, 76, from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, well. In 2021, with the traditional ecological knowledge she’d been handed down, she leveraged the 1851 and 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie obligations, knowledge about tribal history, and her rights as an Indigenous person to identify a loophole that allowed her to live on a section of land in limbo between Colorado State University and the City of Fort Collins. When attending city council meetings, she discovered that the land, while in asset transition between the institutions, actually belonged to no one because it was vacated completely by the university after Hughes Stadium was demolished and was not yet a land holding in the City of Fort Collins. Hundreds of visitors came to support her exercising her treaty rights. Her camp, called the Re-Emergence Encampment, was open for months hosting weekend events as a Native and non-Native community connection nexus in the area known as the Front Range of Colorado, which has been recognized by the University of Colorado, Boulder, as ancestral homelands to more than 48 tribes, including Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute peoples.

“I told them, ‘As an Indigenous woman, I am moving onto this land.’ I told them when. A lady from the city said they would need to assign someone to oversee to make sure I don’t destroy the plants. I asked her, ‘Who do you think took care of that land before the colonizers came and destroyed the Earth?’ We had two meetings, and at the in-person one, she apologized,” Eala told Truthout. “All Indigenous people know how to live with the Earth. Making points like this is how we help decolonize our own minds and offer that to other people.”

The idea that Land Back is a not theoretical demand and a literal one is worth restating. These women are just a sample across a great span of hundreds of years since first contact with colonizers that has taken the work, and love, of thousands. It’s a long strategy made real every day, truly modeling that not only must acres be transitioned back to Indigenous peoples’ stewardship, it must happen in any way possible. Indigenous women and femmes have always carried this torch, which means the future remains bright despite any and all obstacles.

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