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A User's Guide to Land Back

Chris Newman | December 27, 2022

Had a great question from my last Ask Me Anything: “could you explain how non-Indigenous people can be thoughtful about approaching tribes or Indigenous organizations around land and other material reparations?

Here are a few things to be mindful of as you navigate this landscape:

Politically-Speaking, Many Tribes are a Hot Mess

Most people with land, money, or some other resource to give want to give it to a tribe; specifically a tribal government or organization purporting to represent the people or the interests of the folks that are indigenous to some space.

The problem is… the colonization of Turtle Island wreaked absolute havoc on the political integrity on nearly every nation that was here to begin with, and the claims made by tribal organizations to “represent” tribal interests can range from dodgy to outright lies. Take my tribe, for instance, which has two competing groups of people simultaneously claiming to represent everyone, plus at least three groups (the Choptico Band, the Cedarville Band, and the Piscataway Indian Nation) that have explicitly broken off from the “main” group to pursue more traditional forms of political organization. This is a common issue throughout Indian country, which I’ll delve into in a discussion of…

Federal Recognition

You’ve probably heard that there’s some 500 tribes in the United States, yes? Let’s dive into that a little further without writing an entire book about this subject.

Those 500 tribes have what’s called “Federal status” or “Federal recognition,” which means their existence is formally recognized by the United States government. For the most part, that recognition is predicated on the existence of some kind of centralized, constitutional authority (government) within those tribes, which presents two major issues.

The first issue is a kind of resource curse. Federally recognized tribes have governments whose decisions are usually made by just a handful of people, and these councils become the sole arbiters of distribution when it comes to things like land access, distribution of resources from the Federal government, special rights (ranging from hunting and fishing to mineral rights and gaming) and, to our issue, the disposition of land-back resources presented to “the tribe” via well-intended people and organizations. If you guessed that this situation is a breeding ground for white-hot corruption, then you’re correct.

This kind of unilateral resource control is a lot of what drives tribes that are NOT recognized by the Federal government to pursue said recognition, and groups of people will often wind up at severe odds over who will be on the councils that govern those resources. This is what’s caused the massive political fissure within my own tribe and countless others, especially on the east coast where many tribes aren’t recognized because their treaty obligations with Whites are older than America.*

As Indigenous people have borne witness to the corrosive effect of establishing formal “sovereign” relationships with the Federal government over the last century, it’s led to an informal distinction within our communities between…

*At the conclusion of the American Revolution, the new U.S. Government more or less cherry picked which treaty obligations between tribes and the British they wanted to acknowledge, and which they’d ignore, especially those that granted reservations to Native people

"Tribal Council Indians" and "Traditionalists"

In a nutshell, “Tribal Council Indian” is a generally-pejorative term for people that adhere to the tribal council, state-to-state relationship between tribes and the Federal government. They’re often derided as “colonized Indians” for their acceptance of e.g. coercive forms of government, use of tribal police forces, and command-and-control stance toward distribution of resources.

“Traditionalists,” on the other hand, are people who believe in eschewing conformity with U.S. demands on tribal political structures and resource control, opting for more traditional (and usually distributed, egalitarian, stateless, and often matriarchal) forms of organization and resource distribution.

The choice is not as easy as one might believe; potential corruption aside, Federal recognition has a ton of benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Consideration for free receipt of federal lands when they’re sold

  • The right to keep parts of sacred fauna (e.g. eagle feathers)

  • Access to things like the Indian Health Service

Not to mention the fact that, again in the eyes of the U.S. government, you’re technically not considered to be Native if you’re not an enrolled member of a recognized tribe.

Members of tribes that are already recognized and have reservations have another issue to contend with: their reservations — i.e. their access to the thing that matters to Indigenous people most of all (LAND) — is tied up in their adoption of non-traditional forms of governance, like a tribal council. And at this point it’s important to point out…

Tribal Councils Aren't Really a Traditional Form of Government

I had to remind myself that, because of popular culture, an awful lot of people believe that Indigenous nations were always governed by some sort of tribal council.

That really isn’t the case.

"Councils” were usually gatherings of influential headmen (and women) to discuss matters of particular importance. The key word here, though, is “influence.” Their words carried a lot of weight, but, like a modern social media influencer, they couldn’t actually MAKE anyone do squat.

Most Indigenous communities/nations in North America didn’t have centralized governments, and they certainly didn’t have any kind of coercive authority. In my neck of the woods, things like “taxation” (e.g. giving a portion of corn harvests and hunts to a Tayac for redistribution) and military service were based on a mix of shame, influence, and deep cultural obligations around reciprocity. These concepts can be difficult to comprehend in modern societies whose cultures reward accumulation for its own sake (rather than accumulating to give away), and where what little thought is given to social welfare is underwritten by prisons, violence, debt slavery, and ruined credit.

Those concepts were also difficult for invading 16th-19th century Europeans to understand, and it drove them absolutely bonkers when they’d sign some agreement with a headman (who they assumed was a “King” with authority over “his” people) only to see that headman’s people go rogue, with impunity, if a decision was sufficiently controversial. Hence, the authority-based tribal council governments that you see in modern Indigenous nations are, by and large, recent and culturally-incongruent adaptations forced upon them by the Federal government for its own convenience. The results: re-read everything above.


So… what do you do if you have something you want to give?

1.) Be Patient

The first step is a mindset shift: you probably need to slow down. Assuming you know who the First Peoples are in the place you’re looking to give back to, you’ll need to take some time to understand the political landscape for the people in that area. And because there’s no formulaic way to get it, and because Google will usually reveal nothing, it could take quite some time to develop an appropriate understanding of who is REALLY serving the people Indigenous to an area, vs. who is using their culture as a path to self-aggrandizement. But a good first step…

2.) Find a Powwow or other Public Gathering

Not all tribes host powwows, and among those that do, they’re not always open to the public. But the ones that are open to the public are good places to go and observe and get a lay of the land for who influential people are, especially if you can figure out what people or organization(s) put on the event.

I’d advise against approaching them directly, though. Instead, you’ll want to do some indirect due diligence around those people and organizations, including asking other Indigenous people about their work (avoid asking personal questions), and what other people/organizations are doing work for the community. Elders and people in Gen Z and younger are probably the best to ask, because they give the fewest sh*ts and will probably give you the most honest responses.

But in the process of doing all this…

3.) Tread Lightly

I don’t care if you have a million acres to give away: you’re still an outsider and will be viewed with suspicion. Especially if you show up sideways with your mouth open and your ears shut.

Move slowly. Be in proximity during events that are open to you, but don’t show up with an agenda. Remind yourself that Land Back is relatively uncharted territory for both you and Indigenous people, and the paths aren’t really clear for any of us. So be still enough to let the best path up the mountain be revealed to you, instead of destructively hacking your way through the unknown in the name of immediate progress.

And to that end…

4.) Respectfully, Get Over Yourself

Believe me: as a business owner, I know how frustrating it is to chase someone down to GIVE them money. But you need to remember… this is no ordinary transaction, and it only makes sense that righting centuries of wrongs, theft, murder, assimilation, and countless other traumas would be a little more complicated than signing a check or a deed.

Whatever difficulties you encounter are rarely going to be about you. It’s going to be about the fact that Indigenous people have been approached by White people full of promises for many, many years, and it hasn’t exactly worked out well. We’re not inclined to assume you’re acting in good faith because, frankly, the land or assets you (supposedly) have to give away were likely rooted in some kind of bad faith, some broken promise made decades or centuries before you were born, and if there’s one thing that tends to hold true across Indigenous people everywhere: we have very long memories, and we don’t make hard distinctions between past and present.

If you’re going into a Land Back situation feeling really good about yourself, or are in any other way centering yourself or your feelings as you approach it, it’s best to stop and do a little work reorienting your spirit of gift away from yourself and toward the people to whom the reparations are being made.

Hope this helps :-)



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