Women Indigenous leaders center relations of care in Land Back efforts
While Indigenous struggles for land reclamation are as old as colonization itself, in recent years, the Land Back movement has gained considerable momentum. In 2016, during the height of the No Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, #LandBack began trending on social media and has ever since helped to highlight and galvanize solidarity with Indigenous struggles for land return. At the forefront of these struggles are Indigenous women, queer, non-binary, and Two-Spirit peoples. On November 14th, 2023, four Indigenous women activists, scholars, and community leaders joined the Clayman Conversations event “Why Indigenous Land Back is a Feminist Issue” for a discussion of the gendered politics of Indigenous dispossession and Land Back. What the speakers revealed is that the return of Indigenous lands is not simply a material transference of property, but is rather a radical process of collective healing.
“Why does Land Back even exist? It starts with dispossession,” said moderator Caitlin Keliiaa, an assistant professor of history at UC Santa Cruz who is Yerington Paiute and Washoe. “Over the span of hundreds of years, Native land tenure and ownership was either precarious or simply non-existent [in California].”
“Up until a few years ago, there were no Ohlone people that owned anything” said Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, whose tribal territory encompasses five Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and parts of Napa and Solano. Ohlone peoples survived three waves of colonization, genocide, and dispossession by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. explained Keliiaa. Today, in one of the wealthiest urban areas in the world, Ohlone peoples cannot afford to live in their own homelands and, until just a few years ago, the Ohlone held no legal title or claim to any amount of their own land base. “To be homeless in your own homeland, to still be living in your tribal territories [but] to have nowhere to pray, to have nowhere to gather, to have no place to reinter your ancestors’ remains, to have no place that you can call a place of your own, when you have to ask permission from folks that are private landowners or park districts for a place to have ceremony,” said Gould, “[that is,] for us, not to be who we are as human beings on our own territory.”
The ongoing dispossession of Indigenous lands is requisite for the United States and other settler colonial nations and societies to exist, wherein Indigenous dispossession must be reinforced and re-produced every single day. “When we look at the history of the United States, all of this history has been about the dispossession of Indigenous lands” said Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Karuk, Yurok), associate professor of Native American Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt, “and that dispossessed land now exists as people's homes, and people's cities, and people's counties and districts.”
“That sort of dispossession of land is really predicated on the Doctrine of Discovery and the idea that Indigenous people are not fully human,” said Laura Harjo, a Muscogee (Creek) scholar, author, Indigenous planner, and teacher, an associate professor in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Native American and Indigenous Studies at Emory University. Harjo’s people were dispossessed from their ancestral homelands (in what is today Alabama and Georgia) and forcibly marched 1,500 miles on the genocidal Trail of Tears.
Such dispossession has required the ongoing enforcement of colonial heteropatriarchal sex and gender systems and the deployment of unrelenting violence against Indigenous women, girls, queer, trans, and Two-Spirit peoples. Gould describes how many California Native tribes were matriarchal societies, and how patriarchal violence went hand in hand with settler colonial violence. Throughout Spanish missionization, Gould described that missionaries and colonizers “would not see the leadership of women in our tribes; [they] would only talk to the men. You take away women's power, the right to speak on behalf of a people, the right to have any kind of say about what's happening. Then you begin to rape and violate women the same way you begin to rape and violate the lands, so that you begin to correlate those two things together as possessions,” explained Gould.
The violence of colonialism, Indigenous dispossession, and patriarchy are infused into the legal, economic, and property systems that structure our everyday lives. The destructive settler colonial and capitalist logics of ownership, possession, extraction, and consumption are so naturalized within hegemonic understandings of the world that “we are unable to care for the planet,” commented Baldy. “Settler colonialism is so illogical as a system that we accept that you can't drink water, breathe the air, or even have a home, or the food that you need to eat.”
For Baldy, Gould, and Harjo, Land Back presents a solution: “Land Back is the starting point to the radical reimagining of the future that we want to build,” said Baldy, “where everybody can drink the water, where everybody is cared for.” To return Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples is not simply about shifting property ownership, but is rather about, in the words of Baldy, “uplifting and upholding Indigenous approaches to how we care for the land itself.” For Harjo, Land Back is a feminist project in that it centers relations of care. Harjo approaches Land Back through the concept of futurity, wherein Land Back means working to create a shared future, that is inclusive of everyone’s vision of futurity, including those of her ancestors. “I feel like that's Indigenous feminism,” stated Harjo. “Everybody has a say, everybody has value, everybody has something to bring to the table, and recognizing that.”
Land Back is a way to restore such Indigenous feminist values. Harjo emphasized the importance of the pedagogy of the land and of felt knowledges, in the sense that the land instructs and guides us in how to build relationships of care with ourselves, with each other, and with non-human relatives. This is exemplified by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust (STLT), an urban Indigenous women-led land trust, co-founded by Gould and Johnella LaRose, that works to return Ohlone lands to Indigenous stewardship. Because of the STLT, land has been returned to Ohlone stewardship for the first time in 250 years. The STLT approaches Land Back through the concept of rematriation; as Gould described, “rematriation is about the remembering of us coming back to being human beings again.” Rematriation is about remembering other ways of being outside of settler colonialism, outside of capitalism, and outside of patriarchy; which, in this sense, is inclusive and healing for everyone. “For millennia, people all over the world had a connection with the lands and the waters,” stated Gould, and by working on the land, these connections can be remembered. “So rematriation is about calling everybody in, to fight against patriarchal violence, to fight against settler colonial ideas of private land ownership,” explained Gould.
The event was organized by Clayman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Claire Urbanski, a queer disabled writer, scholar, teacher, and social justice activist engaged in ongoing work for the protection and return of Indigenous Ohlone sacred sites on Ohlone homelands (the San Francisco Bay Area).