The Land Back Movement Is Also About Foodways | Civil Eats

The Land Back Movement Is Also About Foodways

When Native peoples’ land was stolen, they lost important hunting and fishing grounds and myriad places to gather and prepare food. Now, the Land Back movement is helping communities regain access to both food and land.

Nick Tilsen during the Mount Rushmore Land Back Protest. (Photo credit: Willi White)

Nick Tilsen during the Mount Rushmore Land Back Protest. (Photo credit: Willi White)

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In 2020, just months after George Floyd’s murder, then-President Donald Trump visited South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore as part of an Independence Day celebration and used to rally his right-wing supporters with a “dark and divisive speech.” Complete with a showy fireworks display and fighter-jet flyover, the affair satisfied his longtime desire to mark the Fourth of July standing before the “Shrine of Democracy.” But the occasion served as another rallying cry as well.

“We see Land Back everywhere now, and that’s because this is a decentralized movement that isn’t driven by just one organization or leader. It’s truly a movement.”

For almost three hours before the event, about 150 protesters—many of them Native Americans—blockaded the road that leads to the controversial national monument. Carrying signs reading, “You Are On Stolen Land” and “Honor All Treaties,” the activists were contesting Trump’s policies, standing in solidarity with the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, and calling for the return of land to Indigenous peoples—namely South Dakota’s sacred Black Hills. They faced off with local law enforcement and National Guard soldiers in riot gear, eventually disbanding following the arrest of 21 people.

Among those apprehended was Nick Tilsen, the Oglala Lakota president and CEO of NDN Collective, a Native-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power, which has been on the frontlines of the fight to return land to tribal communities. (The charges against him were dropped in December 2022.)

Nick Tilsen during a Land Back march in Rapid City. (Photo credit: Willi White)

Nick Tilsen during a Land Back march in Rapid City. (Photo credit: Willi White)

“The Land Back movement is much older than 2020, but that was a catalyzing moment,” he says. “We had the entire White House press corps here, and we wanted to amplify this authentic Indigenous narrative at that very specific time in history when we were seeing statues getting toppled and Confederate flags being lowered around the country. We see Land Back everywhere now, and that’s because this is a decentralized movement that isn’t driven by just one organization or leader. It’s truly a movement.”

In so many ways, the Black Hills—known as Paha Sapa in Lakota—serve as a striking symbol of the Land Back movement. As detailed in the popular 2022 documentary Lakota Nation vs. United States, the western South Dakota mountain range is considered sacred by area tribal nations and was long a key hunting ground for bison, pronghorn, elk, and deer. Its unlawful seizure nearly 150 years ago remains a major point of contention.

As colonialism swept across what would become the United States during the 19th century with blatant disregard for the land’s original inhabitants, Native peoples fought off settler and military encroachment of their hunting, fishing, and gathering territories. Their lifeways—and foodways—were hugely altered and restricted.

Deadly clashes on the Great Plains prompted the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which created the Great Sioux Reservation spanning 60 million acres around the Black Hills. But after gold was discovered in the mountains, the federal government redrew the treaty lines and seized the Black Hills in 1877, an act the nine tribes comprising the Great Sioux Nation have contested since that time.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the land had been illegally taken and awarded more than $100 million in reparations (though the land was not returned). The tribes refused to take the money, even as it grew to a value of more than $1 billion, because the Black Hills were never for sale.

Native peoples have lost nearly 99 percent of their historical land base in the U.S., according to recent research. With it, they lost access to important hunting and fishing grounds as well as myriad places to gather and prepare food.

“I often choose the word rematriation over Land Back, because I hope that it can transcend the narrow Western/imperial concept of land ownership and tenure.”

For Tilsen and other Native thought leaders, the contemporary Land Back movement is about championing Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and economic opportunity while pushing back against long-standing discriminatory policies that continue to cause tribal communities undue hardships, including disproportionate poverty rates, outsized food insecurity, marked health disparities, and lower life expectancies. But it’s also about a powerful yearning to rebuild relationships to actual places—and the countless living things that inhabit them.

In Montana, for example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes now oversee 18,000 acres where bison roam once again. In Nebraska, the Ponca people have been growing their sacred corn on farmland signed back to them in 2018. In New York, the Onondaga Nation is cleaning up the polluted waterways, once abundant with fish, on 1,000 returned acres.

In Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe recently secured 12,000 acres within Chippewa National Forest, an important area for hunting, fishing, gathering, and harvesting wild rice. And in California, the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council (made up of 10 area tribal nations) is stewarding coho salmon and steelhead trout within a 523-acre property managed in partnership with the Save the Redwoods League.

Mohawk seed keeper and farmer Rowen White prefers to think of this revolution as rematriation. “I often choose the word rematriation over Land Back, because I hope that it can transcend the narrow Western/imperial concept of land ownership and tenure,” she wrote recently on Instagram. “Rematriation is in service to restoring relationality with the land and the countless more-than-human kin held within that land. Relationships-back. Loving interspecies reciprocity-back. Caring songs sung to the land that holds the bones of our ancestors-back.”

For White and many other food sovereignty activists, the movement to return ancestral homelands to their rightful tribal communities is inherently intertwined with the movement to revitalize Indigenous foodways. She points out that the massive land loss Native peoples experienced due to settler colonialism—more than 1.5 billion acres across the U.S., according to eHistory’s Invasion of America project—has hugely impacted their abilities to hunt, fish, forage, and farm.

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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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Tilsen has concerns about what a presidential administration change could mean for Native representation and progress, but it’s not just about party lines. “The Nixon, Obama, and Biden administrations have been responsible for more actual Land Back than any other administrations,” says Tilsen. “Does it matter who is in office? Hell yeah, it matters. But our success doesn’t depend on one political party. We need to build power around this year’s historical election and develop solutions and strategies no matter who wins.”

To safeguard present and future progress, Warren implores policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to take action in creating institutionalized mechanisms for tribal nations to acquire publicly managed and owned land. On the private side, he highlights the need for legitimate funding sources, since Native communities are typically asked to buy back stolen land, and urges individuals to consider donating unused lands to local tribes and including them in their estate planning.

Kavon Ward. (Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones)

Kavon Ward. (Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones)

The powerful impact of the Indigenous-led Land Back movement has sparked similar action among other marginalized groups. Reparative justice advocate Kavon Ward is driving the Black Land Back movement. She helped steward the 2021 return of Bruce’s Beach in California, a once-thriving Black community that was improperly seized in 1924 through eminent domain.

Today, Ward leads the advocacy organization Where Is My Land, which helps Black people discover and reclaim U.S. land taken from them. “I’m of the belief that you can’t have equality until there’s equity,” she says. “True remedy is returning what your ancestors stole from my ancestors.”

Much like the dispossession Native peoples have experienced, Black farmers lost about 13.5 million acres from 1920 to 1997, according to a 2022 AEA Papers and Proceedings study. That equates to roughly $326 billion of acreage. (As of the 2017 agricultural census, Black farmers operated 4.7 million acres, up from 1.5 million in 1997.)

In the end, the Land Back movement serves to not only support Native sovereignty but also safeguard our environment and strengthen our food systems.

The ceremony to return the Bruce's Beach land back to its original stewards. (Photo credit: Starr Genyard-Swift)

The ceremony to return the Bruce’s Beach land back to its original stewards. (Photo credit: Starr Genyard-Swift)

“The future of conservation in the United States is Indigenous,” NDN’s Tilsen affirms. “There’s a massive opportunity to fight climate change and increase biodiversity while also achieving justice. Let’s hold a mirror up to America and find a path forward that includes Black reparations, the return of stolen Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands, and the changing of systems that perpetuate violence and oppression. The future we’re fighting for is not just a future for Indigenous people—it’s a future for people everywhere.”

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's the former editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, chef Sean Sherman, and "Reservation Dogs" creator Sterlin Harjo and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, the BBC, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, and more. Read more >

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  1. Bruce Hesseltine
    We appreciate this well written article. Thanks to Tilsen, Warren, Kavon Ward, Biden app.of Deb Haaland. We spend pleasant time with the conf. Salish Kootenai tribe on that 1800 acres acres of paradise. Coalitions described here intelligently, allow for productive change.
    i have always doubted traditional History. Please avail yourself to a much more reality inspired history. "1491" and "1493" by
    informed author Charles Mann. We must bring back the working ecology that was unspeakably stolen. Bruce
  2. cay murphy
    I'm more interested in Chief Red Bears fighting to get their land back and to be recognized as a tribe. My grandmother and mother suffered from hate and prejudice in North Dakota because of their indigenous ancestry. The moving of the US boundary, which misplaced many of the Red River members in Canada, placed them in North Dakota. To this day after the government stole their land. They have been fighting to reclaiming their hunting ground and some of the land that was taken from them. The story of Black American people who were captured and sold as slaves by their people and the whites is another story. True! both have suffered but I believe it is time to focus on the horror and genocide that befell the very people who were here first, the Native people. The rest of this country has no idea what is still happening today to the indigenous people and to our only home this Earth. I applaud the work your doing but don't mix it with other horrors that befell the blacks. Today they alone have been gaining ground to honor their ancestors that died being slaves. When you mix the ethnicity of others, into one large melting pot it loses the potency of your protest. I am not a bigot, my son in law and his family is black and they were slaves to a native tribe in the southern part of this country. They were not subject to the torture and death of the plantation owners, but they were never treated as equals, as were the many black of the past. WE are all a melting pot of ethnic groups and many have faced genocides , even the Irish who were starved to death by an intentional potato famine started by land owners. This countries history is a shameful past of death and destruction of other human beings because of others who wanted power, greed and the land. This horror has never ended and its time to stand up for the people who were the first Nation of this country. When we gain power then step forward with outstretched arms to honor those still fighting one step at a time, one ethnic group at a time or we will lose because it becomes to much for those in power and they will turn their backs on us saying its the past so leave it alone. Its the past and the future if we don't stand up one ethnic group at a time. So lets start with those who were here first, the indigenous nations.

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