What does land restitution mean and how does it relate to the Land Back movement? How does it work in practice?

Time commitment: 45-60 minutes

Why This Matters:

The movement for decolonization is not complete without land restitution for Indigenous people. Land Back requires that settlers work to repair the harm colonialism has done and continues to inflict on Indigenous people by returning control over ancestral territories back to its stewards, allowing them to begin restoring their connection to ancestral lands in meaningful ways. By transferring power and wealth back to Indigenous people, land restitution — which includes the water, natural resources, and infrastructure on the land — supports Indigenous sovereignty. The Land Back movement is ultimately a manner of securing an Indigenous futurity that includes self-determination, environmental sustainability, and economic justice.

Diving in Part 1: Returning Colonized Land

One way to understand decolonization is through the return of currently unceded, occupied land. Decolonization, first and foremost, necessitates the restitution of all land to Indigenous communities — returning what was stolen to its rightful caretakers. This act is a step in unsettling, which works to reverse some of the damage of settler colonialism. Land restitution focuses on the redistribution of power back to Indigenous communities.

The #LandBack movement demands the return of colonized lands. Please watch this 8 minute video by Al Jazeera covering various Indigenous perspectives on what the Land Back movement means and requires. You will hear from Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) from Honor the Earth, Nick Tilsen (Oglala Lakota Nation) from the NDN Collective, and Morning Star Gali (Ajumawi band of Pit River Tribe) from Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples.

Why It’s Time To Give Native Americans Their Land Back

“The Land Back movement is about building collective power and collective liberation and building a world that works for everybody” 

In the territory currently known as the United States, much of the land belongs to Indigenous people and has been declared so by hundreds of treaties over the years. Since then, the United States government has violated every single treaty it has signed with Indigenous people. Indigenous communities have been pushed to reservations on a small fraction of land and denied access and power over their ancestral territories. In addition, the effects of environmental racism have and continue to negatively impact Indigenous communities on reservations. As Nick Tilsen points out, hazardous waste sites, oil pipelines, and other forms of pollution threaten the last remnants of recognized Indigenous land with contamination and degradation. Thus, many Indigenous people are calling for both better land and biodiversity protection as well as the transfer of power over the land back to Indigenous caretakers.

Diving in Part 2: What Does this Mean in Practice?

The movement to return land has gained momentum over the years. On July 9, 2020, the United States Supreme Court overturned a decision by the lower courts and upheld that approximately 3 million acres of eastern Oklahoma, including the majority of the land on which Tulsa rests, is unceded Indigenous reservation land of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. While the case is largely symbolic in that it doesn’t officially return the land, it has legal implications for who has jurisdiction over criminal prosecutions, tax law, and state regulations that affect Indigenous people. In California, a Land Stewardship Council transferred 2,325 acres back to the Maidu people of the region. The Maidu people will manage the Humbug Valley land, also known by the Maidu as Tasmam Koyom, by using controlled burns, pruning, and other traditional Indigenous methods. Individual land owners have also taken the initiative to return Indigenous territories. Art and Helen Tanderup, Nebraska farmers and landowners, transferred ownership of a 1.6 acre portion of their farm to the Ponca Tribe in 2018. Their farm is located along the Ponca “Trail of Tears” and has since 2013 been a place for the Ponca to cultivate their sacred corn.

image of Humbug Valley, also known as Tasmam Koyom.  There are clouds in the sky, green grass and trees, visible hills or mountains in the horizon, and a creek in the center.
Above image: Humbug Valley, also known as Tasmam Koyom, includes Yellow Creek, which is land stewarded by the Maidu people. (photo by Bud Turner Feather River land Trust).

While returning land to its Indigenous owners is one way to support land restitution, there are others as well, including the redistribution of resources. In Seattle, Washington, ancestral territory of the Duwamish Tribe, non-Indigenous landowners can pay voluntary ‘rent’ on their land to the Real Rent Duwamish fund. Although it is not a complete replacement for returning the land, the fund is an effort to compensate the Duwamish for settler colonialism and the continued use of their territories. Rent payments go towards supporting Duwamish cultural preservation efforts and educational, health, and social services. The voluntary Shuumi Land Tax in California works in a similar way to compensate the Ohlone people Indigenous to the region. While money is at the center of these transactions, the rent payments work to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ rightful connection to their ancestral lands and support efforts to compensate for continued exploitation of stolen resources. 

The above examples are just a few land restitution efforts in progress. The Land Back movement advocates for a transfer of decision-making power over land to Indigenous communities. The movement does not ask current residents to vacate their homes, but maintains that Indigenous governance is possible, sustainable, and preferred for public lands.

Decolonization and ‘the equitable distribution of land’ is simultaneously about Native sovereignty, self-determination, and rights; and about the Earth and its resources being sustained, cared for, and lived with symbiotically. Colonization disrupted the communal responsibility to land inherent in Indigenous nationhood, and turned land into a private commodity for wealth extraction and accumulation. Therefore, a decolonial lens of returning land to Indigenous nations, not just individuals, is necessary to avoid reproducing those dynamics.”

Diving in Part 3: Intersections & Leading Land Back Organizations

The Land Back movement intersects with many other issues beyond land reclamation. It includes dismantling structures of white supremacy, such as the National Parks Service, police, military industrial complex, and Border Patrol, among others. You can learn more about the movement and some of the factors driving it, such as police violence and the prison industrial complex, through the 5 minute video below. This film was made by the NDN Collective, a group Indigenous people working towards the empowerment of Indigenous communities through land restitution and rights campaigns.

Ȟesápa: A LandBack Film

In the video above, activists speak out against the carceral system’s oppressive presence in Indigenous communities, including the disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous people in South Dakota’s Pennington County Jail. We also see Land Defenders working against the occupation of Ȟesápa and the Black Hills — sacred occupied lands of the Lakota. While settlers often recognize this land as Mt. Rushmore, Land Defenders push back against this history, pointing out that the carved faces of former U.S. presidents — all colonizers — symbolize white supremacy and racism. The movement to reclaim Lakota and other Indigenous lands is ongoing. Until settlers have handed over the decision-making power for unceded, occupied land to Indigenous caretakers, we will not have achieved land decolonization.

Personal Reflection:

How can you contribute to the Land Back movement? Now that you have completed this page, take some time to research the Indigenous community whose land you reside on and think about ways you can support them. You may be able to support Indigenous organizations by volunteering your time, contributing financially to Indigenous mutual aid projects or land rent funds, or spreading the word about Indigenous rights by talking to a friend about what you’ve learned. A first step in learning more may even be visiting and patronizing the local or regional Indigenous cultural center. In the region where the authors’ home institutions are located, Eastern Pennsylvania, one prominent example is the Cultural Center of the Lenape Nation.

Page completion – outcomes 

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • What it means to decolonize in practice, including the meaning of land restitution.
  • Why land restitution is important and various ways in which it can take place.
  • What other issues intersect with Land Back, including but not limited to police violence, the prison and military industrial complexes, and other structures of white supremacy.

Citations:

Agoyo, Acee. “‘On the far end of the Trail of Tears’: Nation’s highest court holds U.S. to
promise in tribal treaty.” Indianz, 9 July 2020,
https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/07/09/on-the-far-end-of-the-trail-of-tears-nat.asp

Hefflinger, Mark. “In Historic First, Nebraska Farmer Returns Land to Ponca Tribe Along ‘Trail
of Tears’.” Bold Nebraska, 11 June 2018,
https://boldnebraska.org/in-historic-first-nebraska-farmer-returns-land-to-ponca-tribe-al
ng-trail-of-tears/

“Land Reparations & Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit.” Resource Generation, n.d.,
https://resourcegeneration.org/land-reparations-indigenous-solidarity-action-guide/

Little, Jane Braxton. “Sierra stewards listen to the trees, and a California tribe regains an
ancestral land.” The Sacramento Bee, 20 June 2018,
https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article213494354.html

Marimow, Ann E. “Supreme Court says much of eastern Oklahoma remains Indian land.” The
Washington Post, 9 July 2020,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-says-much-of-easte
n-oklahoma-remains-indian-land/2020/07/09/7bdc42d4-c1e2-11ea-9fdd-b7ac6b051dc8_
Tory.html

NDN Collective. “LANDBACK Manifesto.” LandBack, n.d., https://landback.org/manifesto/

“Shuumi Land Tax.” Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, n.d.,
http://sogoreate-landtrust.com/shuumi-land-tax/#

Author Co-Authors:
Belfi, E. & Sandiford, N. (2021). Decolonization Part 3: Land Back. In S. Brandauer and E. Hartman (Eds.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from: http://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/what-does-land-restitution-mean/(opens in a new tab)