Skip to content Skip to footer

“Return the Land to Make it Right”: Q&A With Indigenous Activist Nick Tilsen

“This country … talks about justice, and yet this entire country was built on the stolen lands of Native people.”

Hundreds of Native Americans gather during a rally near the White House on Indigenous Peoples Day in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 2021.

This story was originally published at Prism.

As part of a Prism series last year, we heard from Indigenous leaders, land stewards, scholars, and practitioners of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to learn how the return of Indigenous land is integral to mitigating climate change. The cornerstone of these articles was the ongoing battle to restore the Black Hills (also known as Mount Rushmore) to its original stewards—especially in light of the 1980 Supreme Court ruling that said the U.S. military and federal government stole the land and had no legal claim to it. Returning the Black Hills is one of the central demands of the LANDBACK campaign by the NDN Collective, a philanthropy organization that empowers Indigenous communities.

“We’re at a critical time globally with the impacts of climate change; we have to recognize that Indigenous-led conservation is one of the ways that we can effectively increase biodiversity and fight climate change,” said Nick Tilsen, CEO of NDN Collective. “The only way that’s going to happen at a systemic systemic level is not just through co-management, it’s actually going to be through turning that land back to Indigenous people.”

The fight for land and sovereignty continues today. In April 2023, the NDN Collective launched its first podcast, “LANDBACK for the People,” in which Tilsen speaks with Indigenous elders, organizers, lawyers, and others in the movement for Indigenous liberation. The podcast is by and for people in the movement—a gift for listeners who aren’t yet involved and may want to learn more.

In October, Prism spoke with Tilsen by phone about the importance of telling your own story, imagining a liberated future, and international solidarity. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ray Levy Uyeda: Why did NDN Collective want to make this podcast? Who is it for?

Nick Tilsen: We created the podcast because, as folks that are deeply in this movement, we constantly have our heads down in the actual work of getting land back and the actual work of repatriating resources so people can get land back, but we thought it was also really important to continue to provide a political analysis and a contextualization of what this movement is and the cross-sectional nature of this movement.

Otherwise, we feel like our narratives in our movement can get hijacked by people who aren’t in it. We created this podcast by the movement and for the movement so that we can continue to politicize our communities and our people, to continue to share stories of liberation and hope, and to talk about what is happening throughout the Indigenous world. Because the LANDBACK movement is a decentralized movement.

Levy Uyeda: And what do you want people to know about what the podcast is about?

Tilsen: The podcast is about leaning into complexity. It’s a way for folks who aren’t in the movement to have an opportunity to peek into the conversations that are happening within our struggle and to hear how we are creating solutions to climate change and injustice. The erasure of Indigenous people is persistent, and it is active. We must develop our own narratives that are authentic—that are coming from the frontlines—otherwise, they’ll get hijacked and become something else. And so we thought: Hey, we got creatives, we got storytellers, and we are embedded in this movement. Let’s talk story, as people say throughout Indigenous communities.

Levy Uyeda: The podcast’s first guest, Madonna Thunder Hawk, talks about how when she was coming up in the movement, there was “no Native press, there was just struggle,” meaning that they didn’t have Instagram, a website, or a podcast to get the message out. This also seems to be a part of the podcast’s importance, how the medium is one of the many ways that the movement is carrying forward.

Tilsen: You know, so many of our people are orators. It is an Indigenous value to have stories being told to you and then passed down. A lot of times in the world of social media and journalism, sometimes that’s not always lifted up, you know, that traditional form of tossing story, sharing story, or sharing oral tradition. This is a way for us to decolonize the space and continue oral tradition. That’s why I wanted to start off with one of our elders, one of the matriarchs of the Indigenous peoples and LANDBACK movements.

The other element of this is that so much of media nowadays is controlled by corporations and colonial governments, many of which we’re fighting or are at odds with in a movement striving for justice and liberation. And we question why they tell the stories that they do. They’re often speaking to their own audiences, which are audiences that give them clicks or advertisement revenue. We’re not a media source, but we do have the podcast and blogs and engage in tactical media because it’s important to communicate what we’re doing and why so that we can continue to demystify and debunk mainstream media’s perception of us. It’s important to create platforms that are authentic, where Indigenous people can tell their stories, because a lot of times they’re erased or deprioritized. It’s about finding a multifaceted approach to uplift our stories and say to Indigenous people: You are valuable. Your lived experience matters. Your work in this movement matters, and we’re going to work to uplift it.

Levy Uyeda: All of the U.S., or Turtle Island, is Indigenous land. LANDBACK, or the return of this land, is taking place across the country, interpersonally and at all levels of government. I was thinking about what we might see in the future—beyond returning land when it’s convenient for the U.S. hegemony, or when land is returned out of guilt, or after industry has been allowed to degrade the land. I’m wondering if you might be able to talk about what LANDBACK would look like if it was risking dominant power structures and why it’s imperative to return land not just when it’s easy.

Tilsen: This country talks about democracy, it talks about justice, and yet this entire country was built on the stolen lands of Native people, and the impact of that is extreme humanitarian and human rights issues. Look at the life expectancy of people in my own community of Pine Ridge; it’s 48 for men and 52 for women. That’s the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, with the exception of Haiti. These poverty conditions were directly created by political and economic systems created by the U.S. government and imposed on Indigenous people. If we’re going to reverse those things—create economic inclusion, close the racial wealth gap, and start improving the determinants of health of the most-impacted people, then we need to be looking at structural change. So we can’t just take the easy route. You can’t just take what is most politically possible in the present time. We have to, as a nation, exceed our own expectations in order to rebuild this country in a just and equitable way. We have to push ourselves.

I think one of the big issues is right here in the Black Hills, which is one of the biggest land legal battles throughout the history of the U.S. We have exhausted our remedies. We went all the way to the Supreme Court of the U.S., which said the stealing of the Black Hills and the violation of our treaties was illegal and a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Yet the land hasn’t been returned. We say return the land to make it right.

Levy Uyeda: In a couple of the podcast’s episodes, you reference using imagination to create a new world. In a discussion about McGirt v. Oklahoma, which upheld that much of eastern Oklahoma is a part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, one of the guests mentioned that lawyers were hesitant to file the case because of concern over negative consequences or of losing the case. You say in this episode that organizers can be discredited for their work—even though organizing is some of the hardest work because building toward liberation requires an ability to see beyond the material and immediate. Why is imagination important to the movement? And when you were coming up in the movement, what did you imagine would come of it?

Tilsen: I appreciate this question. Again, it’s not about credit, but it is about lifting up the true and authentic stories of Indigenous liberation; those people who often risk everything in order for there to be a foundation of a movement to exist. We were starting from nothing—colonization, white supremacy, and American genocide beat us down to the point where we struggled to believe what is possible. That is one of the impacts of white supremacy, racism, and colonial oppression: to make people believe that they are worthless, to make people believe that they are less than, and to make people believe that they’re not worthy.

Part of what organizers do is help reignite that fire among the people. We help make the injustices that they experience every day seen. It helps validate them. We acknowledge them. And then we’re able to begin to acknowledge their power and their contribution to the world. We’re able to say, “You are valuable. Let’s lock arms and go create something and build something new.” I think imagination is so powerful because, as Indigenous people, we’re spiritual people. It’s not just in the past that we communicate to the ancestors that walked upon this earth before. It’s not mythological; we do this in ceremonies to this day. We seek direction from Crazy Horse, we seek direction from Sitting Bull. We seek direction from the matriarchs of the past and the warriors of the past to inform our actions in the present. That allows us to radically imagine what the future looks like. It allows us to pay that forward. Envisioning what the future looks like when the land is returned, when we begin to start speaking our languages again, when the dams that have dammed our waters begin to crumble and fall apart both politically and physically, and what that means for collective energy, I think that it unlocks this culture of abundance.

Levy Uyeda: Throughout the podcast you refer to LANDBACK as a liberation framework. It’s not just a slogan. It’s not just something that would be nice. LANDBACK is a model of thinking and a call to action. I feel like we saw a similar dilution of political meaning after a few years of non-Native people using the word “decolonize.” Non-Native people stop their work after offering a land acknowledgment. I’m wondering if you feel any sort of hesitation to put the call for LANDBACK further into the world knowing that non-Native people might dilute its meaning.

Tilsen: I think about that all the time. Let’s be real; movements are not started by hashtags. Movements are not sustained by hashtags. Movements are sustained, built, and maintained because of boots on the ground, because of people actually getting land back, because of people actually rolling up their sleeves. That’s what I love about the work NDN Collective does every day. We help rematriate resources all over to help Indigenous people get their land back, rebuild the food systems, and rebuild their education systems. We actually are building pathways to liberation for Indigenous people to reclaim their languages, to reclaim their food systems, to reclaim their housing systems, and [increase] their economic vitality and ability to provide for themselves.

In every movement, there’s a risk that people will [create] their own interpretations of it. In the LANDBACK movement, there’s a little bit of a swagger that’s like, “Fuck your acknowledgment, give us the land back.” And the reason why we say that is because you cannot stop with the acknowledgment of our land. In fact, if you acknowledge the land and that’s where you stop it, then you’re not contributing to Indigenous liberation. You have to figure out how you are supporting Indigenous people in their self-determination and their liberation.

Levy Uyeda: And what do you think is one of the biggest challenges of that for people?

Tilsen: One of the challenges that stands in the way of the LANDBACK movement, quite frankly, is white fragility. Because they think that we’re coming for their house. They think we’re coming for the picket fence. As Indigenous people in this movement, we have no desire to repeat history and to treat people with violence. Our movement is very focused on the tens of millions of acres that are public lands that are being destroyed by the mining industry or the fossil fuel industry.

Everybody knows that generational wealth in this country was created and made possible because of the stealing of land and the control and the leveraging of land as a resource. But we say it’s a “liberation framework” because I do not believe in victimhood narratives. Victimhood narratives perpetuate charity, not change. We need to be building movements that are liberation movements and creating solutions for actual structural change in this country.

Levy Uyeda: In the podcast you underscore that the U.S. has broken every treaty it’s ever signed with a Native nation. This unconstitutional act weakens democracy. How is LANDBACK both a democratic effort, meaning a policy demand, and a liberation framework, or movement demand? And what is the relationship between the two?

Tilsen: I want to clarify that I believe the supreme law of the land is natural law. It’s what we see happen in nature; it’s the natural law of biodiversity of our ecological systems. With Indigenous people, our inherent right and responsibility is both to maintain and protect those systems. That’s my worldview.

The political and legal reality of the American Constitution—and this is not a matter of opinion—is that Article Six of the U.S. Constitution says that treaties are the supreme law of the land. In the U.S., every treaty that has ever been made by the government to an Indigenous nation has been a treaty between nations, the same as the treaties with Germany, France, or whomever. Every one of those violations is not just a violation of the treaty itself, but it’s actually a violation of Article Six of the U.S. Constitution, and it brings into question how valid our democracy is.

We can’t just wave the American flag and say, “I love this democracy,” without understanding that this democracy has been jeopardized—mostly by white men in political power. As Indigenous people, we believe that democracies are possible, for sure. But how this particular democracy has been used to violate human rights to create the conditions for an American genocide—to steal lands and leave the first people of this land the sickest, poorest people in this country—tells you about whom this democracy prioritizes and whom it was built for.

Levy Uyeda: I wanted to end with a question related to occupied Palestine, given the horrifying and unspeakable violence the State of Israel is carrying out against the Palestinian people. Because when we say LANDBACK, it’s not just referring to the so-called U.S.; it means LANDBACK everywhere. A few years ago, NDN Collective published a paper called “The Right of Return is LANDBACK.” I’m wondering if you can talk to us a little bit about international solidarity as it relates to the LANDBACK movement.

Tilsen: I want to be super clear: NDN Collective, far before the war between Israel and Hamas, has stood in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, understood them to be Indigenous people, and understood their right to return—and understood that as a shared LANDBACK struggle. We believe squarely in a solution where Palestinian people’s human rights are uplifted and where Jewish and Israeli people’s human rights are uplifted as well. As a Lakota, I connect it to the ability to return to the Black Hills. Luckily, people have fought for these rights, so we return to our Black Hills all the time to gather medicines or do ceremonies. And we’re going to continue to fight for our rights to secure that in the future. We believe that Palestinian people should have the same right.

As an Indigenous person in this country, I understand the complexities of colonial governments and how they have been created to divide people, to conquer people, to extract resources from people for the political and economic gain of a very few. This is why international solidarity is so important: because those who are experiencing oppression and experiencing colonial violence have to bind together so they don’t continue to isolate us.

If you look at who is likely profiting from the Hamas and Israel war, more than anybody it’s probably the military contractors who receive tax subsidies from the U.S. government and Israeli government to kill people. When we think about these issues, sometimes we think about them in black and white, but we have to understand the playbook being used here is the very same playbook that has been used on American soil when there was a genocide of Indigenous peoples here.

Levy Uyeda: I feel like that’s important to note, that colonizing forces rely on the same methods, lies, and weapons. But freedom struggles can learn from each other.

Tilsen: Many people don’t know this, but on my father’s side of my family we’re Jewish. My family members were Jewish social justice activists in the 1960s, and my grandfather Ken Tilson’s last name was Americanized just like most Jewish last names. My family’s original name was Taplinsky. They came from Poland and Russia and came in through Niagara Falls. When the American Indian Movement first started on the streets of Minneapolis, they were policing the police. Some of the very first lawsuits filed against the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department were filed by my grandfather Ken Tilson, on behalf of the American Indian Movement. My mom was part of the grassroots organizing on Pine Ridge that invited the American Indian Movement to come to Pine Ridge. So my parents met at the occupation and siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. As I share this analysis of the LANDBACK struggle and what’s happening in the world, I share it as a Lakota and as a Jew who believes in peace, the right to return, and equal justice for both Jewish and Palestinian people. I don’t believe in weaponizing what has happened to us historically through a holocaust or the American genocide to use it as a way to oppress other people in the present. I do not believe in those as fundamental values or principles. [And I mean that not] just in my capacity as the president and CEO of the NDN Collective or as the host of the “LANDBACK for the People” podcast. They’re part of my identity and who my familial structures come from.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

We have 5 days to raise $39,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.