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Indigenous and Climate Justice Requires Holistic LANDBACK

Selectively borrowing Indigenous practices cannot truly address the climate crisis or injustices to Indigenous peoples perpetrated by white settler colonialism.

Indigenous community members join activists during a rally organized by youth climate awareness group Fridays for Future to declare a "climate justice emergency" in New York City on Sept. 23, 2022,(Photo by Ed Jones / AFP)

On April 22, 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an agency housed within the Department of Defense, sent a letter to the North Dakota Historical Society. Richard Harnois, an agency field archaeologist, shared that the government analysis found the Dakota Access Pipeline wouldn’t impact any historical sites where the pipeline would cross Lake Oahe on the Missouri River. But declaring the land ready for the pipeline was never up to the military’s construction arm or a state-run agency—this land was, and is, Native land protected by treaties entered into by the federal government and Native tribes, said Matt Remle, the Lakota co-founder of the divestment umbrella organization, Mazaska Talks. It’s been that way—officially—for over a century and a half. 

One hundred and forty-eight years before Harnois sent the impact statement, U.S. military generals and Tribal leaders signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which codified the agreed-to territories as the “absolute and undisturbed” land of tribes that had stewarded the land since time immemorial. A decade later the U.S. broke the terms of the treaties, sending its military to seize the Black Hills and large swaths of the surrounding land. That action remains one of the most blatant violations of treaty law and degradations of Native land, for inscribed in the Black Hills are the faces of individuals who ordered the removal of Native peoples from their land. 

The treaty-protected territory goes all the way up from the Black Hills—aka Mount Rushmore—to the areas surrounding the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations. If the 1868 treaty were upheld and Native land respected, the pipeline might not have been completed, Remle said. In the five years that the pipeline has been operational, a new iteration of an old movement to return Native lands has rooted itself as necessary to correcting historical injustice and tackling the ballooning impacts of climate change. 

“LANDBACK is going to do a whole hell of a lot [to address climate change] because one of the most significant acts of decolonization we can do is returning lands,” said Nicholas J. Reo, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and an associate professor of Native American and Indigenous studies and environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

“I think we have a tremendous amount of evidence that shows that Indigenous peoples’ management of land and water and resources can actually increase biodiversity,” said Hayden King, who is Beausoleil First Nation Anishinaabe and the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous research and education center based out of Toronto Metropolitan University. An oft-cited statistic from the UN reports that Indigenous peoples throughout the world steward 80% of the planet’s biodiversity yet comprise 5% of the global population. 

“Ultimately, that means Indigenous peoples should be responsible for managing land if we’re going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change,” King said. 

While Western institutions and research organizations have recently begun to recognize how Indigenous land stewardship maintains biodiversity and healthy ecologies, King notes that the LANDBACK movement can offer so much more than simply being deputized to protect remaining lands against climate change. LANDBACK digs out the causes of climate change, and more specifically, the movement rebukes the land-based economic system of racial capitalism, which demands that the land be cleared of its Indigenous peoples so that surveyors can mine, plant, and frack it as they see fit.  

While ecological changes in the landscape might look different in other regions of the U.S., the LANDBACK struggles are no less urgent. As elements of LANDBACK gain momentum, King said that it might be possible to draw some connections—and cautionary tales—from the climate movement. 

Even as countries like the U.S. and Canada, where King is based, acknowledge the potential for climate change to upend our lives as we know them, the solutions offered don’t really address the root causes of these changes and how they’re deeply entwined with Western ideas about economy and dominance. Rather, they focus on strategies that may appear less harmful to the environment, like recycling, and that more importantly, don’t require challenging existing systems of capitalism, extraction, and land ownership that contribute to ongoing climate change. A land acknowledgment is not a land return; the first part is helpful, the second is fundamental. 

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A reciprocal relationship with the land 

Before Samantha Chisholm Hatfield was born, her grandparents moved from their home in Siletz, Oregon, two hours east to the Willamette Valley, where she was raised. Chisholm Hatfield, ​​an enrolled member of the Confederated tribes of Siletz Indians from the Tututni, Kalapuya, and Chinook Bands who is also Cherokee, grew up fishing and collecting traditional foods and medicines. Her grandfather had a sweat lodge by the river, and her dad told stories of how they would use traditional fire and burn the Willamette Valley from Portland to Eugene to ready the land for a new season. 

Chisholm Hatfield, now an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Education and Agricultural Sciences with a specialization in Traditional Ecological Knowledge at Oregon State University, said it’s more difficult to interact with the land as she and her family once did because of development, pollution, and climate change. Where one building went up, a field of camas, a native flower with violet petals, was paved over. In another area, healthy, native oak trees were ripped out to make way for a bulk grocery and homegoods store, Chisholm Hatfield said. The development is an ongoing threat to traditional collection practices, through which Native peoples can fulfill a reciprocal relationship with the landscape. 

“It’s really troubling. Some of these plants [and] areas are being cleared for apartment complexes or strip malls,” Chisholm Hatfield said. “It’s astounding to me how disregarded and disrespected [tribes are].” 

The name for the collection of millennia worth of wisdom and practices, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), has been recognized in its formal practice since the 1970s, Chisholm Hatfield said. The field of study has gained a following outside of tribes in recent years, she explained, largely because of “climate change impacts where Western science was not fulfilling or making even a dent in it.”

Tribal use of cultural and traditional fire is a well-recorded example of this, a practice that was for many decades explicitly outlawed or suppressed informally through land theft and assimilation policies like boarding schools. While Chisholm Hatfield’s father grew up with this practice, wildfire suppression in California started with the colonial force of the gold rush, and similar policies in Oregon and Washington ripened forested ecosystems for the intense and frequent fires we experience today. To quell these fires, state policies are starting to mirror the centuries-old techniques of tribes that mainly use fire to regenerate ecosystems. 

“It’s very frustrating to be the last ditch consult, if you will,” Chisholm Hatfield said. 

She added that there’s also the issue of selecting only a few elements of TEK to implement while disregarding the rest. The world is comprised of holistic and intersecting ecologies; to take one practice without the others will only get you so far. To put it another way, Reo explained that a forest isn’t a simple mechanism that can be “fine-tuned.” 

“A wetland isn’t a system—it’s more than that,” Reo said. “The way that we care for our homelands, it’s a very spiritual process; it’s a very relational process. It’s taking care of your relatives that are more than human.”

Within models of Western science and colonial land practices, that spirituality and relationship with the land is erased, and yet Native peoples are still being asked for their land knowledge while simultaneously being given few avenues for themselves to act on that knowledge. LANDBACK could solve that, Reo said. 

“You don’t need to be asking us how to do our thing; you need to let us do our thing,” Reo said.  

What happens when there’s no land left to return?

Where land theft separated Native peoples from their traditional homelands, and where colonization gave life to climate change, the products of a changing climate push up against Native peoples first. And while the wheels of the LANDBACK movement gain momentum among allies both inside and outside of settler governments, questions remain unaddressed of how to return land that no longer exists. 

This isn’t a hypothetical question for the United Houma Nation in the bayous of southern Louisiana—according to Principal Chief Lora Ann Chaisson, the nation loses a football field worth of land every 100 minutes due to coastal erosion, hurricane impact, rising sea levels, and externalities of oil and gas operations. The land loss is swift and unrelenting. 

Freshwater fish are declining in numbers, and saltwater fish are moving in. Alligators are adapting to the salty bayous, but many trees and plants aren’t so lucky and are slowly suffocating from the aquatic intrusion. Tribal general counsel Michael Billiot said that a web of policy decisions have led to this point, from state decisions to dredge the bayous to federal priorities regarding the construction of dams and levees. 

“Twenty-one years ago we were hunting deer in my backyard; now we’re fishing in my backyard,” Chaisson said.

There’s also the lack of accountability that privately owned polluting companies have to the United Houma Nation, a non-federally recognized tribe. Chaisson said that after the catastrophic BP oil spill in 2010, the tribe was “hit first” but received no funds to address the oil pollution on its lands because the Oil Spill Pollution Act only applies to federally recognized tribes. Houma peoples rely on shrimping, fishing, and crabbing for income; after the spill all of that was gone, she said.

For a tribe whose land loss is ongoing, the clock can’t be turned backward. Actions marketed as climate change panaceas, like purchasing carbon offsets or buying an electric vehicle, require spending or selling, and neither get to the root cause of the threats facing the United Houma Nation.  

Land return: from the mountain to the ocean

There’s still time to prevent land loss—and the loss of culture that accompanies—in Kaua‘i, where Peleke Flores is the Kū Hou Kuapā Coordinator at Alakoko fishpond. For decades, invasive red mangrove has wound its way through the Huleia River, strangling native plants and impeding the ability for young fish to navigate the river and spawn. This is just one challenge young fish face, among overfishing, pollution, and changes to water temperature and levels. 

For 800 years, fishponds provided a source of food for an entire community or ahupua‘a. After the colonization of the islands by Captain James Cook in the late 1770s, and later, with the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 by the U.S. government, Hawaiian foodways and cultural practices suffered. A plantation economy dependent on sugar and pineapple, coupled with the introduction of invasive species like cattle, pigs, and red mangrove, changed the landscape. Anti-Hawaiian sentiment, both by way of formal assimilation policies and a tourist economy that fetishized Hawaiian culture, separated Hawaiians from their ancestral and traditional foodways. 

“[We] almost lost a lot of that knowledge … after the overthrow,” Flores said. For Flores, LANDBACK means the returning to the meaning of ʻāina, which he said translates to “the land which feeds.” ʻĀina is a guide that points to the foundation of the Hawaiian people and a means for understanding how and where to move forward. 

“Once we can get our ʻāina back and start feeding our people, [they can] rebuild their foundation, and they will have the mental capacity to keep looking forward to correct the wrong that’s been happening for the past 130 years,” Flores said, referring to the illegal overthrow. 

During the pandemic, Flores said that more people started to farm and grow their own food. Fishpond restoration projects are underway across the islands, not just where Flores lives in Kaua‘i. The significance of their restoration goes beyond the benefit of a culturally significant and self-sustaining food source. Flores said that fishponds, which are a part of connected water systems that flow from the sky to the mountain to the ocean, are bioindicators of ecological health. 

“There’s a lot of politics hidden within there,” Flores said. “But we’re talking about straight-up basic food and how we live off the land, how we make balance within the land, how our systems work, and how we’re not forcing the system to amplify food resources.” 

By working to restore the fishpond, Flores is able to build a sustainable system for his children and future grandchildren to eat from and interact with. The work is also for his own ancestors, the people he can’t see, who he knows are there with him at the Alakoko fishpond even still. 

“The people you bring with you that you don’t see [are] helping give mana back to this movement … they’ve been waiting for a long time,” Flores said. 

Return land to heal land 

Referring to climate change as “human caused” is a misnomer, one that perpetuates the colonial myth that the land was “untouched” when Western settlers arrived and that climate change is an inevitable outcome of human interaction with nature. On the other side of that myth is a truth: that land has long known the touch of human hands and ingenuity of Native peoples. 

“The fact is there are very few places on earth that haven’t been stewarded by somebody, where human interaction hasn’t been an important part of that natural history,” Reo said. 

Climate change isn’t a result of humans acting on the land, said Reo. Rather, climate change is the “outgrowth of settler colonialism and the form of capitalism that we’re so wedded to around the world.” In that sense, climate change is the product of policy decisions. The extraction of fossil fuels, reliance on oil, and carbon pollution have shifted the world’s ecological balance off scale: from ocean acidification to deforestation to hotter summers and colder winters, impacts of climate change touch every aspect of human life. 

Yet traces of justice are within view, both in the work that’s being done to heal history—the history that lives in the legacies of land loss—and in the steps taken to prevent further degradation of ecosystems. Healing history heals the land.

This is the third and final article in Prism’s LANDBACK series. If you haven’t read parts one and two, you can do so here

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda. 

When Prism was established in 2019, it was because we knew that the status quo media landscape wasn’t reflecting enough of the truth—and it wasn’t bringing us closer to our vision of collective liberation and justice. We saw a different path forward, one that we could forge by disrupting and dismantling toxic narratives, uncovering the hard truths of injustice alongside the people experiencing the acute impacts of injustice, and providing a platform for people of color to tell their own stories, and those of their communities.