Land Back

From “Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future” by Patty Krawec

We can’t talk about restoring relationship to land without talking about restoring it to the people from whm it was taken. As a phrase, Land Back started with a tweet, which became a hashtag, which became a rallying cry for a movement of land restoration and Indigenous sovereignty. The movement has been in existence for hundreds of years; it’s just that we now call it Land Back. For as long as colonists and their governments around the world have taken Indigenous land for themselves, we have sought to be restored to it. So we cannot talk about restoring our relationship to the land without talking about restoring the land to relationship with the people from whom it was taken.

The Karu people, a tribe in northern California whose name literally means “the ones who fix the world,” are provided as a case study in Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People by white academic Kari Marie Norgaard. In her book, she details the impact that loss of land has had on the Karuk people and how they are restoring both their landholdings and the ways in which they shape the environment. They work with fire in a kind of pyro-epistemology, like what Paulette Steeves describes, to manage their environment. This protects the waterways, which in turn provide salmon, as all these things are interconnected. Food sovereignty, which is tied to land, is a cycle of relationships, just nt access. You drop one stone – say, by building a dam – and the unintended consequences ripple outward.

Settlers and migrants and the forcibly displaced get worried when Native people start talking about Land Back. What about their house? Where will they go? Unable to imagine any scenario other than what settler colonialism unleashed on us, people assume that Land Back means evictions, relocations, and elimination. In some cases, that might be appropriate. People own lakefront vacation homes that crowd Indigenous people out of traditional ricing beds, as documented in the play Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor. Luxury hotels and investment properties take up space, while Indigenous people are made homeless in their own territories. But wholesale eviction was never what we intended. Remember, from the earliest treaties, we offered a way to live together in peace, friendship, and respect. And although we are often, and I think reasonably, looking for change in ownership, at its core, Land Back means profoundly changing our relationship with land. 

Because the Doctrine of Discovery gave European states the ability to claim whatever land they found, the land we lived on was no longer ours. Reservations aren’t generally owned by the tribe that lives on them. The land is owned by the government and “held in reserve” for the specific use of Indigenous people. That is a precarious foundation for a community, as many tribes have experienced. The Wisconsin Menominee found themselves deemed “ready for termination” after achieving some economic success in the lumber industry, and in 1954 they lost their lands and their tribal status. The Menominee were reinstated in 1973, but the economic impact of termination was devastating.