Indianz.Com > News > ‘This is about self-determination and sovereignty’: Tribes welcome return of ancestral lands
‘This is about self-determination and sovereignty’
Tribes welcome return of ancestral lands
Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Kimberly Morales Johnson can’t help but imagine the land that today is Los Angeles as her ancestors would have seen it centuries ago.

The Tongva people used the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains as trading routes with the indigenous people of the Mojave desert.

Last year, the Tongva reclaimed land in Los Angeles for the first time in almost 200 years after being forced to give up their lands and having their federal status terminated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1950.

Sharon Alexander, a non-Native woman, donated a one-acre property in Altadena, California, to the Tongva after learning about the #LandBack movement during the 2016 Democratic National Convention and discovering that the Tongva were the original inhabitants of Los Angeles.

Johnson, vice president of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy, a nonprofit set up by the community to receive the land, said the tribe has big plans for the property.

“It needs a lot of work, but we’re all dedicated to it,” she said.

Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy
Oak trees on the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy in California. Courtesy photo

In 2022, thousands of acres of private and public land in America were returned to the care of Native peoples. Many of these lands were returned to their original inhabitants, including the one-acre property in Los Angeles.

A website called the Decolonial Atlas created a “Land Back” map charting the locations of land returns that occurred last year.

Other land returns that occurred last year include 40 acres around the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe bought the land for $500,000.

“It’s a small step towards healing and really making sure that we as a tribe are protecting our critical areas and assets,” Oglala Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer told The Associated Press.

Although not a land return, the Biden administration last year signed an agreement giving five tribes – the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Pueblo of Zuni – greater oversight of the 1.3-million acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Last year, the Rappahannock Tribe celebrated the return of more than 400 acres along the Rappahannock River that is home to a historic tribal village named Pissacoack and a four-mile stretch of white-colored cliffs.

“Your ancestors cherished these lands for many generations and despite centuries of land disputes and shifting policies, your connections to these cliffs and to this river remain unbroken,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said at an event celebrating the land return.

One of the largest land returns last year involved the purchase of more than 28,000 acres by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota. The Conservation Fund, an environmental nonprofit, sold the land to the tribe after purchasing the land from a lumber manufacturer in 2020.

Emilee Nelson, Minnesota associate state director of The Conservation Fund, said her organization bought the land from the PotlatchDeltic Corporation after the company decided to divest of much of its Minnesota land holdings. The Conservation Fund bought 72,000 acres from the company, including 28,000 acres that were within the Bois Forte Reservation. The Boise Fort Band lost the land following passage of the Dawes Act of 1887, which led to the allotment of the land to private landowners.

“Where this land was located made a lot of sense for the tribe to own it,” Nelson said.

A “LandBack” flag is held during a celebration hosted by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Nett Lake, Minnesota, on June 7, 2022. Photo courtesy The Conservation Fund

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF), a national organization that helps tribes and Native individuals recover their ancestral homelands, financed the Bois Forte Band’s purchase of the 28,000 acres through its associated community development financial institution, the Indian Land Capital Company.

Cris Stainbrook, president of the ILTF, said his organization was able to help the Bois Forte Band get the 28,000 acres enrolled in a carbon sequestration program called the National Indian Carbon Coalition. The program will allow the tribe generate revenue from carbon credits that it can sell on environmental commodities markets. However, it will require the tribe to not develop the land for at least 40 years while it is being used for carbon sequestration.

The tribe will be able to repay its loan to the Indian Land Capital Company using the proceeds from its carbon sequestration program on the 28,000 acres, Stainbrook said.

“To get that land back without having to pay anything for it, that’s just the best,” he said.

He said the ILTF has helped tribes get more than 150,000 acres back within and outside their reservation boundaries during its 20-year existence. Most of that land was reclaimed by tribes through purchases, rather than donations, he said.

Last year, the organization facilitated land purchases for tribes in South Dakota, Montana, California and Oklahoma.

The Indian Land Capital Company is currently carrying about $40 million worth of loans to tribes. Unlike most financial institutions, the Indian Land Capital Company doesn’t take out a mortgage on the land that it helps tribes purchase, and it doesn’t require tribes to provide much collateral.

“People told us we’d go broke in no time,” Stainbrook said. “But the tribes want the land and they understand credit. So they don’t default.”

He said the ILTF has only facilitated a handful of land returns that involved donations of land, and even donations of land are rarely done purely for the betterment of a tribe. He cited the example of a county in Washington that decided to transfer a park to a tribe, but it did so because it no longer wanted to pay to maintain the park.

“Sometimes what looks like a donation has something else behind it,” he said

He said the ILTF often gets approached by farmers who want to sell their land to a tribe. The group is currently working with three farmers who want to donate their land to the Meskwaki people of Iowa.

Bois Forte Reservation
A map of the Bois Forte Reservation is seen during a land celebration hosed by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Nett Lake, Minnesota, on June 7, 2022. Photo courtesy The Conservation Fund

However, he said, tribes don’t always want to purchase land or even accept a land donation, especially if they don’t think they’ll be able to put it into federal trust status.

He offered advice to those considering donating their land to a tribe.

“If you want to make a donation, sell the land and make a donation,” he said.

As for the one-acre land donation to the Tongva, Kimberly Morales Johnson said the tribe plans to use the land to create a community center where it will be able to host cultural workshops and where Tongva people will be able to gather plants sacred to their people, including the acorns from the oak trees on the property.

“This is about self-determination and sovereignty,” she said.

The tribe is also allowing a tribal artist to live on the land and take care of it, she said. The Tongva have also begun working to return Native plants to the property and remove invasive species.

“This whole LandBack movement is rooted in healing, and instead of looking at land as a commodity, we’re looking at it as a way to have a relationship with the land and with each other and bringing back our traditions, our language, our food, our culture,” she said.