The LANDBACK campaign is gaining traction, and it is time for the federal government to recognize Indigenous people's rights.
There is no better time to reflect on the movement for Indigenous people's rights in the United States than on Thanksgiving. This land, as we all know, was stolen by White colonizers from Native Americans. Now, almost 400 years later, Indigenous groups are making sure everyone knows they want their land back. Through a movement that is only growing stronger, these voices are fighting to reclaim their land and their rights. Ironically enough, this is a battle that rests on whether certain tribespeople can meet the government's definition of "Indian," CNN reports. At present, there are misconceptions about how the Indigenous tribe that once sat down with the Pilgrims for a feast has gone extinct. This could not be further from the truth.
Robert Maxim, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, explained, "We're kind of stereotyped as the tribes that met the Pilgrims and that's our whole history, like we ceased to exist in 1621." 1621 is the year the tribe had signed a treaty with the European settlers who had landed on their shores. This treaty was not one founded on goodwill, democracy, or even diplomacy—it was an act of survival. It is true that the tribe's population has dwindled drastically since then, no doubt a result of the vicious practices of colonists. Their land, too, has been whittled down.
Maxim's tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, have lived in what is now known as Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. However, it was only in 2007 that the federal government formally recognized them. Court rulings passed in recent years challenging whether the tribe's reservation is eligible to be put in trust have only further threatened their existence. Therefore, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, like many others, are fighting for their land to be rightfully returned to them.
Land reclamation can mean a plethora of things for Indigenous folks. For some, it is about their identities, the ability to hold ceremonies and honor their ancestors. Randall Akee, an associate professor of public policy and American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, affirmed, "The origin of being Indigenous is location and ties to the land." For others, land reclamation is about simple economics: being able to hunt for food, access clean water, and build homes or schools. For another group still, the movement is about ownership and governance; they believe the federal government, rooted in anti-Indigenous sentiment, should not be allowed to dictate how they use their sovereign lands. No matter what their intentions are, all Indigenous people want is to make sure the land is returned to its original owners.
What's standing in their way? Ridiculous and unfair laws set by the Department of the Interior. In the year 2015, the federal government said it would place an estimated 300 acres of land in Massachusetts into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, converting the area into a reservation. Not only did this mean the tribe had control over how the land was used, like for building schools and housing, it also meant the land could not be taken away from the Mashpee Wampanoag without the approval of the federal government. The tribe thus viewed this as a huge victory. In 2018, however, the Interior Department reversed this decision and in March this year, the tribe was informed that the US would be taking their land out of trust.
"It's worth underscoring how absurd it is that the descendants of the tribe that met Pilgrims, who every American learns about around this time of year, couldn't meet the definition of a 'tribe,'" Maxim asserted. "It's just a perfect illustration of how messed up, and really, anti-Native, federal Indian policy has been throughout our history." Now, the Mashpee Wampanoag are in limbo. This is sadly a universal experience for tribes across the country. Furthermore, it is also only one of the ways Indigenous lands are being exploited; big oil companies regularly drill through these lands and government projects infect and pollute water sources, for example. While some non-Native policymakers have tried to make amends, this is not enough. Therefore, on July 3, activists from the nonprofit advocacy organization NDN Collective gathered on a highway leading to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. They protested former President Donald Trump's visit to the site and demanded that the Indigenous land the memorial is situated on be returned.
This demonstration was the catalyst for the LANDBACK Campaign, and the movement is only gaining momentum. "We are in a moment of the political climate with people really acknowledging what is and isn't working for us," said Krystal Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne activist for NDN Collective. "That converged into this moment that we're currently in." As you enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, think about whose land you are on today and reexamine our country's history. You can learn more about LANDBACK here.