Over the course of the last few years, you have probably heard some form of land acknowledgement towards a specific nation or Indigenous group as the original caretakers and rightful owners of the area you find yourself in. To many, this might seem as the latest “woke ritual,” but it is actually a historical action that stems from a much larger movement.
The Land Back movement is “organizing and sacrificing to get Indigenous lands back to Indigenous hands,” according to the NDN Collective. For Indigenous Americans in the Western hemisphere, the Land Back movement has been an ongoing struggle since 1492 when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America. For generations since then, Native Americans have been organizing to get their land back — sometimes by way of treaties between the U.S. and Indigenous nations — and have banded together to form a movement towards restoring their land sovereignty.
Land Back became more broadly known after it circulated online in 2018 as a hashtag started by Arnell Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai tribe of the Blackfeet Confederacy of Canada, who is credited with popularizing the term. The NDN collective, which started the contemporary relaunch of Land Back, views the movement as a means to bring organized movements together that are “working towards true collective liberation,” as stated in their campaign description.
Respecting and reinstating Indigenous land sovereignty is an action that is important not only to the healing of Native Americans, but to the land itself — and the movement should be seen as such. On the surface, Land Back appears to only be about undoing the harm caused by colonialism that Native Americans still deal with today. In reality, it is an intersectional movement that has roots in other advocacy movements, like environmental justice, that affect everyone. The purpose of Indigenous people reclaiming land is not only to serve as a reparation for the generations of abuse and erasure brought on by colonialism, but to restore the relationship between humans and land, which has been interrupted and unbalanced — made obvious by the climate crisis. According to the movement’s manifesto, the human relationship with Earth is supposed to be “symbiotic and just,” which is why restoring land stewardship to Native tribes is crucial to the healing of Indigenous lineage and the land which we all share.
Since its inception, the movement has sparked many conversations and contentions between Indigenous activists and politicians questioning if giving land ownership back to Native tribes, as opposed to government or private groups, is a good idea. The movement’s successes have proven that it is.
In 2020, the Esselen tribe of Northern California purchased 1,200 acres of land near Big Sur,Calif., in collaboration with the state. After 250 years of absence, the tribe now resides in their rightful land and have since been able to use it again for “educational and cultural purposes,” according to Esselen tribal leaders.
In January of 2022, the Save the Redwoods League, which has been protecting Redwood Forests since 1918, released a statement announcing the transfer of 523 acres of forestland to the Sinkyone Council. Sam Hodder, chief executive of the league, said to the New York Times, “Fundamentally, we believed that the best way to permanently protect and heal this land is through tribal stewardship.” The land has since been renamed Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, meaning “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language.
The restoration of land stewardship to Indigenous peoples has proven to not only be possible, but beneficial to the land itself. A study from Grist, a climate focused media organization, showed that Indigenous-led resistance to fossil fuel projects in the U.S. and Canada has stopped an “amount of greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.” Outside of the U.S., reclamation projects have shown the same success. Science Academics at Elsevier found that biodiversity in Indigenous-managed lands in Brazil, Australia, and Canada has proven equal to that in protected areas.
It’s hard to tell what to expect from the movement moving forward, since many of their demands have been repeatedly met with opposition from policy makers in respective states of land that have yet to be reclaimed. But if there’s one thing that the movement and its supporters have proven, is that they won’t take no for an answer.
It’s easy to generalize Land Back as something that only pertains to Native groups, and even view it as a threat to the comfort granted to us by colonialism. However, these inhabited lands are meant to be protected by humans, not exploited for our use. As we move into a future threatened by countless climate issues, this movement is something we should all be part of as global citizens, with Indigenous people leading the way to health and healing for themselves, us, and the Earth as a whole.