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‘Land Back’ Is Caring for Earth for the Benefit of Everyone

By Kara Roselle Smith, she/her

Land Back. A term that invigorates the Indigenous community and upsets most property owners. 

Though the Land Back movement sounds relatively self-explanatory, it could use some clarification. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t entirely aligned with the colonial view of land ownership, which would see the return of physical land to all Indigenous peoples. This is what many conclude the movement to entail, viewing ownership exclusively as having a deed or title that names one as the sole owner of said space. Indigenous people’s relationship with the land is much less possessive than this. In fact, when broken down, it doesn’t have much to do with ownership at all. 

The care and reciprocity Indigenous people practice with land is similar to that of a healthy, loving personal relationship. Much like a healthy relationship, the Earth should be listened to and cared for, not stifled. At times we confuse love with possession, ownership, something we’ve undoubtedly done with land. Land Back to Indigenous people means having full autonomy over and caring for the land. Living on this planet is very much a spiritual and reciprocal relationship, not one of ownership as colonization has led us to believe. 

In essence, according to Global Solidarity Local Action, “the Land Back movement is ultimately a manner of securing an Indigenous futurity that includes self-determination, environmental sustainability, and economic justice… [it] 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.” Perhaps this reframing of stewardship vs ownership regarding Land Back allows the ask to be more palatable for non-indigenous individuals. Private land may remain untouched, but public lands should be given back to tribes and Indigenous communities. Yes, all of this land was wrongfully and violently stolen, but now is the time for us as a collective to band together and care for the land to benefit everyone.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to partner with Oceanic Global, a non-profit organization that “sheds light on humanity’s essential relationship to the ocean and empowers individuals, communities, and industries to create positive change for our collective wellbeing.” Outlined in one of the campaigns advertising an upcoming conference was the call to acknowledge both Indigenous wisdom and modern advances. The two paired together see a great chance of helping the conditions of our planet.

On Martha’s Vineyard for example, the homeland of my tribe, the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag, a large part of the island is cared for by the Trustees of the Reservation. The Trustees’ mission outlines that they are “here to protect and share the Massachusetts places people love for their exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value.” Though the island and tribal communities are grateful for their work in preserving these lands, it is undisputed that the knowledge they received came from the Indigenous peoples before them. We mustn’t condemn others for helping to care for what is now our collective land, but we must recognize that it is Indigenous knowledge that has gotten us this far. 

You may be asking, what is an example of Indigenous decision-making? What does Indigenous knowledge in action look like? Just this year, in July 2021, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon (at the time of writing this the largest active Wildfire in the United States,) has burned over 400,000 acres and affected air quality across the nation. When fires of similar caliber were ravaging California, who did the state turn to? Ingenious people. The natives of that area traditionally practiced burning the land to replenish soil and prevent blazes like the ones happening currently. An article from NPR further explains:

Fire has always been part of California's landscape. But long before the vast blazes of recent years, Native American tribes held annual controlled burns that cleared out underbrush and encouraged new plant growth. Now, with wildfires raging across Northern California, joining other record-breaking fires from recent years, government officials say tackling the fire problem will mean bringing back “good fire”, much like California's tribes once did. When Western settlers forcibly removed tribes from their land and banned religious ceremonies, cultural burning largely disappeared. Instead, state and federal authorities focused on swiftly extinguishing wildfires. But fire suppression has only made California's wildfire risk worse. Without regular burns, the landscape grew thick with vegetation that dries out every summer, creating kindling for the fires that have recently destroyed California communities. Climate change and warming temperatures make those landscapes even more fire-prone. So, tribal leaders and government officials are forging new partnerships. State and federal land managers have hundreds of thousands of acres that need careful burning to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires. Tribes are eager to gain access to those ancestral lands to restore traditional burning.”

The removal of tribal people and practices is not limited to the North Fork Mono tribe of California. This has happened all over, in lands both domestically and internationally. Bridging relationships with tribes and utilizing ancient knowledge is the start to restoring sustainable practices. 

As Summer Dean so wonderfully put it, “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.” Once this is widely understood, I believe, is when we will see the greatest change. 

Written by Kara Roselle Smith for Youth To The People