Land Back

As the world watches what transpires at COP26, the United Nations climate summit taking place this week in Glasgow, the U.N. has blasted governments and businesses for utterly failing to meet their climate obligations. There’s a sense that time is running out and radical change is the only hope–including a sweeping transformation of industrial agricultural practices to more sustainable and regenerative ones.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples from the U.S. and from across the globe are converging in Scotland to talk about the climate impacts on their communities and to advocate for their own solutions–ones they have successfully used to manage land for millennia. And on the brink of crisis, people may finally be willing to listen.

The new book, Required Reading: Climate Justice, Adaptation + Investing in Indigenous Power, can serve as a practical guide to this movement—during COP26 and after. It was curated and produced by the NDN Collective, a national organization based in South Dakota. It’s a handbook for grassroots advocates, Indigenous leaders, and mainstream politicians on how to support Indigenous communities and their allies in healing our planet and moving forward to a post-oil future.

The book features in-depth essays and analytical pieces on topics ranging from the growing LANDBACK movement to return Indigenous lands to the impacts of lithium extraction in the Andean Altiplano and the critique of mainstream environmentalists’ rigidity when addressing climate change.

Civil Eats recently spoke with Kailea Frederick, NDN Collective’s climate justice organizer and the book’s editor; Jade Begay, the group’s director of climate justice; and Demetrius Johnson, NDN’s LANDBACK campaign organizer, about the power of kelp farming, the problems with carbon markets, and why climate solutions don’t need to be “scalable.”

Frederick, Begay, and Johnson are currently in Scotland as part of NDN Collective’s COP26 delegation and have been handing the book out to U.S. governmental officials, policymakers, and world leaders there this week.

Before we get into the essays in Required Reading, can you talk about what the NDN Collective is and its role in the climate justice movement?

Jade Begay: We are an Indigenous-led collective that aims to build Indigenous power through advocacy and philanthropy. Our work in philanthropy isn’t just about doing granting and sharing resources, it’s about intentionally organizing within philanthropy. Indigenous communities receive just 0.4 percent of all philanthropic dollars in the U.S. [although they represent 2 percent of the population]. When we do the math and we acknowledge that Indigenous peoples protect and sustain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, it makes zero sense that we receive a smidgen of the resources, especially in investment into nonprofits and frontline environmental organizations. So our collective builds strategies to dismantle white supremacy within philanthropy so we can remove barriers and gatekeeping in that sector.

NDN Collective also has a subsidiary for-profit [NDN Partners], where we do community development and support tribes and Indigenous entrepreneurs who are building regenerative, renewable solutions to combat racial injustice and climate injustice. And we have an impact and investing arm, which does similar work to help finance projects that are really meant to move our communities into the realm of building regenerative economies and local systems to address deep-seated inequities. Our advocacy arm houses four campaigns: climate justice, LANDBACK, racial equity, and education equity.

Kailea Frederick: Our climate justice campaign has the same goal as the collective: We’re trying to build power throughout Indigenous communities to tackle the climate crisis. We run and support campaigns aimed at ending extraction, contamination, and violence because these three are closely interlinked and very prevalent on our land and our territories. We also do policy work, broader coalition building, and advocacy.

One of the main messaging points in our book is that Indigenous peoples hold climate solutions inherently through our cultures and through our land-based practices, which we have not lost touch with. That’s a direct bridge to our LANDBACK campaign work because returning land back to Indigenous peoples is a core part of climate mitigation work. We need land returned in large quantities at this moment so that Indigenous peoples can be in direct conversation with the land and engaged in their traditional practices, which inherently mitigate climate change.

More Americans are becoming aware that they’re living on land that was taken by white settlers who exterminated many of the original Indigenous inhabitants. Your LANDBACK campaign is a direct response to these injustices. Can you talk about that work and why it’s so important?

Demetrius Johnson: Our LANDBACK campaign focuses on making sure that before we help grow other people’s gardens, we can take care of our own. We need to understand that public land is stolen land. We’re talking about national parks, national forests, and other wild areas that are now areas of recreation but once were [Indigenous] lands, which we took care of. We’re now focused on reclaiming these public lands, which are under the control of the federal government. One of our most important works currently is reclaiming the Black Hills, which are located near Mni Lúzahaŋ Otȟúŋwahe, or Rapid City, South Dakota.

That’s where Indigenous activists protested stolen land and white supremacy
and were arrested last summer when Donald Trump visited Mount Rushmore National Memorial. What is the significance of the Black Hills?

Johnson: The Black Hills protest is where the seed of our LANDBACK campaign sprouted from. But the narrative of LANDBACK didn’t start there. Its history goes back to the time of our people resisting colonization, resisting invading governments. More recently, the term was popularized by a group of Indigenous youth who started making memes and it caught on. Everyone can make it their own and I think that’s why it’s a very powerful campaign and movement. It can be used domestically in the United States, but it can also be used internationally.

LANDBACK also directly connects with the issue of climate. For Indigenous peoples to survive, we need to have a connection to the land. When you steal land from us, you’re literally killing us, you’re committing acts of genocide. What happens to the land happens to us. And this violence has been happening since the arrival of settlers. We also need to understand that Indigenous peoples hold the keys to saving the world, and that’s not hyperbole. Within the last few decades, we’ve seen an increase in wildfires, droughts, and floods in places that were previously protected by Indigenous peoples. What we are seeing now is a direct result of taking land away from people who loved it and putting it into the hands of people who use it for profit.

Even today, when we try to protect our sacred sites, when we try to protect our land and water, the military and police come after us, arrest us, even kill us. So, as part of the LANDBACK movement, we have to take a stance on militarism, incarceration, and capitalism—because they are all related and all of them actively kill our people.

The book amplifies an array of Native solutions to the climate crisis and the fact that Indigenous people are in the unique position to develop them. Can you share some examples of solutions happening across the country?

Frederick: Jade is a board member of Native Conservancy, an Eyak-led organization based in Alaska that’s working to empower the Indigenous community through kelp farming and other projects. Kelp farming is a huge opportunity for emission drawdown across our oceans and Native Conservancy is doing incredible work in this area.

Begay: The executive director and founder of Native Conservancy, Dune Lankard, created the first Native-led and Native-owned land trust. Ever since, it has been responsible for protecting large swaths of land—and not just putting it under Indigenous peoples’ management, but actually taking it in a very brave new direction by moving those lands out of the corporate model. Unlike federally recognized tribes in the so-called U.S., where tribal councils run sovereign governments on reservations, Alaskan Natives are required to organize as corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

There’s a big effort now for Alaska Natives to pull out of these corporate systems. Dune not only pulled land from the authority of non-Native folks, but has made sure that it’s also not incorporated. It’s fully managed by a non-capitalist entity.

NDN Collective has recently joined as a partner in Native Conservancy’s work to scale up a regenerative local economy rooted in the traditional knowledge and wisdom of the Eyak people. It is focused on enhancing and revitalizing the relationship between the fish and the kelp. Their endeavor is to build an economic model of farming kelp that not only cleans the ocean and helps remove carbon dioxide but can also serve as a food, fuel, and infrastructure source. It’s a great example of taking land back and having a plan to go with it to revitalize community and culture. And although the Eyak community has lost all of its Indigenous speakers, by working with the land and doing cultural work there’s an effort to bring the language back.

“The term ‘scalable’ is rooted in capitalism. And what we’re needing right now is anti-capitalist solutions to the climate crisis.”

That’s a great example of a solution that not only tackles climate change but also strengthens the Indigenous community.

Begay: What sets NDN Collective apart from other organizations is that we’re able to invest in these types of models and in Indigenous leadership. Take the work we’re supporting with a buffalo sanctuary in South Dakota. [Sixty buffalo were released on the Wolakota Buffalo Range and Wildlife Sanctuary, 28,000 acres of grasslands where the Rosebud Sioux Tribe plans to raise up to 1,500 bison to revitalize the land and the tribe’s cultural connections to the buffalo.] That’s holistic systems change work. We need all communities to see these models and ask how can they adapt them. We want to encourage our communities to think about these type of approaches that can really shift the systems have been exploiting us and making us sick.

The essays in the book discuss the importance of localized projects. How do you reach a balance between doing local work and sharing solutions among tribes and outside Indigenous communities so that the projects and their impacts are scalable and have more impact?

Begay: This word “scalable” is one I hear all the time in the climate space, and I really have to turn this word on its own head and reframe it. Because we don’t need scale. The term “scalable” is rooted in capitalism. And what we’re needing right now is anti-capitalist solutions to the climate crisis. When we show up in spaces like COP26, “scalable solutions” is what the majority of industry, tech, and governments are trying to do. It’s a buzzword. What we do is look at solutions in terms of an Indigenous community, nation, or tribe. Each of these communities has its own traditional ecological knowledge to inform its own solutions. We’re not interested in blanket solutions that are meant to keep production or consumption going at the rate that it has been going at.

Things will be changing so rapidly that we need to have regions and local communities adapt in the ways that make sense to those ecosystems, and it’s not going to look the same for everyone. So we’re welcoming, encouraging and leaning into these local, regenerative solutions that really honor the biodiversity of our people and our communities.

“We need to stop emitting at the scale we’re emitting at and we need to do drawdown.”

Frederick: The reality is we are heading into a post-oil future, one that must move at a much slower pace and will involve smaller lives. But it will also involve the possibility of more enriching lives. One thing that our campaign asks is: What if the best times are ahead of us, while simultaneously asking what does the post-oil world look like? We’re looking to bring forward ideas and models of a different way of engaging in day-to-day life and very different ideas of what success looks and feels like. We just can’t get around the fact that we need to move away from fossil fuels.

The opportunity comes through inviting as many people as possible across as many diverse communities, regions, and geographies as possible to be sitting with a question of what does a local, regenerative economy look like in their own communities.

Can you speak to the barriers for Indigenous communities across the country in implementing their own climate solutions?

Begay: It’s systemic racism in all aspects of [preventing us from] being self-determining. When it comes to a just transition away from fossil fuels, one of the biggest barriers is resources. A just transition towards renewable energy will, I hope, ensure that regenerative and sustainable economies are a part of our lifeways and of how we move in the future. The reality is that a lot of our communities and tribal economies are dependent on fossil fuels right now, which is unsustainable. This drives up climate change, but it also makes us vulnerable. If there’s a pipeline leak or the closure of a mine or a refinery—whatever that tribe or community is dependent on— it devastates that community. So it’s also about recognizing that removing ourselves as dependent on or reducing the dependency on fossil fuels also protects us from future catastrophes.

One of the essays in the book heavily criticizes so-called “nature-based solutions.” These include carbon markets that rely on crops or trees to sequester carbon. Can you talk about why regenerative agriculture, reforestation, and carbon markets can be misguided, and what the alternatives are?

Frederick: There are quite a few issues when it comes to carbon trading. One of the biggest ones is that it allows governments and companies to continue polluting and emitting. Actual solutions are pretty simple. We need to stop emitting at the scale we’re emitting at and we need to do drawdown. Another problem is that carbon trading can lead to continued colonization and land dispossession of Indigenous peoples, including land grabbing that’s happening as different companies are trying to buy up their credits. Then there are issues around companies or governments double-counting their emission reductions so it looks like they’re reducing more emissions than they actually are.

Begay: We should be concerned when companies like Nestlé are promoting “nature-based solutions.” It should be a big red flag that the companies and industries that have blood on their hands, that have been human rights violators for decades, are now promoting these types of solutions. “Nature-based solutions” are greenwashing. It’s just a tool to continue business as usual. And as these companies take land—yes, this is a Land Back issue—to do so-called reforestation or tree planting, they are displacing Indigenous peoples, especially in the Global South. It’s complex, and we also acknowledge that some Indigenous communities have promoted “nature-based solutions.” But we also know some of these communities are put between a rock and a hard place; it’s about their livelihoods and putting food on the table—or not. And so they’re forced into these decisions, compelled to join false solutions or to work with the oil industry. We want to build the conditions in which those are not the only options for Indigenous communities across the world.

“We don’t live in an era of scarcity; that’s a myth.”

Johnson: When we’re talking about regenerative economies, we’re ultimately talking about caretaking economies: how to take care of the land and take care of each other. And that’s something that we don’t have here in the U.S. Indigenous peoples understand that you don’t just take care of your nuclear family, but that we have responsibilities to the land and to our community. I’m not totally opposed to farmers getting compensated for drawing down carbon. But there needs to be a broader approach to regeneration: a systemic change for people to have their needs met, to have healthcare, electricity, enough food to eat, and the ability to access transportation. We don’t live in an era of scarcity; that’s a myth.

One of the essays in the book mentions that the climate justice movement will require serious commitments from white allies. How can non-Indigenous allies support Indigenous climate solutions, including NDN’s campaigns?

Johnson: We are establishing toolkits and resources to direct people on how to give land back, specifically spelling out what that process looks like. I’m also personally excited for a collaboration with Nuns & Nones. It’s a group of nuns nationwide that’s working on issues of social and climate justice. And these nuns are shifting resources and land from the church back into Indigenous communities. Finally, we’re writing to legislators and making presentations to our local tribal governments. Getting land back is going to take a lot of different avenues, a lot of different specialties and people to make it happen.

Frederick: Our climate justice campaign this year published a memo that we sent out to various offices within the White House and to Congress, titled “Mobilizing climate and environmental justice investments to Indigenous frontline communities.” And that’s one aspect we really need. We need support in terms of building out the infrastructure to move funding equitably and through a lens of justice.

This question also made me think of a meme I’ve seen circulating, a quote that resonates with me as someone who is half Black. It’s something like: “Slavery needs to be taught not as Black history but as white history.” This is a critical reframe. This work of advocating for Indigenous rights within the Indigenous led climate justice movement is often seen as only an Indigenous issue. When in fact, what we’re trying to do is create a planet that’s going to be just and habitable for everyone. That’s why it’s so important that colonization be taught globally not as the history of Indigenous peoples, but also as the history of those who come from the lineages of the colonizers.

I have quite a few friends who are direct descendants of original colonizers of North America. These are people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, started a colony, or got down on one knee with the flag and said, “This land is now mine.” And they have been some of the most important relationships I’ve built and tended to over the last six or seven years of my life. Mostly because the friends that come from these lineages are willing to actually be honest about who they come from and what resources they have inherited and are currently holding. Some of the work they’re doing is just so critical. They’re the first in their lineage who understand the responsibility they hold to redistribute resources that were made off the backs of my mother’s people and off the land of my father’s people. They understand it doesn’t belong to them anymore and that a big part of showing up honestly in this world right now is starting to redistribute those resources.

Oftentimes, people reach out to me and say, “I’m the granddaughter of so and so, and I have so much guilt about all of this stuff.” And the one message I have is that it’s time to let go of the land, let go of the money. Brace yourself for what it means to participate in your family’s businesses and board spaces so that you can be an advocate and an active voice in moving funding. This is how you can show active solidarity, not just solidarity through reposting and reading a book.

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. She worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia@civileats.com and follow her on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in Civil Eats and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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