November is Native American Heritage Month, and a great time to fill in the many gaps most Americans have when learning about Indigenous history and supporting Indigenous dreams for the future. Indigenous Peoples’ stories in the US and globally are much richer and much grimmer than most of us have been exposed to. In learning the history, one thing is clear: the west has taken an incalculable mass of wealth from the Americas and its peoples. We can right this wrong by returning land to its historic stewards. It’s not only the right thing to do, but Indigenous land stewardship has significant proven benefits to people, the economy, and the planet. Through invasion and conquest, over 90% of the land in North America was forcibly taken and then sold as the shared resources of the Americas were divided up amongst colonial powers. It’s often taught that the Natives didn’t have a concept of land ownership when Europeans first arrived. This was sometimes true, but that idea muddies important nuance and neglects that the perspective is so much bigger than legal and financial ownership. For many groups, like the Diné, for instance, there is a whole system of knowledge and relationships that supports sound ecological management.
We would benefit as immigrant Americans (as in, anyone who arrived after 1492) to not only learn from these systems but also to create opportunities for them to continue to thrive under indigenous stewardship. How this sort of investment in our future can be done–and why–is the subject of this piece.
What is Indigenous Land Stewardship? How Can it Help?
The history of land management in the US has often been about replacing the people and subjugating the natural world. The Declaration of Independence referred to Natives as “merciless Indian savages” and did everything possible to minimize their presence and their relationship with the land. For instance, in the early 1870s, the government attempted to wipe out the Buffalo and toxify the land as an official policy. And then, much of modern land management has focused on trying to manipulate a few variables to maximize and standardize agricultural yield. By filling massive plains with just a few crops, they’re more susceptible to widespread disease and weather events (two things only expected to get worse with climate change).
Indigenous land stewardship offers a starkly different approach better suited to the complexities of our rapidly shifting ecosystems. The concept of stewardship is deeply linked to the idea that land is not a static, unmoving thing, but that it consists of a complex network of organisms that are all mutually reliant and thus can either mutually decline or thrive. There have already been enormous benefits to returning stewardship to Indigenous communities throughout the world. Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (often abbreviated TEK or ITEK) has helped support significant wildlife population recoveries, like the American Bison, a critical piece of the Great Plains Ecology From Colorado and Montana to Missouri and Illinois.
The US National Park Service’s website includes an extensive section on TEK, detailing myriad instances where Indigenous understanding of the land and ecological care vastly exceeded western scientific knowledge. This, of course, isn’t to say that Western science as we know it doesn’t have a place, but when it comes to saving the planet from human impact, Indigenous cultures have thousands of years’ head start.
It also bears noting that many of the foods the world relies on today were the result of thousands of years of cultivation by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Corn, chili peppers, many beans, tomatoes, and so much more come from Native ingenuity. It’s tough to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes or English food without potatoes. So important were these resilient, nutritious foods from the Americas, that without them, it would have been almost impossible to hit the planet’s current population of 8 Billion. It shouldn’t be controversial to say the world as we know it wouldn’t exist without millennia of Native American effort. It’s common for other Americans to diminish the struggles of Native Americans, with some suggesting that casinos or reservations should be more than enough compensation for historic theft. A critical element of this conversation that gets missed, though, is that those concessions of land were not gifts given from the kindness of the US government’s heart. They were guaranteed by treaties with the US government, and they were to offset the massive loss of land — and the lack of freedom and increased food insecurity that comes with such loss. The United States made tiny land reservations for Native peoples and kept control over many other elements of Native life. Almost all tribal land is actually held in trust by the government, meaning that the tribes have no agency or sovereignty over land that’s allegedly theirs. They have all of the liabilities of land ownership, without the benefits or leverage that it should bring (for instance, the ability to access financing).
But despite the praising of indigenous practices in some areas of government, and the cherishing of foods on our plates during Thanksgiving and beyond, its been a perennial struggle for the government to recognize many of the basic tenets of its agreements: tribes are still regularly defending treaty rights in court. The Cherokee are still trying to get the US Government to fulfill its obligation to seat a delegate to Congress (that’s right–as part of an 1853 treaty that kicked off the trail of tears, the US government promised the Cherokee a Congressional seat). And there are many fights to protect what slivers of land Indigenous people hold from mining and drilling companies both in the US, and throughout Central and South America.
Supporting the #LandBack Movement
While many in the US may have never met an Indigenous person, Native Americans are very much still here, totaling over 5 million and 2% of the US population. And if we as a society are lucky, some of these indigenous peoples will be open to restoring their historic land stewardship and dramatically improving the resilience of such areas in the process. Much of this work has been cataloged under the #LandBack hashtag, a succinct term that attempts to capture the broad array of issues facing indigenous communities by promoting the broad strategy of returning land to Indigenous control.
Many indigenous groups, like the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, have begun working with companies to purchase their ancestral lands back. Others have worked with municipal governments like the City of Oakland to return stewardship of the land to Indigenous hands. The voluntary Shuumi Land Tax was started by non-natives in the Bay Area as an effort to support land rematriation efforts, in partnership with the Indigenous women-led Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Candide Group, my company, is based in Oakland and grateful to be such a taxpayer. This is in addition to commendable steps by the city towards reparations (for both Native Americans and descendants of formerly enslaved peoples).
In the short term, this means the Ohlone people will be able to access, tend, and gather from the land, which is currently held by the city. In the long term, the space will become a public resource for sharing history, and culture, and for natives to gather for ceremonies with their guests.
This is one of a number of Honor Tax models that have been started for several tribes, such as the Real Rent Duwamish project in the Seattle area, and the Honor tax to the Wiyot Nation of Northern California.
Can you pay an Honor tax? It might be available in your area, or you could be part of building one. There are plenty of resources to help you find which groups were native to where you live, if there’s an Honor Tax you can pay, or teach you how to organize a similar program in your local community.There is also political action to take. You can call your representative and ask that they officially support seating a delegate from the Cherokee Nation to Congress. The Seventh Generation also has a great, comprehensive guide on how to be an ally — learn history, talk to others, take action in the community, respond to the survival needs of Native people, and more. While we can’t undo the past, we can at least be part of building a very different future. All people and the planet depend on it.
Additional thanks Starkey Barker for their significant contributions to this piece and for sharing a portion of their lived experience.