What Is the Land Back Movement? A Call for Native Sovereignty and Reclamation

Colonial governments stole a lot more than the land. They took away the political and decision-making power of Indigenous nations and our right to consent to what happens to our land, people, families, and even our bodies. Our spiritual beliefs and languages were outlawed, and many of our children were forcibly taken to boarding schools, some never to be seen or heard from again. For these reasons, land back has become a symbol of the reclamation of everything that was taken and destroyed by the architects of colonialism.

“Land back is the umbrella and it’s the metanarrative for all of that work to happen,” Two Bulls, who is Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota, tells Teen Vogue. “Because once Indigenous peoples reclaim our land, once we reclaim language, once we reclaim our ability to manage the land in a way that is healthy, in a way that we understand and know, I think that is going to be the answer to a lot of these issues that we are running into. And by doing that, we have to dismantle these systems.” 

“Part of what we’re reclaiming when we say ‘land back’ is our power,” says Tilsen. Land back involves an actual shift in the power structure not of just the United States, but the world.

One reason the land back movement has taken hold in recent years is that new research has shown that Indigenous nations are excellent at land management. Scientists have started to join the chorus of “land back” for purposes of land conservation, biodiversity, and slowing the climate crisis. For example, Native knowledge and practices could be particularly useful in fighting the threat from severe wildfires on the West Coast.

The elevation of Native leaders to powerful positions is another positive sign. Secretary Deb Haaland became the first Native woman to head the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management. Also, the White House has nominated Charles F. Sams III to serve as director of the National Park Service; if appointed, Sams would be the first Native to hold that post. In Canada, the government recently announced that it is allocating $340 million toward supporting First Nations guardians and protected areas. As The Narwhal reported, Canada has committed to conserving 30% of its lands and waters by 2030.

However, Tilsen and Two Bulls are skeptical that real change can occur within the colonial power structure responsible for the theft of Indigenous lands. “We have to recognize that under the management of the federal government and colonial governments everywhere, all of this land has been mismanaged,” Tilsen asserts. “It hasn’t been taken care of; it has been destroyed. It’s been mined. Polluted. It’s been used for corporations as [a] playground to make money off of this land, pollute the waterways, and contribute to the growing problem of global climate change.” 

Tilsen continues, “We’re going to get back to prioritizing the relationship between the land and the people, rather than thinking about the land as just something that we should extract from for the purposes of money and power. We’re reclaiming our inherent right to assume control, protection, and stewardship of these lands.”

Tilsen and Two Bulls are also quick to affirm that the land back movement isn’t just for Indigenous people. Its mission and objectives serve the public good and could very well save the existence of life on Earth. “If there’s going to be any reparations or repair, healing, moving forward, justice, sovereignty, liberation — whatever the things are that we’re working towards — it has to start with land back,” Two Bulls says. “It has to go back to the roots of what this so-called country was founded on, of what allowed all of these institutions and systems that oppress us to exist, and that was when we were forced to be removed from our lands. So, to move forward, we have to reclaim our lands.” She adds, “[Land back] is for everyone because it impacts all of us.” 

The movement is one of transcendence. It’s a conversation starter about racial equality and equity. It’s a verb that invokes action and calls for change. “Land back came from the ceremonies,” Tilsen explains. “[It] came from the art, the culture, and spirits of the people…. Land back is something that anybody and everybody has an opportunity to be a part of no matter where you stand politically, no matter what you believe in the world or what your knowledge is, because it touches every aspect of our lives.”

In short, says Tilsen, “It’s marching orders.” 

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Colonialism, Explained

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