On the show this week, we were lucky enough to be joined by Nick Tilsen, the President and CEO of NDN Collective. NDN Collective is a nationwide, Indigenous-led organization working to further the goals of Indigenous self-determination in the US. They focus their efforts in three categories: defense, development, and decolonization.
“We believe in this vision that when the self-determination of Indigenous people are invested to–when that is restored–it actually contributes to a world that is more just and equitable for all people and Mother Earth,” Nick told us during his interview.
One of the most critical aspects of Nick and NDN Collective’s work centers on decolonization, which is the work of undoing the practices of colonial governance and economic ideologies. More importantly, it’s a revitalization of lost Indigenous cultures, customs, languages, power structures, and an emphasis on regenerative financial practices. Previously, First Nations lived in sophisticated societies, but these were systematically outlawed and destroyed by European colonizers and institutions like the Catholic Church.
“It’s actually a process of healing. It’s a process of the reclamation and the reclaiming of our Indigenous identities,” Nick explained to Mila.
One of the most significant aspects of decolonization is the concept of land reparations, a solution commonly espoused under the #Landback hashtag. Land back is a critical part of ensuring sustainable self-determination for Indigenous People, but it might not mean quite what you think it does.
“The stealing of our lands was one of the fundamental things that they did to colonize our people,” Tilsen said. “We have seen those lands become exploited… The land back movement is about taking that land back from the corporations who stole it, taking that land back from the United States government who illegally stole that land, and getting that land back into the stewardship and back into the control of Indigenous people.”
Tilsen says the #Landback movement has no interest in removing American home owners from their properties. Instead, it aims to return land stolen by the Federal Government and corporations who extract resources at the cost of human well-being. The #Landback movement wants to return this land to the stewardship of Indigenous People, allowing them to decide what can and cannot occur there.
The Federal Government owns more than 25% of the land in the United States, and returning some or all of this land to the tribes it rightfully belongs to would represent a massive gain for Indigenous self-determination. America’s national parks, lauded as “America’s Best Idea,” are included in this, and for good reason. National Parks have long played a role in the forced seizure of Native lands. Yosemite, America’s first National Park, caused the eviction of the Ahwahneechee tribe. The government forced those who remained to participate in “Indian Days” where they had to dress up like Plains Indians – which they weren’t – and perform for white tourists. In other words, they had to act as humiliating caricatures of themselves by staying in Yosemite.
The conservation of Yosemite also contributed to the devastation of Indigenous People because it led to the passage of the Lacey Act. This 1894 bill banned all hunting, including Indigenous, in National Parks in direct violation of numerous treaties between the US and Indigenous tribes. A Supreme Court challenge failed, increasing Congress’s ability to remove Native hunting rights at will, a devastating blow.
Returning government and corporate land and the National Parks to Indigenous land makes sense on more than one level. Returning stolen land is the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. From the perspective of Indigenous self-determination, returning land is a critical cornerstone. Returning land to Native stewardship has another bonus: mitigating climate change.
Indigenous land use seeks to protect the land and existing life by using traditional methods of preservation and conservation, putting the planet on equal footing with the needs of the humans who live on it. Nowhere is this concept more starkly illustrated than in California.
This year, wildfires in California are the worst in recorded history, and they’re currently darkening the sky over large portions of the US. Who could have predicted such devastation? Indigenous People, if anyone had bothered to ask them. Until colonization, First Nations living on the West Coast carefully stewarded over the land they lived on, and that included a regimen of controlled burns to keep accidental wildfires under control.
As colonization swept west, controlled burns were outlawed, starting with the Spanish. Under penalty of death, colonizers forbade Indigenous People from continuing their tradition of controlled burns. Wildfires became an untamable beast. Calls for more prescribed burning are on the rise, 200 years too late.
The Federal government owns nearly 60% of the forested land in California, 25% in Oregon, and 44% in Washington State. Ceding control of this land to Indigenous tribes would immediately help rectify the problem of rampant wildfires, while at the same time giving critical self-determination back to the Indigenous People who once watched over it.
The #Landback movement is a social justice issue, but it’s also an issue of climate justice and economic justice. As we begin to reconcile our colonist past, returning the land we stole is a key first step—and it’s also a giant leap forward in the global battle against climate change.
Cagle, Susie. “‘Fire Is Medicine’: the Tribes Burning California Forests to Save Them.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Nov. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/nov/21/wildfire-prescribed-burns-california-native-americans.
Corry, Stephen, et al. “The Colonial Origins of Conservation: The Disturbing History Behind US National Parks.” Truthout, Truthout, 25 Aug. 2015, truthout.org/articles/the-colonial-origins-of-conservation-the-disturbing-history-behind-us-national-parks/.
Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “The Usual Story of the National Park Service Is Incomplete.” Time, Time, 2 Apr. 2019, time.com/5562258/Indigenous-environmental-justice/.
“Lacey Act.” Official Web Page of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service, www.fws.gov/international/laws-treaties-agreements/us-conservation-laws/lacey-act.html.
“LAND BACK! What Do We Mean?” 4Rs, 4rsyouth.ca/land-back-what-do-we-mean/.
Lyons, Jim. “Trump Blames California for Fires. He Should Check to See Whose Land They’re On.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 15 Sept. 2020, news.yahoo.com/trump-blames-california-fires-check-211528759.html.
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea:” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/nationalparks/.
Schwartz, Matthew S. “‘The Worst Is Not Behind Us’: California Wildfires Continue To Burn.” NPR, NPR, 22 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/08/22/905099950/the-worst-is-not-behind-us-california-continues-to-burn.
Sommer, Lauren. “To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along.” NPR, NPR, 24 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/08/24/899422710/to-manage-wildfire-california-looks-to-what-tribes-have-known-all-along.
Stebbins, Samuel. “How Much Land the Government Owns in Every State and What It’s Used For.” 247 Wall St, 24/7 Wall St., 17 Feb. 2020, 247wallst.com/special-report/2019/10/28/this-is-how-much-land-the-federal-government-owns-in-every-state/.
Walsh, Bryan. “Fire Needs to Be Fought with Fire in the West.” Axios, 16 Sept. 2020, www.axios.com/califronia-wildfires-climate-change-prescribed-burning-92c08e17-6150-43ed-b9a6-d05f1069339e.html.