This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Prism.
On the June solstice of 2022, Cory Hinton traveled by boat across Big Lake to Pine Island in Maine and set foot on his ancestral land for the first time.
Since time immemorial, the island was Passamaquoddy ancestral land, relied on as a village settlement and food storage site. But despite the Passamaquoddy claim to the land, both as stewards and under the legal framework of the federal law, Maine voided the treaty and stole the land shortly after becoming a state in 1820.
Eventually Maine sold the land to another entity in the 1820s, said Hinton, a Passamaquoddy citizen and lead attorney of the Tribal Nations Practice Group at Drummond Woodsum.
“People had been living on this island right up until the island was sold away.” By 1855, he added, “all of the tribal families had been forced off the island.”
When Hinton and others arrived on the island, they held a traditional pipe ceremony and later walked around the island, which was dense with pine and other conifer trees.
After some time, he reached a section of the island that had been thinned out and noticed scattered holes in the ground. Hinton realized he had come across an old Passamaquoddy village site.
“We were really reconnecting with our ancestors in that moment,” Hinton said. “I think that reconnection is going to kick off an amazing opportunity for the tribe to reengage and to learn about itself. I mean, this is a place where ancestors lived and died, and there’s a lot to be said about reconnecting with a place like that.”
The return of the stolen land, known in English as Pine Island, to the Passamaquoddy was set in motion two years ago when the Passamaquoddy Tribe Chief William Nicholas saw an advertisement for the sale of the land.
First Light, an organization that facilitates collaboration between Wabanaki tribes and conservation groups, offered to place a bid for the land with funds donated by The Nature Conservancy in Maine.
The purchase was ultimately completed in March 2021 and is just one example of how the LANDBACK movement is working in practice to return stolen lands to Native peoples.
This year, along with other Passamaquoddy citizens and tribal leaders, Hinton was able to set foot on his ancestral land for the first time.
The logistics of LANDBACK
The LANDBACK movement is the newest iteration of an old demand. It’s a movement that’s growing in reach as non-Native individuals, conservation organizations, and government entities reckon with what it means to live on lands taken from tribal nations.
Native leaders and LANDBACK organizers say that the theft of Native lands, stolen to create the U.S. and generate private wealth for white people, is the root of systemic injustices propelled by extraction and capitalism, like climate change.
In this sense, returning stolen Native lands isn’t just a matter of legality or morality but underlies the health and survival of the planet.
“When we say LANDBACK we’re talking about the land that was promised to us through treaties,” said Shaun Little Horn, a social media and marketing specialist for the Lakota People’s Law Project, who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation with his family.
According to Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, treaties signed with foreign nations are the supreme law of the land.
“Let’s start there, and let’s just return all the land that is promised in your own Constitution, in your own government, back to the people of this land — that there is a foundation that we can all build off of and begin to see where the real healing comes from,” Little Horn said.
In practice, land returns are executed through partnerships with conservation organizations, through local, state, and federal legislation, and by individuals who may pay a form of land tax to descendants of a land’s historical peoples.
Some non-Native landowners are even turning over their homes to Native peoples and tribes. But as Little Horn explained, the workings of a land return relationship differ depending on how the Native land was stolen and who, in the end, retains the legal rights to it.
LANDBACK can bring a kind of justice to a historical and ongoing harm, as well as address the crisis of climate change.
The different models for what that land return looks like, however, illuminate conflicts caused by a land-based system of racial capitalism that now defines everyone’s legal relationship to land, raising questions of what return of land can look like for tribes without federal recognition and how to reconcile the historical fissures between land conservation and land stewardship.
Stewardship or conservation?
The land returns executed in partnership with conservation organizations are anomalies in the history of conservation work.
The very word “conservation” — which means to protect land from humans — is in contrast with how Indigenous teachings guide relationships with land and with the ethos of stewardship recognizing that humans are a keystone species. As stewards, humans need to act on the land to help create ecological balance.
Throughout U.S. history, conservationist prioritization of land protection has brought devastation for Native peoples. Take the creation of national parks, for instance. The country’s oldest national parks are its earliest experiments with forced removal of Native peoples under the guise of wildlife preservation and guardianship of pristine landscapes.
Native peoples who stewarded what are now the jewels of the American outdoors — Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks — were seen as threats to the landscape because of their hunting, gathering, and use of fire.
Professor and author Mark David Spence discusses the fallacy of untouched land in his 2000 book, “Dispossessing the Wilderness.”
“The American preservationist ideal is predicated on Indian dispossession,” Spence wrote.
Essentially, the formation of the National Park Service codified the removal of Indigenous peoples and locked in the idea that land untouched by human civilization exists and such “wilderness” must be kept in this pristine state, erasing Indigenous peoples’ history of stewardship and effect on the land.
While land is not inherently vulnerable, it is objectified and commodified through colonization, often by the hands of the U.S. military and by way of Congressional or other federal action.
For instance, a 1872 executive order forcibly moved the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation west of the Columbia River in Washington state to a territory of less than 3 million acres — which was devastating for the nomadic peoples, who had, since time immemorial, moved through the landscape as the seasons changed to fish and gather food and medicine.
Twenty years later an Act of Congress would halve the reservation’s landmass. The Figlenski ranching family purchased the land in 1904 after the northern portion of the reservation was dissolved.
Another 120 years after that, some of the land was returned; not by Congress or a federal agency, but by way of a habitat conservation organization.
In 2021, the Seattle-based conservation organization purchased 10,000 acres of the land from the Figlenski ranching family so that the title could then be transferred to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
When she first learned that the land was for sale, Amelia Marchand, an enrolled tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, was worried about the destruction of shrub-steppe — a native plant that plays a critical role in soil ecology — and other habitats.
She and other tribal members relied on the land for traditional hunting, food, and medicine gathering, and she wanted to ensure that this relationship with the land would remain intact.
So Marchand and her husband joined the board of Conservation Northwest.
“We were very vocal and protective of not just the lands currently held by our tribal government, but also the traditional territories that are outside of what’s now the reservation boundary,” Marchand said.
The origins of conservation and the ethos of land stewardship push against each other, and Marchand wanted to help her colleagues “see the landscape as more than just habitat for shrub-steppe.”
The landscape is and provides access to culture, food, storytelling, and language. “It’s just a completely different heritage of a relationship,” Marchand said.
In late October 2021, tribal leaders, Conservation Northwest staff, and Figlenski family members took part in a land return ceremony. Videos from the day reveal a gray sky. It’s raining, and shrub-steppe retreats in every direction.
It was the first time that Conservation Northwest, founded by executive director Mitch Friedman in 1989, had been a part of a land return to a local tribe.
The organization had worked closely with the Colville tribes for nearly two decades to collaborate on public land protection outside of the reservation’s boundaries for the restoration of endangered species, like the sharp-tailed grouse, which is also spiritually and culturally important to the Colville tribes.
The Figlenski ranch, or the historical and ancestral land of the Colville tribes, was the “keystone” landscape to “protect a corridor that links the Cascade Range to the Rocky Mountains,” Friedman said.
Protecting the land was the first priority of the organization, Friedman said, and that they were able to facilitate the return of Native lands was “an added reward. You know, it’s even better.”
In some state-run land return programs, conservation is the end goal. Take California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for 2023, which would offer $100 million for tribes to buy back ancestral lands to meet “climate and conservation goals.”
The program proposal was born out of conversations with Native leaders from 70 tribes, some federally recognized and some not, said Geneva E.B. Thompson, the assistant secretary for tribal affairs in the California Natural Resources Agency and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
“[Tribal] knowledge is key for us to address the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, all of these issues that we’re really grappling with at this time,” Thompson said.
“Partnering with tribes on these crises and identifying solutions is a way we can move forward and address those historical wrongs that have been suffered by tribes.”
California state policy is founded on the advocacy of genocide of Native peoples; the state’s first governor, Peter Burnett, encouraged local police and private citizens to kill Native peoples. The state’s first economy in gold propelled an even more extractive economy and justified the forced removal of tribes.
In 2019, Newsom issued an executive order apologizing for this history. It was this executive order that established the Truth and Healing Council, where discussions of a land buyback program were first heard.
Thompson explains that many of the details of what the program will look like are still in the works — which tribes will be eligible for funding, how land will be appraised, if private and public lands will be available for purchase, and if the land will be stewarded or conserved are still unclear.
Thompson said that ongoing conversations with tribal leaders will help determine the specifics of the program.
Other elements of land buyback, such as who or which entitles will retain the deed to land, will be decided on a case-by-case basis, Thompson said.
Federal recognition and LANDBACK
Land theft isn’t always the outright denial of treaty obligations, as is the case with the Black Hills, nor is it stagnant and solely situated in the past, said Paul Benz, a faith leader and organizer with the Seattle-based organization Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites.
He said that another way of looking at land theft, and what the return of that land might look like, is through attending to the ongoing marginalization of tribes that lack federal recognition.
Those without federal recognition, about 400, according to the Government Accountability Office, aren’t entitled to most funding and often lack access to land, either in the form of reservations or land held in trust by the federal government.
While having a federal treaty on the books legitimates a tribe’s land claims to the federal government, those without a treaty to point to often rely on grassroots and relational solutions for getting back their land, as is the case with the Duwamish Tribe.
The city of Seattle is even named for the chief of the Duwamish Tribe, Chief Seattle, who signed the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 with European settlers that guaranteed fishing rights and reservation land.
Shortly after its signing, settlers broke the terms of the treaty, and to this day the Duwamish Tribe still doesn’t have legal rights to their rightful land.
However, many still live in the area stewarded by Duwamish ancestors since time immemorial and have developed a program whereby settlers or non-Native residents of the greater Seattle area can pay rent to the Duwamish Tribe.
The program, called “Real Rent Duwamish,” acknowledges the tribe’s rightful claim to the land and also provides “a revenue source that an unrecognized historic treaty tribe doesn’t have,” said Benz.
With his peers from the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, the Seattle chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, Benz remembers sitting at the kitchen table of Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen and asking what he and others could do to support the Duwamish Tribe, which had been subject to a variety of legal land denials.
Hansen suggested that they each could pay $1 a month to the Duwamish Tribe as rent. Benz felt the rent concept was right as they were, after all, on Duwamish land. Now, over 21,000 people offer monthly or annual rent to the Duwamish Tribe.
A similar effort is at work in the Bay Area, where non-Indigenous residents can pay what Ohlone leaders call a Shuumi Land Tax, an annual donation to support the work of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a land rematration, cultural revitalization, and land restoration organization.
Prior to the gold rush, the Ohlone people stewarded and lived on 4.3 million acres of land, and now — according to the federal government — they have none.
The Ohlone people have been waiting for federal recognition since 1995, when a petition was first filed.
Along with the Duwamish Tribe and the Ohlone people, there are dozens of tribes on the Bureau of Indian Affairs waiting list for federal recognition. Even the federal government’s own Government Accountability Office has criticized the seemingly random process by which tribes are afforded recognition, writing,
“The basis for BIA’s tribal recognition decisions is not always clear.” And federal recognition isn’t always permanent: mid-20th century legislation dissolved the tribal recognition of 109 tribes in an attempt to assimilate Native peoples into white American culture.
While the Ohlone people wait for the federal government’s say-so, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is building relationships with non-Indigenous people in other ways.
Deborah Apple, a lifelong Bay Area-resident, has decided that when she dies, the land that she owns will be returned to the historical Native stewards of the land where that property is located.
For now, though, she pays Shuumi to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust annually and donates to a 501c3 run by the Nisenan Tribe because she owns 27 acres of land in Nevada City, California.
While grassroots efforts like Real Rent Duwamish and Sogorea Te’ Land Trust don’t see thousands of acres of land rematriated with a single return agreement, as is the case with conservation organizations and government programs, the form of return the organizations advocate for allows for deeper community building and political awareness among Native peoples and guests on the land. In some ways, that’s how movements are made: individually, from one person to the next.
“I think over the past 10 years I’ve expanded my understanding of what reparations are and what a person who’s white can do,” Apple said.
“Even though I don’t have ancestors who are colonizers who actually directly took specific lands from specific Native peoples in this country, my family was able to come here and have a safe place to be in the world because that had already been done before. I benefit, so I still owe.”