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Indigenous, Black Communities’ Joint Efforts To Reclaim Stolen Land

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Picture: Joseph EID AFP – A Massai tribesman stands on the slopes leading up to the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, northern Tanzania

By PennElys Droz

Land creates people, and, as ancestral herbalist Ayo Ngozi says, “Land is a true source of power.” This understanding of land as living spiritual power itself is a shared experience across Indigenous nations. There is an emotional and mental power that comes with knowing there is a home to return to. In contemporary capitalist societies, the economic power of owning land is critical, allowing the building of equity to access resources to fund education, businesses, more land ownership, and more self-determination for one’s descendants.

Today, Black and Indigenous communities are navigating these relationships to land while mapping and acting to build community economics that are decoupled from exploitative systems of production and trade.

The Indigenous-Led Land Back Movement

Achieving justice includes restoring power through the reclamation of land and through reparations. For Indigenous people, the Land Back movement embodies the push toward justice and healing. The movement works to reclaim more territories once occupied by their ancestors, to extend Indigenous care and governance to homelands that cannot be reclaimed, to push toward the dismantling of exploitative economic systems and policies that limit Indigenous peoples’ power, and to build economies and systems that are expressive of Indigenous values.

Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA) – Women advocate for access to land.

A central tactic of the Land Back movement is to utilize land trusts to remove land from speculative markets and place it into collective care. Examples include the Native Conservancy, the Wiyot Tribe’s Dishgamu Humboldt Community Land Trust, the Native Land Conservancy, and many others.

Nations and organizations are also partnering with one another to purchase land that was lost and stolen, including the exemplary model of the Yurok Tribe. The Yurok Tribe has restored 2,424 acres of privately owned culturally and ecologically significant timberlands in Northern California, resulting from its partnership with investment firm New Forests. New Forests worked with the Trust for Public Land, which supported the Tribe in accessing funds from the California Natural Resources Agency.

This wasn’t the first time the Tribe pursued a partnered land purchase. In 2006, it partnered with Western Rivers Conservancy to buy back 50,000 acres of ancestral lands from Green Diamond, a logging company, including the watershed of Blue Creek, a critical salmon refuge. In 2019 the Tribe began caring for these lands as a salmon sanctuary and community forest.

According to Frankie Myers, Yurok Tribal vice chairman, “As Yurok people who have been literally locked out of these lands—some for up to a hundred years—just the ability for our members to go out and to access these lands and to harvest and gather, interact with the forest; the shift in land management itself, to allow Indigenous people back onto their landscapes … I think that’s absolutely key.”

Picture: REUTERS/Lunae Parracho – A spiritual leader (R) of the Huni Kui Indian tribe blows an herbal powder into the nose of a tribal member during a ceremony outside the village of Novo Segredo along the Envira river of Brazil’s northwestern Acre state, March 9, 2014
Picture: REUTERS/Lunae Parracho – Ashaninka Indians pose for a photograph in the village of Kokasul along the Envira river in Brazil’s northwestern Acre state, March 16, 2014. Many indigenous groups, including the Huni Kui, Ashaninka, and Madija, live in villages in the Brazilian rainforest near the border with Peru. Over the past three years, the Ashaninka and Madija say that they have seen more and more incursions on their territory from uncontacted tribes, defined by Survival International as groups who have no peaceful contact with mainstream society.

Indigenous peoples are also working to extend their care and governance to traditional territories that are out of their legally recognized land tenure—a vital part of the Land Back movement. The Cultural Fire Management Council and the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network are notable leaders, working extensively with the state of California and the Forest Service to establish integrated management plan agreements. The Karuk Tribe is another exemplary leader in re-establishing Indigenous care of lands, developing a groundbreaking “Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan” and holding leadership within the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership.

Other Indigenous organizations and nations are utilizing contemporary legal entities to resist dispossession by collectivizing new regenerative businesses to ensure care of the land and people. One example is Akiing, a nonprofit organization based in the Great Lakes region. Akiing is transitioning its business operations to become a collaboration of cooperatives working in agriculture, renewable energy, and hemp production. It has also incorporated the Akiing Land Trust to protect lands for the future of the Anishinaabe people.

Black-Led Movements to Reclaim Stolen Land

Black folks across the country are also continually working to gain access to land, albeit using different approaches to Indigenous communities. Their efforts include attaining farmland, fighting redlining and racist financing systems to achieve land and homeownership, and building political movements to push for the restoration of lands taken from Black families through historical violence and eminent domain. In September 2021, in response to a powerful organizing effort led by the Bruce family and Kavon Ward, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill restoring beachfront land in Southern California, known as Bruce’s Beach, to a Black family driven out by white supremacist violence from their lands almost a century ago.

After this win, Ward, with her colleague Ashanti Martin, went on to found a groundbreaking national organization, Where Is My Land, working to reclaim Black folks’ land and help them obtain financial restitution for violations of their civil and human rights, lost wealth, and business.

Organizations have been working to turn the tides of Black dispossession using a diversity of strategies. The Black Family Land Trust supports the retention of land within Black communities through planning, education, and networking. Meanwhile, the Black Farmer Fund offers investment into capitalizing Black-owned farms and food systems businesses. At a local level, in Michigan, the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund works to rebuild intergenerational Black land ownership in the Detroit area through funding, networking, and capacity building.

In a manner that echoes the Indigenous-led Land Back movement, Black community members and organizations have also been utilizing cooperative structures to advance land justice. The Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund is a community-controlled land and financial cooperative supporting the development of Black family land commons through providing non-extractive financial resources, legal support, and advocacy, rooted in spiritual and community tradition.

Another example is the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which creates community cooperative solutions to the catastrophic levels of displacement in the Bay Area of California by taking land out of the market and placing it into community land trusts, thereby ensuring the affordability of housing, cultural continuity, and common-good values in the East Bay.

There are also efforts to skill up and resource Black communities to access land and resources. Nexus Community Partners of the Twin Cities is a community organization whose strategic vision centers on a restorative, regenerative, and just economy that includes land access; strong, culturally grounded leadership; and a move away from individualistic capitalist processes. To support this, Nexus offers a North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship, as well as training and consulting.

What sets Nexus apart from many other Black-led land-reclamation projects is its solidarity with Indigenous efforts. Nexus is in shared cohort community with NDN Collective, an organization designed to build power, advance Land Back, and decolonize wealth through moving land and wealth back into Indigenous communities. (Disclosure: I am a program officer with NDN Collective.)

Both organizations are creating funds specifically designed to invest in building the economic power of individuals and seed intergenerational prosperity while redefining the concept of wealth to reflect the cultural and community values of those they serve. This work is supported by the Bush Foundation and, as such, is in service of communities in the tri-state region of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Nexus has designed a community-guided Black Community Trust Fund, while NDN Collective has developed the Collective Abundance Fund, to open in 2023.

Nexus and NDN Collective shared a joint statement about their allyship in this work:

“We know Indigenous sovereignty and Black liberation are tied to one another. While our people have unique histories and current needs … neither of us will be free without the other … When we talk about alternatives to the current systems, we are talking about building community wealth and regenerative systems that aren’t extractive of people or the planet … Black and Indigenous solidarity means building something new, together with our people.”

Building Collective Futures, Together

Coming together to build power is not easy. Historically, Indigenous and Black folks have been turned against one another by oppressors and colonizers. The U.S. government compensated Indigenous nations for capturing escaped enslaved people. The “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—nations who determined that their best chance of survival was to imitate their colonizers—were known for their practice of using slavery both before and after their removal from their lands during the Trail of Tears.

Buffalo Soldiers—Black men who enlisted in the military in the late 1800s when white enlistment was low in an attempt to achieve equal rights as citizens—ended up being utilized to put down Indigenous resistance to colonization and oppression in the West.

Black and Indigenous peoples both have historically adopted beliefs and constructions of white supremacy as a survival technique, resulting in the presence of anti-Blackness within Indigenous communities, and colonial narratives of Indigenous primitivity and land subjugation within Black communities.

Yet Black and Indigenous people have also supported one another over time, through offering refuge from violence, sharing knowledge, and becoming family. Ngozi shares her powerful lineage of herbalism on Turtle Island, reaching back to ancestors in Virginia and South Carolina who learned their herbal knowledge in part from Indigenous people, saying, “Our people share common threads of experience—from land reverence and kinship, to violence, displacement, and genocide—so it makes sense that we would work in solidarity to free ourselves.”

Building Power Through Solidarity

Soul Fire Farm, a Black-owned farm in upstate New York, is an impactful story-creating, community-building advocacy and training center, creating a space of land connection and training for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in culture-based agroecology. The farm is committed to both Black land reconnection and Indigenous homeland governance, doing the work of learning and growing toward liberated futures together. Hundreds of BIPOC farmers have been educated in Soul Fire Farm’s farming and construction immersion schools, benefiting from its community-supported agriculture food shares and culture-building initiatives. A newer initiative, called the Braiding Seeds Fellowship, provides funding and mentorship to continue the Black–Indigenous agrarian tradition.

Leah Penniman, co-executive director at Soul Fire Farm, recognizes that Land Back is “squarely an Indigenous movement,” while also honoring that Black folks have rights to secure land tenure as well, and to create a place to build connection and hold ceremony for the sources of life and ancestors. The lack of stable family land in Black communities is illustrated by the fact that Soul Fire Farm has received many requests from Black families to spread the ashes of their ancestors on the land, a place they know they will be able to return to honor their ancestors.

Soul Fire Farm organizers have worked with the Mohican Nation, whose land they live on in upstate New York, to establish cultural respect easements, enabling Mohicans to access their homeland occupied by Soul Fire Farm. They have learned, built devoted relationships, and stood alongside the Mohican in their organizing, protesting, and direct-action defense of their sacred Papscanee Island from pipeline development. The organization sees this kind of relational reciprocity as building power.

Stephanie Morningstar of the Northeast Farmers of Color (NEFOC) Land Trust underscores the criticality of built relations, sharing, “Relationships are central to all aspects of land, kin, and community care. The core of our work … considers how we can be in reciprocal relationship with the land and each other in a restorative way that recognizes we not only desire to have a relationship with land, but we also have a responsibility to it, and that colonial relationships to land are the reason we’re currently experiencing systemic inequity in every sphere of our human and non-human experiences.”

NEFOC has outlined a practical path forward to build relations between various BIPOC communities, establishing an Indigenous Community Consultation Policy when acquiring lands for the trust. This policy includes “stages of consultation ranging from initial relationship building to formalizing protocols and partnerships (if desired) that resituate Indigenous land practices, rematriate land, [offer] exclusive ownership, shared ownership, holding rematriated land in trust as an act of solidarity, cultural or conservation easements and agreements, rights of first refusal, decision-making authority in land use decisions, and pathways to storymaking and knowledge transfer through oral history and languages on land through truth-telling projects, and consultation about project plans.”

Their work also includes a grouping of four programs that, together, resource farmers with education, advocacy, and networking, and a policy initiative with a special lens on climate justice. The organization hosts a Reparations Map, sharing farm and land tenure projects across the nation in order to connect people looking to dismantle white supremacy through reparations. NEFOC is also creating fertile soil for the building of a co-powered future through convening what it calls “Braided B.L.I.S.S.” (Black Liberation and Indigenous Sovereignty in Solidarity), a space to dig into the real conversations, truth telling, and healing necessary to build collective power.

Dismantling Racial Capitalism and White Supremacy—Together

Healing journeys such as the one modeled by B.L.I.S.S. are not simple or easy given the fraught histories of Black and Indigenous communities. Amber Starks, an Afro-Indigenous organizer, activist, and thought leader, says, “I fundamentally believe our arrival at Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty will certainly require us to remember who we are outside of our oppressors’ institutions, ideologies, and imaginations … to remember that both of our peoples have always been the authors of our liberation and the architects of our deliverance.”

Organizers within the Indigenous-led Land Back and the Black-led movements for reclamation and reparations see themselves in common cause, striking at the heart of the colonial-capitalist belief system and economic infrastructure. According to organizers deeply involved in the movements, their work is aimed at ending wealth extraction from the homelands of others and amassed capital at the expense of the people, ending white supremacy. It is also focused on the powerful work of all peoples, across cultures, to commit to this transformation through restorative investment in Indigenous and Black communities, and to engage in the active dismantling of systems of power that benefit the white and the wealthy.

As Nkuli Shongwe of Nexus Community Partners describes, such work “demands investment beyond organizations. It requires investment in cultural work and community leaders; in giving us the time and space needed to fail and try again, to engage in the conflict and tension. … [We need] the spaciousness to collectively imagine, practice, and reimagine what liberation looks like in the context of our world today.”

Fundamentally, Black and Indigenous land, power, and liberation struggles, forged in the violent imposition of individualist capitalism, racial and economic hierarchy, and private property law, are a threat to the continuance of those systems. Black and Indigenous communities increasingly see that creating healing relationships with one another is at the heart of building true transformative power to achieve land justice, with seeds of healing being planted every day. This generational work appears to be well underway.

PennElys Droz is a program officer for the NDN Collective, and an active founding board member of Sustainable Nations. She has worked for over 20 years in service of the redevelopment of thriving, ecologically, culturally, and economically sustainable, and resilient Indigenous Nations.

This article was published in Common Dreams and was initially written for YES! magazine.