Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. In 2020 the Supreme Court ruled in a five to four decision that the federal government must honor a treaty with regards to millions of acres of land in eastern Oklahoma, including parts of Tulsa, which the Court said is the unseeded land of the Muscogee Nation. At the center of this case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, were issues of state and tribal jurisdiction, but in the broadest strokes, this decision is also part of centuries of struggle to retain and reclaim tribal lands and sovereignty.
Nick Tilsen: My name is Nick Tilsen. I'm the president and CEO of NDN Collective and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2020 NDN Collective, which is based in Rapid City, South Dakota launched the Land Back campaign, which is working with various Native American tribes to restore indigenous lands and property rights. While efforts to restore land to indigenous peoples has been ongoing, the Land Back movement as a whole, which includes the Indian Collective Land Back campaign has become a significant component of indigenous activism.
Nick Tilsen: The Land Back movement started on the front lines of a lot of us that were organizing against the fossil fuel industry, that were organizing against a lot of corporations that were destroying indigenous people's land and human rights and contributing to climate change. It really came from this place of, we wouldn't have to be doing all of these things, if we had our land back. We wouldn't have to be fighting all of these corporations and fighting all of these colonial governments if we had our land back.
It's important for people to understand that it really came from the front line because we would say land back and they we're like, "Yes, that would sure answer a lot of things." That's where it came from. Indigenous artist in so-called Canada and memesters, people who make meme and make hashtag, started using it more and more. I think when our work really got more involved into it, it was, we really need to build a movement around this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In recent years efforts to return lands to indigenous communities have gained some momentum with a few native tribes having stewardship restored. Advocates have used the courts, public policy and in some cases simply made purchases.
Nick Tilsen: You can't talk about social justice and you can't talk about repairing relationships with indigenous people unless you start with talking about our relationship to the land. Land Back is the starting point. Land Back is the platform in which we are having the conversation about what repair and social justice looks like by and with indigenous people.
It's not just about the process of getting our land back. It's also about what are we trying to build for because Land Back isn't just a resistance movement. It is as much about resistance, as it is about trying to build a future in which we're fighting for. That future includes housing as a human right, includes improved education, improves many of the things and mechanisms in which they've tried to colonize our people. That's a lot of the work that we're doing here now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are multiple goals for the Land Back Movement.
Nick Tilsen: Indian country is not a monolith. There's over 600 of some different tribes, so 570 federally recognized tribes and a lot of tribes that are not recognized and indigenous people that aren't going to ever be recognized. There's all kinds of different perspectives and different mechanisms. In some places Land Back is really focused on sacred site protection, protection of sacred sites, ceremonial grounds and sacred places. Of course, we hold the worldview that all of these places are sacred, but in certain regions, sacred sites have been under attack.
Other parts in areas you're dealing with-- in Rapid City, South Dakota here, that the city of Rapid City illegally stole land from Indian people and then they developed services on those pieces of land that they hold today. Now there's a movement here to try to build an urban Indian center in Rapid City. Rapid City has not returned any of those lands, has not engaged in the land swap and has not put forth any resources to try to put towards the development of an Indian center in Rapid City.
You see things like this where Land Back Movement is cross-intersecting with very urban issues that are impacting the lives of native people in this case. Other places, you take the Eyak people, for example, in the [unintelligible 00:05:11] and the Copper River Delta in Alaska, where they're trying to retire the Bering river coal fields, so that that coal never gets developed and that the wild salmon habitat for the red salmon, the king salmon never gets destroyed up there. For them, a lot of Land Back also means the conservation and it means the protection of a subsistence way of life for those people up there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tilsen says that while the motivations and methods of Land Back may vary among different Native American tribes, there is solidarity.
Nick Tilsen: It's really interesting. There's a wide variety of different opinions about it, but one thing that is universal is everywhere, in every single native community, indigenous people see a direct tie to the plight of their people and the stealing of the land because when they stole the land, they stole the food system. When they stole the land, they stole our economic system. When they stole the land, they stole our societal system. Every single part of our societal, economic, education, safety and communal systems were based on the land.
That's why you won't find an indigenous community anywhere in this part of the world that is not focusing on some way, shape or form the return of lands that have been stolen from their people. That's why that for us when you hear Indian people to one another talk about land back, the people are like, "Yes, land back." It hits to the core. It hits to the core of our identity.
I'll be honest, what I've noticed with non-Indian people, particularly white people, when we say land back, there's a fear. All of a sudden people lock their doors, look out the blinds and they're like, "Oh, I hope they're not coming for our land." There's a lack of, for the most part, mainstream society to even acknowledge that they have directly, systematically benefited. They've done so off of the direct stealing of that land from Native people. They might not have been the ones who stole it, but they have been the beneficiaries of the process of the stealing of that piece of land.
It's an interesting predicament that we have here, but I can tell you that I've been around for a long time and the Land Back Movement is here to stay. It's not going away. This is a movement that is baked into many aspects of all society and indigenous people will continue to mobilize and organize around this issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you to Nick Tilsen for sharing his perspective with us. When we come back, we're going to hear from another native leader about his land reclamation effort. Stay with us. It's The Takeaway.
You're listening to the Takeaway and we're continuing our conversation about how the Land Back Movement is working to restore indigenous lands. In the early 2000s, the Kaw Nation purchased some of their ancestral lands in Kansas. I spoke with James Pepper Henry, Kaw Nation vice chairman and executive director of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. I started by asking him to tell us about the Kaw Nation.
James Pepper Henry: Many people are unfamiliar with who the Kaw people are. Kaw is short for Konsa or Kansa and the state of Kansas is named after my tribe. I would bet that 90% of people from Kansas don't even realize that the state that they live in is named after a group of First Americans people. The Kaw people lived in what is now Kansas for hundreds of years and were forcibly removed from Kansas by treaty in 1873 to a small reservation in what is now Oklahoma. It was Indian territory at that time.
We've had various reservations within Kansas, but each time a treaty was signed, the land base kept shrinking. At one point, the Kaw people numbered over 20,000, about the time Lewis and Clark came through in the early 19th century through Kansas. By 1900s, just about 100 years later, our numbers went from 20,000 people to less than 200 people. I am the descendant of the last 200 survivors of the Kaw people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's almost impossible to fathom what some reparative justice framework could even look like, but you were involved in some of the early negotiations where the Kaw people purchased back some of the ancestral homelands in Kansas. Can you talk a bit about that?
James Pepper Henry: When Kaw people first had contact with the newly established government of the United States of America, the United States through treaty allotted the Kaw people over 22 million acres this was around 1815, and so by in 1977 just in my lifetime we went from 22 million acres in 1815 to just 15 acres of land by 1977. We lost every ounce or every millimeter of land we pretty much lost over 150 years during that time period.
For us we've acquired about 160 acres just outside of Council Grove Kansas. These 160 acres were part of our last reservation part of the 80,000 acres that we once had in central Kansas. It was important for us to start to reclaim our lands in Kansas just as a way to really bring attention into our people that we were invisible. We're invisible to the people of Kansas, we're invisible to most people and it's our goal to reestablish our presence in Kansas and educate people about the first citizens or the first people of what is now the state of Kansas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does it mean to reclaim some portion of this land?
James Pepper Henry: Well, for us the land that is now Kansas is where our ancestors are buried. It's where many generations of our people not only lived but thrived, and so when I return to Kansas into our former areas it makes me sad in a way because I know the remains of my ancestors are buried in that land and it's very windy in the central planes, and when the wind blows it it just reminds me we are the people of the south [unintelligible 00:12:18] so the wind is very important to our people. When I feel that wind and breathe the air and the dust gets kicked up, I'm reminded that that's the dust of my ancestors that's in the air there that we're still there.
We are integrated into the land because our ancestors are buried there for many, many generations. It's bittersweet in a way to be able to have lands again in Kansas, but 160 acres is just a grain of sand in what was the land that we belong to. I think over time we were very interested in increasing our land base and some of us including myself would like to come back to the land that bears our name and resettle the area and reestablish tribal offices there, and see our people come back to the land that is now called Kansas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why did you have to purchase the land? Why wasn't the land simply given back?
James Pepper Henry: Well, land is commodified. Land is broken up and people own land. This particular piece of land is very important to us because it was the site of a former village. That was our last settlement before we were moved to Oklahoma and we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to develop some interpretation at this site so people can learn more about the history of the Kaw people and and what happened to the Kaw people, but this land was on private land and the landowners weren't necessarily interested in donating that land to us.
I think they wanted the proceeds from the land to support their families so I helped negotiate the purchase of that land back in the late 1990s and in the year 2000 we purchased about 154 acres from two families that had land in that area. Then a few years later, we purchased a few more acres that were connected to that land for a total of about 160 or 161 acres. Again, land is either owned by governments, or it's owned by corporations, or owned by individuals and there's no free land out there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One final question. It has become increasingly a practice in institutions, organizations, universities, email, signature lines, to include land acknowledgement to acknowledge that everything from your home office, to a downtown bank is built on territory of indigenous communities. How do you see land acknowledgement as fitting into or not fitting into a broader attempt to achieve some sort of land-based justice?
James Pepper Henry: I think land acknowledgements are important for people to understand and acknowledge that there were people here for thousands of years and those people were displaced so that you can have your home. You can have your business. You can have your latte at Starbucks, but I think land acknowledgements are a bit misguided. I think people think that somehow they're absolved from all of the wrongs that ever happen to indigenous peoples and colonization was not a one time event. Colonization is something that happens in every second of every day, and it continues to happen.
Without any action behind the land acknowledgement, without any reconciliation or even reparations land acknowledgements are almost meaningless. I think they're misguided in a way because the way indigenous peoples look at the land we look at land as something we belong to and we think of the land as our mother that we belong to her. The idea of a land acknowledgement is rooted in colonialism and the commodification of land, that land is something that you can own, so for me by saying this is the land that belong to the Kaw people at one point in time is backwards, and so I would like for people to stay, the Kaw people are the people that belong to this land.
Melissa Harris-Perry: James Pepper Henry is vice chairman for the Kaw Nation and executive director of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. Thank you so much for your time today.
James Pepper Henry: Thank you very much.
[00:16:42] [END OF AUDIO]
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