As Tilsen mentions, Land Back predates that 2020 catalyzing moment at Mount Rushmore and the many modern-day grassroots efforts taking place across the globe. Alvin Warren was studying history at Dartmouth in the late 1980s when Santa Clara Pueblo tribal leaders tapped him to help resolve a decades-old Indian Claims Commission claim to regain some of their traditional homelands in modern-day New Mexico. Upon seeing his 221-page thesis paper on the history of his people’s homelands, the tribal council asked him to start a land acquisition program.
“I was 21 years old and had no idea how to even do that,” he recalls. “But I took it on, and we spent the better part of a decade collectively doing things we had only dreamed of. We were able to get three pieces of legislation through Congress, raise nearly $5 million, and get back more than 7,500 acres. That might not sound like a lot, but it was transformational for us because we had been hitting up against the same wall for well over a century.”
Warren helped the people of Santa Clara Pueblo regain more than 16,000 acres of their ancestral homelands, then answered the call from other tribal nations around the country to assist in reacquiring titles, entering into co-management agreements, and otherwise protecting their traditional lands. He went on to become the director of the Trust for Public Land’s tribal land program, the lieutenant governor of Santa Clara Pueblo, and eventually New Mexico’s Indian Affairs cabinet secretary.
His passion was reignited with the Biden administration’s historic appointment of Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) as interior secretary. She has ushered in a new era for a department that was once responsible for the systematic removal of Indigenous communities from their land. On her watch, thousands of acres have been returned to Native oversight, co-stewardship programs have been developed to protect sacred sites, and important species such as bison, bighorn sheep, and salmon have been restored to tribal lands.
“We know that countries that have made commitments to address climate change and biodiversity loss are falling short. The restoration of land to tribal nations would actually help many countries get back on track.”
Warren acknowledges this significant progress, yet he remains unsatisfied with recent state and federal efforts to return land to Native groups.
“Yes, we’re seeing a steady trickle of stories about land coming back into tribal control, but by and large, they are tiny bits of property,” he says. “We’re talking about 1.5 billion acres that have been taken from Indigenous people; we’re not going to get to anything remotely just if we’re doing this at 50, 100, 1,000 acres at a time.” He adds that tribes often have to repurchase these pieces of land and are often constrained by conservation easements, which place restrictions on land use and development.
Tribes have also been invited to co-manage land, which both Warren and Tilsen view as an insufficient end point. “It’s Land Back Lite,” Tilsen says with a laugh. “Co-management is a pathway for us to be able to manage our lands in better ways, but my worry is that it locks us into a longer power dynamic relationship with the federal government. What I’m really interested in is returning public lands and their titles to tribes or Indigenous cooperatives and coalitions.”
Though the Land Back movement is obviously uplifting Indigenous communities, they aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from more land being in tribal possession. As the climate crisis intensifies, so too does the clamor for real-world solutions. Increasingly, experts are turning to Native knowledge keepers and recognizing the power of traditional ecological knowledge, including practices such as agroforestry, fire stewardship, regenerative agriculture, and holistic wildlife management.
Recent research backs this approach. A 2019 ScienceDirect study showed that Native-managed lands foster as much or more biodiversity than protected areas, which could be key in mitigating the negative impact of extractive agriculture. Additionally, a 2016 World Resources Institute report determined that securing Indigenous forestland tenure in the Amazon basin could yield economic benefits up to $1.5 trillion over a 20-year period through carbon storage, reduced pollution, and erosion control.
“We know that countries that have made commitments to address climate change and biodiversity loss are falling short,” Warren says. “The restoration of land to tribal nations would actually help many countries get back on track. We have more and more researchers who are making this connection between the restoration of land to Indigenous peoples and the protection of our Earth, which ultimately is the protection of all people on this planet.”
Despite this compelling call to action for collective benefit, very real resistance remains due to misconceptions about the movement. “Land Back triggers people’s white fragility; they think we’re coming for the house, the picket fence, the 2.5 kids, and the dog,” Tilsen says. “But we as Indigenous people are not trying to repeat the history that was done to us. There’s also this misconception that white people don’t play a massive role [as] allies, when the reality is that Indigenous peoples’ fight to return our land is bound up with the very future of this country.”
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Author: Kate Nelson