‘It was always theirs’ – returning land to Indigenous peoples

Zarna Carter gave back her 30 acres of land in Australia’s Flinders Ranges to its original inhabitants, and they welcomed her as “Aunty”. “I wanted the best for this country and the best way was to involve them — and it seemed like that was the most respectful way — was to actually give that back to them, which was always theirs anyway,” she said.

Flinders Ranges. By Iain Whyte (Iainwhyte) – Own work TheWell, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=531816

She had originally planned to keep horses on the land, but soon realized that would not work. Realizing it would be a huge task to restore the land, she began to think about how else she could achieve the goal – and that was to donate the land to the Nukunu Wapma Thura Aboriginal Corporation.

Nukunu elder Kym Thomas, who explained that the land has shelter trees created by his people long ago to provide accommodation on long journeys, said he had never heard of someone just giving their land to an Indigenous group.

That led me to wonder – are there other cases of people giving land back to its original inhabitants? And, as it turns out, there are. Quite a few, which is heartening. So many, in fact, that this is a very long post.

Marion Cumming, Victoria, BC (2021)

In Victoria, B.C., Marion Cumming plans to bequeath the 100-year-old house in which she’s lived in since 1992 to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. In April 2020, she gave the Centre a small acreage known as Qhahtumtun “House by the River” on the Koksilah River, in collaboration with the Duncan House of Friendship. “We called it land return,” Cumming says. “We didn’t consider it a gift.”

Before moving to British Columbia, Marion and her late husband Bruce lived on the other side of Canada on a 280-acre farm in Penniac, New Brunswick. She hopes, after 30 years of work, that it will soon be in the hands of the adjacent Sitansisk Wolastoqiyik (St. Mary’s) First Nation.

While Canadian governmental bodies are slowly waking up to the idea of returning land, this change is not coming fast enough, she says, and this is where private landowners and organizations come in. It’s the first gift of land to an Indigenous organization in Oak Bay’s history, says her neighbour, Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch.

Janice Kell, Ontario (2017)

Sometimes the process of giving land back can be very complicated, as Janice Kell, a secondary school teacher from Peterborough, Ontario, discovered in 2017. She wants to restore 100 acres of land to tallgrass prairie and then give some of it to the Alderville First Nation as an act of reconciliation, but has been told the process could take between 10 and 20 years because there aren’t many examples to follow. “For me the question isn’t why, the question is how can I not do this? How can you not do everything in your power to bring about reconciliation in the best way that you can in your tiny corner of Turtle Island?”

The White Owl Native Ancestry Association, Ontario (2017)

In 2017, a 10.5-acre plot in Kitchener, Ontario, was returned to the White Owl Native Ancestry Association. The property has been purchased in the 1960s by an extension council associated with the United Church of Canada, but plans to build a church on the site were thwarted by an endangered salamander. The land sat forgotten until the youth group at a nearby United Church of Canada congregation, Emmanuel United Church, donated about $2,000 Canadian to White Owl and White Owl mentioned that what the group really needed was land. About a year later, the extension council and United Church of Canada turned over the land to White Owl.

The Passamaquoddy, Maine (2021)

In August 2021, the state of Maine transferred ownership of a culturally significant 3.2-acre waterfront parcel of land in Meddybemps back to the Passamaquoddy tribe, who refer to the land as N’tolonapemk, meaning “our relatives’ place.” The land was used by the tribe for travel by canoe for millennia.

Lower Sioux Indian Community, Minnesota (2021)

Early in 2021, historically-significant areas were returned to the Lower Sioux Indian Community by State of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society, including the site where the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 started.This war led to the largest mass execution in US history when 38 Dakota men were hung for fighting for enforcement of treaties signed by the US government but never fulfilled. The Lower Sioux Indian Community has been co-managing the MHS property since 2007, providing financial support and advice to sustain it.

“This land transfer is a milestone in our Nation,” said Cheyanne St. John, the community’s tribal historic preservation officer. “The Lower Sioux Agency is the last place our Oceti Sakowin were gathered before being expelled from the State. Here we are generations later, reclaiming the land which holds the memory of who we were and our experiences. Now, it’s time to heal.”

The Yale Union Contemporary Arts Centre, Portland, Oregon (2020)

In Portland, Oregon, in 2020, the Yale Union contemporary arts centre dissolved and gifted their $5.36 million building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in what Joy Harjo, Mvskoke poet and the first Native woman to become poet laureate of the United States, called an unprecedented first. “This sharing of resources in a place first occupied by Indigenous peoples initiates healing for the whole community. We now have a home, a central place for Native arts in this country.” NACF supports about 200 Native artists nationwide. 

Native Arts and Cultures Foundation photo

The land at the corner of Southeast 10th Avenue and Belmont Street was originally hunting fishing grounds for many surrounding tribes.

“If this country is to integrate spiritually, creatively and profoundly, we must nourish the roots,” said Harjo. “There is no America without Native nations arts, cultures, languages and humanities. Without the acknowledgement and inclusion of Indigenous roots, a land, a country is unmoored, without stability.”

The Penobscot Nation, Maine (2020)

In 2020, the Penobscot Nation received 735 acres of #LandBack in Williamsburg Township  located between two parcels of land already in Penobscot stewardship, creating a contiguous block of more than 5,000 acres. In returning the land, the Elliotsville Foundation said that “while this is not the start or the end of a long journey of reparation, it is what I can do now and what I hope to do more of while encouraging others to join us.”

Butch Phillips and Barry Dana of the Penobscot Nation offer a blessing at the 2012 Penobscot River Restoration Project.
By U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region – https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsnortheast/7440122274/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51953488

“This land, the headwaters of the Pleasant River, an important tributary to the Penobscot River, is Sacred ground to many people,” said John Banks, natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation. “It’s home to native brook trout, spawning salmon, white-tailed deer, and moose. It provides sustenance through the seasons for many tribal families.”.  

The Quimby Family, Elliotsville Foundation and 50 land trusts and other land-holding groups have joined together in First Light, a bridge between conservationists and the Wabanaki.“This is just the beginning of long work at making amends in real ways,” says Peter Forbes of First Light. As well as returning land, member organizations have granted harvesting permits over tens of thousands of acres, and are developing new legal tools to share land, co-manage land and return land.

The Elliotsville Foundation was established by Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby.

The Esselen Tribe, California (2020)

In August 2020, the ancestral homeland of the Esselen Tribe was returned to its people after 250 years, as part of a $4.5 million land deal. “We are back after a 250-year absence – because in 1770 our people were taken to the missions,” Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County, told the Monterey County Weekly. “Now we are back home. We plan on keeping this land forever.”

The 1,200 acres of undeveloped private property near Big Sur, known as the Adler Ranch, were transferred to the nonprofit Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. The property is home to old-growth redwoods and endangered wildlife such as the California condor and red-legged frog. Working on behalf of the tribe, Western Rivers Conservancy secured a $4.5 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the land purchase.

“We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond,” Nason told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies. It gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption. This is forever, and in perpetuity, that we can hold on to our culture and our values.”

In the 18th century Spanish colonists built a military outpost in Monterey and founded missions in the region where tribal members were captured, baptized and “converted” to Catholicism. By the early 1800s, nearly all of the tribe had been wiped out by disease. Nason said the now 214-member Esselen tribe will share the land with other tribes originally from the area, including the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun and the Rumsen people. “We’re the original stewards of the land,” Nasan told the Sentinel. “Now we’re returned.”

The Alma de Mujer Centre for Social Change, Austin, Texas

In Austin, Texas, Alma de Mujer Center for Social Change was gifted to the Indigenous Women’s Network in 1996 by Genevieve Vaughan.. A 22-acre retreat centre located in Northwest Austin, it is a project of Indigenous Women’s Network (IWN), which was created in 1985 to support the self determination of Indigenous women, families, communities and Nations in the Americas and the Pacific Basin. IWN supports public education and advocacy, revitalization of languages and culture, the elimination of all forms of oppression, the attainment of self-sufficiency and the protection of Mother Earth for future generations.

Alma de Mujer photo

Alma de Mujer hosts and leads programs that serve Austin’s Indigenous/Native American/progressive organizing communities, with programs that focus on building Sustainable Communities, Arts and Culture, and Women’s Leadership. “We support Indigenous life ways that inform our programming in the areas of environmental stewardship, social justice activism, civic responsibility, traditional arts.”

The Ute Land Trust, Utah and Colorado

The Ute Land Trust is the first land conservation organization of its kind, reconnecting the Ute Indian tribe with traditional lands in Utah and Colorado, and it has had some amazing examples of reparations and land return.

In 2017, retired California professor Christine Sleeter gave $250,000 to the Ute as reparations for her great-grandparents profiting from the sale of American Indian land more than a century ago. Sleeter was researching her family history when she discovered that in 1882, the federal government granted her great-grandparents a 160-acre plot of farm land in Colorado under the Homestead Act. It had previously been Ute land, forcibly removed by an 1881 act of Congress that authorized a violent “Utes must go!” campaign. Sleeter’s great-grandparents later sold their land near Craig, Colorado, for a plot in Steamboat Springs and when they left that land in the early 1900s, invested the money. It has been passed down three generations, to Sleeter and her siblings.

Two years later, the tribe reclaimed part of its ancestral homelands in Colorado, when 42-year-old Iowa plumber and artist Rich Snyder returned more than two acres he’d bought on Wild Horse Mesa near San Luis, in the southern part of the state, in 2015.

Archaeological evidence places the Ute in the San Luis Valley by 1100 A.D. Spanish conquerors arrived in the 1500s, and centuries later the United States would take much of the valley from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War. As white settlers arrived in large numbers, they forced the Ute people into reservations in southwestern Colorado and Utah — reservations that were whittled down as minerals were discovered.

Snyder had odd dreams and found strange arrangements of stones forming several fireplaces and branching chimneys along the hillside. Eventually, his brother and father helped him build a small cabin equipped with solar panels. But as he stumbled upon more artifacts – a stone ax and a rock table that he believes was used for skinning and butchering animals – he began to wonder ‘whose land was this?’ Snyder lived on his land intermittently for three years, but driven on by his discoveries, couldn’t shake his sense of the land’s history, that it shouldn’t belong to him.

In mid-2018, he went to utetribe.com, the homepage of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray reservation in Utah, and wrote a simple email, reading in part: “Would love to have the land checked out and give it to your people … it has given peace to me to be there.” While the tribe recently purchased 1,150 acres near the Utah reservation, and Denver’s East Colfax Neighborhood Association also has paid several hundred dollars in reparations to the group, no one had offered the Utes land until Rich Snyder came along.

“It was moving. It was moving and questionable, I guess. Why would someone want to give back their land, that they own, to the Ute tribe?” said Edred Secakuku, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe’s Business Committee, the tribe’s elected governing body. “With everything in our history, we learn not to trust, we’re always on the defense, and that’s just natural for us.”

Leaders of the Ute Tribe honor Rich Snyder, second from left, for donating property in Colorado their people. Photo: Ute Tribe

In September 2018 Snyder deeded the property to the Ute Indian Tribe, followed by another property he had purchased on the same road. Members of the Ute tribe honoured him at the National Congress of American Indians in Denver, where he was wrapped in a ceremonial blanket. Later, he was given a huge buffalo fur at the Bear Dance on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. “I never felt energy like that in my life. I never did anything that good in my life,” he said.

Small though it was, the exchange of land was powerful symbolic. “Our ancestors are there,” Secakuku said of the Utes’ ancestral lands. “Their spirits are still there. Their history is still there. Our medicine, our songs are still there, in the way we believe.”

The Ponca Tribe, Nebraska (2018)

In June 2018, in an historic first, Nebraska farmers Helen and Art Tanderup returned ancestral tribal land to the Ponca tribe. The land gifting ceremony and deed signing took place during an event that also included the fifth annual planting of sacred Ponca corn on the Tanderup farm, with Indigenous singers and grass dancers and prayers on the land. The farm, which had been in the Tanderup family for generations, was going to be crossed by the Keystone XL’s pipeline proposed by TransCanada, and fighting that proposal connected him up with Bold Nebraska and the Cowboy Indian Alliance.

The tribe was forced off their lands by the U.S. government along the “Trail of Tears” route that also crosses the Tanderup farm. “The bond between the Ponca and the Neligh area has been strong for over 140 years,” Tanderup said. “It is only fitting that out of the tragedy of the Ponca Trail of Tears that a small piece of this historic Trail be transferred to them. It is also fitting that the land where we will plant our fifth crop of Sacred Ponca Corn be theirs as well.” The transfer involved 10 acres of the Tanderup farm.

https://boldnebraska.org/pipeline-fighter-farmer-art-tanderup-honored-with-earth-day-lifetime-achievement-award/
Art & Helen Tanderup in front of the solar array on their farm in Neligh, NE. Bold Nebraska.

“This event is another step to healing old wounds and bringing our people together again to a land once ours,” said Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Chairman Larry Wright, Jr. “It offers another opportunity to remind and remember our ancestors who sacrificed the only home they knew, where relatives and loved ones died being removed from their homes. We celebrate this day in their honor and memory and will never forget where we come from and the sacrifices made so that we can be here today.”

“We are honored that Bold and our unlikely alliance have been a part of helping restore the Ponca’s sacred corn to Nebraska, and are honored to be a part of today’s historic gifting of that land — where we have all come together to plant and harvest the corn for the past five years — back to the Ponca people,” said Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb.

The Kashia Tribe of the Pomo, Sonoma, California (2017)

Since October 2015, the Kashia Tribe of the Pomo have been able to enjoy the Pacific coast where they and their ancestors once hunted and fished, for the first time in nearly two centuries. California rancher Bill Richardson gifted his 700-acre farm – in his family since 1925 – to the neighbouring Kashia of Stewarts Point. Richardson will live out his days on the mile-long stretch of property—and be buried on a hillside when he passes on. 

It took five years of fundraising by the Sonoma County supervisors, The Trust for Public Land,  private foundations and groups. Sonoma County contributed $2 million dollars, a coalition of groups raised $6 million, and the Richardsons accepted a discounted price nearly $1 million below appraised value.

The agreement restores coastal access to the Kashia people while providing for environmental conservation and public use including the eight-mile California Coastal Trail. The Kashia Coastal Reserve protects important cultural sites, two scenic barns on the coast side of the highway, and provides a place to connect present and future generations of the Kashia with their heritage. Harvest of native wildlife and plants also will be limited.

The Tribe will manage the 350 acres of redwood forest as a demonstration forest. It will serve as a gateway for educating and engaging the public about the history and practices of native people in the area. Plans include the creation of a museum to showcase the history of the area — both the tribes’ and that of the loggers and ranchers who settled it.

The tribes’ nearly 1,000 members live on Stewarts Point Rancheria located at Skaggs Springs Road in Stewarts Point, Sonoma County. 

The Sinkyone, Northern California

For thousands of years the Sinkyone people of northern California lived along the coast 140 miles north of today’s San Francisco, travelling from inland villages along the South Fork of the Eel River they knew as “Sinkikok” in search of fish, seaweed, acorns, roots, seeds, nuts, bulbs, and berries. 

By Melanienacouzi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29748781

After the Sinkyone land was logged by big timber companies, there seemed little chance they would regain their land, although they kept visiting the Sinkyone for ceremonies and hunting and gathering. But more than a decade of effort, a consortium of 11 federally recognized tribes acquired 3,900 acres of the Sinkyone lands under an innovative conservation easement that created the first intertribal wilderness park in the US.

When the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council purchased the property from the Trust for Public Land and the California State Coastal Conservancy, it marked the first time Indigenous people of different tribes had established a nonprofit organization to acquire land, and the first time a government agency had transferred land to Indigenous people under a conservation easement. And rarely before has an easement tried to specify how forest land might be harvested while preserving old-growth structure and health.

The story goes back to the 1970s. Logging increased in rural Mendocino County. So did protests from those who wanted to save the last of the county’s old-growth redwoods. At Sally Bell Redwood Grove–named for a Sinkyone woman who had seen American soldiers murder her family–protesters climbed trees and blocked bulldozers to slow the timber cut.

In 1985 they won a historic lawsuit to halt the clearcutting. The Trust for Public Land acquired 7,200 acres of the contested land from Georgia-Pacific Corporation. A little less than half the property–including the coastal strip and the old-growth redwood groves–was added to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, established in the 1970s after the first wave of logging protests. The remaining land–an upland parcel of second-growth redwood and Douglas fir– eventually became the new InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park.

After a decade of discussion, the county board of supervisors voted unanimously in 1994 to buy the land under a restrictive conservation easement. The Lannan Foundation of Los Angeles pledged up to $1.3 million toward the $1.4 million purchase, and the council raised over $100,000 from contributors around the US.

“This project brought Indian peoples, government representatives, and environmentalists together in a healing process,” says TPL Vice President Ted Harrison, who managed the project throughout its ten-year duration. “It’s a process in which a fragile and beautiful landscape will be reclaimed and renewed.”

The innovative easement guarantees public access to the adjoining Sinkyone Wilderness State Park while guiding the management of the old-growth forests. “Protection of this land ensures the continuation of Native culture after all the losses Indian people have suffered,” says the InterTribal Council’s Hawk Rosales, who attributes success in part to an unusual degree of cooperation between Indigenous people and their environmental allies. “We were able to work together politically, in fundraising and generating public support for the acquisition, and most important, in insisting on the need to protect this environment,” Rosales says. “The alliance between our communities has forced us all to examine a lot more closely our role as humans in the caretaking and stewardship of the earth.”

The Four Winds American Indian Council, Denver, Colorado

It is a long and complicated story about how a red-brick building near downtown Denver became the home of the Four Winds American Indian Council, which is located on lands of the Arapaho people. The tribes of the area include Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Shoshone, and Ute.

The church building was built by Danish Lutherans on land that had been designated for the Arapaho in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. But government ‘renegotiated’ the treaty after gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains, and the Arapaho and other Indian peoples were forced into a small area in southeastern Colorado near Sand Creek, where in 1864, 700 Colorado cavalry led by a Methodist minister savagely attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and old men. They called it Bethany Danish Lutheran Church.

Photo from Four Winds blog.

Bethany closed in 1973 and the property went to American Lutheran Church, which in 1988 passed it on to the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In 1986, the group that became the Four Winds American Indian Council began using the building as a sacred space and community center. 

George Tinker, an elder in the Four Winds community from the Osage Nation, professor emeritus at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, author of American Indian Liberation, and ordained Luth­eran pastor, led the Four Winds community in reviving and embracing Indian spirituality. For the next two decades, the Council used the building to serve the roughly 40,000 Indians in Denver.

But when the Rocky Mountain Synod began considering in the 2010s whether it should sell the building, Lutheran pastor Dena Williams contacted Tinker, which began a three-year series of meetings at Four Winds. Rocky Mountain Synod Bishop Jim Gonia and synod council members heard stories from the Four Winds community – accounts of historical horrors visited upon the native people by white settlers, soldiers, and government, as well as their cultural understanding of spirituality, the land, the people, and all earthly creatures.

Eventually, Four Winds American Indian Council applied for nonprofit status and early in 2015, the synod council unanimously voted to transfer the deed. The ceremony included sage, the peace pipe, the drums, songs, prayers, singing of a hymn, and exchange of gifts. “The overwhelming sense was one of reparations,” Williams said. “I spoke not of donating, but of returning sacred land to my Amer­ican Indian brothers and sisters, as it never belonged to us in the first place.’”

Bishop Gonia said that this recognized that the ministry taking place in Four Winds for 20 years “really represented the origins of that land to begin with.” Tinker said the land return is a role model to the rest of the euro-colonial world.There is not enough money to make financial reparations for the loss of one and a half billion acres of land. “The only thing that’s going to make right that terrible, terrible wrong is to return the land.”

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, California (2015)

Finally, for those who cannot physically return land but wish to make reparations, there are voluntary annual contributions that non-Indigenous people living on traditional Indigenous lands can make. One example is the Shuumi Land Tax, a voluntary annual contribution that non-Indigenous people living on traditional Lisjan Ohlone territory make to support the work of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

The  Land Trust was created in 2015, “inspired by a sacred place and a sacred struggle to protect that place from desecration”. In 1999, the city of Vallejo’s plans to develop a recreational public park  threatened Sogorea Te’, a 3,500 year old Karkin Ohlone village and burial site located at Glen Cove.

For 12 years, Indigenous organizers attended city council meetings, met with recreation district officials, held demonstrations and prayer walks, and submitted objections during the environmental review process, but the city pressed forward with its plans.

After learning that the City of Vallejo’s grading permits would finally become valid on April 14th, 2011, more than 100 people gathered at Sogorea Te’, and an elder lit a sacred fire which the community of protectors tended continuously for 109 days and nights.Thousands of people came, and many stayed for weeks or months. The camp received a ‘breathtaking’ amount of support from other California tribes and Indigenous people internationally.

It was a healing space. “We went to save the land at Sogorea Te’, but really, the land saved us,” said camp organizer Johnella LaRose. “We didn’t truly understand we needed the land so much until then.”

The encampment ended after a cultural easement and memorandum was signed between federally recognized Patwin/Wintu tribes, the City of Vallejo and the Greater Vallejo Park District, which promised to ensure the protection of the site. But because Ohlone people are not federally recognized, they were not a party to the easement, even though Sogorea Te’ is Karkin Ohlone territory.

The Shuumi land tax is not a donation. “It is a financial contribution that recognizes and respects the sovereignty of Native Nations and acknowledges the historic relationship the Ohlone have with their traditional territories. It is a voluntary annual contribution paid to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust by non-Native people who live on unceded Lisjan Ohlone land.”

It represents an alternative model for tribal governance and development for the many Indigenous people across the US who belong to tribes, like the Ohlone, that are not recognized by the US government. “Given the lack of a formal tribal government structure to facilitate community development, the Indigenous women leaders of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust have stepped up to create an alternative model.”

Other examples of land taxes include the Wiyot tribe’s Honor Tax in Humboldt County, California;  Real Rent Duwamish in Seattle, Washington; the Manna Hatta Fund in New York; and the Honor Native Land Tax in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Several others are in development across the continent, says Sogorea Te.