Indigenous community members join activists during a rally organized by youth climate awareness group Fridays for Future to declare a 'climate justice emergency' in New York city on Sept. 23, 2022. (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the first article in Prism’s LANDBACK series. Read part two and stay tuned for part three by clicking here.

About 70 million years ago, cooled igneous rock pushed through the earth’s surface and stretched 15,000 feet into the sky. Wind, rain, and snow bore down on the granite and carved the rock formations, now known as the Black Hills, into a 7,242-foot tall forested mountain range bordered by the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche rivers. Ponderosa pine trees and juniper shrubs blanket the rock, creating the mirage that’s the area’s namesake: from afar, deep green foliage looks like a black band encircling the mountains. 

The “Black Hills” is a relatively new translation for the ancient mountain range that forms the cultural and spiritual center of the Oceti Sakowin, the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota stewards of the land. Since time immemorial, the mountains were known as Paha Sapa in Lakota, meaning “black ridge.” Shaun Little Horn, a social media and marketing specialist for the Lakota People’s Law Project, analogizes the land to Mecca or Jerusalem; there was nothing before these places, there is nothing more sacred. However, most Americans outside of the area’s Native peoples recognize the Black Hills by four faces of white men carved by dynamite into the hard rock and know it by another name: Mount Rushmore. 

For this reason, there are few places more contentious. The Black Hills are the center of the LANDBACK organizing campaign run by the Rapid City, South Dakota-based NDN Collective, the largest philanthropic and power-building organization led by and for Native peoples in the U.S. The goals of the campaign are to return all Native land to its rightful stewards starting with the return of public lands like national parks.

The LANDBACK movement isn’t just a call to return what was stolen and used to build political power at the expense of the land’s original caretakers. Rather, it’s a blueprint of how to tackle the ecological disruption caused by the exploitative practices at the heart of capitalism and white settler colonialism that have led to drought, wildfire, flooding, and species extinction.

Climate catastrophes already disproportionately impact Native peoples, mirroring the history in which the theft of land and destruction of Native cultures were used to create American economies of ranching, cotton, gold, and tobacco. While non-Native people may see the return of land as unrelated to addressing the worsening consequences of climate change, the link between land-based racial capitalism and climate change is clear to Layel Camargo, a cultural strategist, land steward, filmmaker, and artist and a descendent of the Yaqui Tribe and Mayo tribes of the Sonoran Desert. 

“This is our biggest strategy for climate resiliency,” Camargo said. 

Land returns are happening more frequently across Turtle Island. In 2022, New York state returned 1,023 acres of Onondaga land, 465 acres of sacred land were returned to the Rappahannock Tribe with assistance from a federal grant, and the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe reacquired 12,000 acres of land in the Tolt River Watershed by way of a nonprofit environmental group. The state of California might launch a $100 million program for tribal nations to buy back their land for preservation purposes. In the greater Seattle and Bay Area regions settlers can pay rent or a land tax to the area’s tribes. In some cases, individuals are returning their own land. 

Krystal Two Bulls, the LANDBACK campaign director who is Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, said the campaign’s goals have never been more within reach. Two Bulls traveled to Washington, D.C., in July to meet with members of Congress and agency officials and was surprised to find “they’re all talking about LANDBACK currently.”

Hayden King, who is Beausoleil First Nation Anishinaabe and the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous research and education center based in Toronto, stresses the importance of LANDBACK as more than an issue of property and Indigenous sovereignty. In 2018, King co-authored “Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper,” which offered reflections and wisdom from three dozen Indigenous leaders, scholars, and land defenders on the meaning of LANDBACK. 

“LANDBACK [isn’t] just a discussion of the literal transfer of land back to Indigenous people, but it’s really the return of Indigenous life,” King said.

Camargo agrees that LANDBACK is about “supporting the cultural preservation of a group of people, as well as returning those cultural practices back to the land.” They say this creates a reciprocal relationship that allows Native cultures to prevail while fostering biodiversity in soil, plant, and animal life

“Mount Rushmore is the ultimate shrine to white supremacy”

The demand for the return of land is as old as the theft of land, but Two Bulls said that NDN Collective, founded in 2018, launched the LANDBACK campaign in 2020 because of what other movements were making possible in and out of state legislatures. In the months following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and supporters led a charge to tear down monuments to white supremacy—statues, street names, and edifices that honored people who kidnapped, raped, and murdered Black and Indigenous peoples

Two Bulls said that Nick Tilsen, the Oglala Lakota founder of NDN Collective, called and asked her to lead the organization’s LANDBACK effort, starting with protesting then-President Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to the Black Hills on July 3, 2020. While still in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite drought and dangerously dry conditions, South Dakota wanted to host a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore for its Independence Day celebration. 

“We made the decision to utilize Mount Rushmore as our colonial statue because Mount Rushmore is the ultimate shrine to white supremacy,” Two Bulls said. “It was our way of both uplifting the struggle of our Black relatives and uplifting our own struggles as Indigenous peoples, the original peoples of these lands.” 

For nearly six hours on the day of Trump’s visit, dozens of young Indigenous land defenders, tribal elders, NDN Collective organizers, and allies prevented trespassing on Oceti Sakowin land. Twenty-one people, including Tilsen, were arrested. 

“From there, we made the decision to utilize LANDBACK,” Two Bulls said. 

Now, she said that NDN Collective is working to mentor young Native leaders on different approaches to LANDBACK, teach how land theft struggles are connected across continents, and heal traumas. The other critical part of the LANDBACK movement is to build social, political, and cultural pressure to push public land agencies, like the National Park Service, to return public lands to the stewardship of Native peoples. Two Bulls said that the goal is to create the political conditions where the return of land is inevitable. 

The Black Hills aren’t for sale

It’s fitting that the Black Hills were the starting point for the LANDBACK movement. In the mid-1800s, spurred by colonization of westward land and motivated by gold sought in what would become California, settlers began a war over the area surrounding the Black Hills—and for the Black Hills themselves. The two treaties of Fort Laramie signed in 1851 and 1868 by tribal nations and federal representatives reserved the Black Hills solely for the Oceti Sakowin for their “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation.”

But in 1877, the federal government reneged on its legal commitment, seizing the Black Hills by force and violating Article 6 of the Constitution, which said that treaties signed with foreign governments are the supreme law of the land. A century later, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Black Hills belonged—in the settler-colonial understanding of the word—to the Oceti Sakowin, in a 1980 decision of United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. For stealing the land the federal government offered to pay a sum of $17.5 million and an additional $85 million of interest. The sum has increased with inflation, and some estimate it to now value $2 billion

However, Little Horn said they can’t accept the money for land that was never rightfully available for the U.S. government to take in the first place. Indigenous worldviews don’t treat land as property; the air, water, and soil that keep humans alive aren’t a means of building wealth, and Native nations are wary that accepting the money would legitimize the thinking that paying for stolen land is a reparative or just act. Lakota matriarch Madonna Thunder Hawk has long said that “The only reparation for land is land.” 

And crucially, land is determinative. Where one is raised can govern the accessibility of healthy food, educational attainment, exposure to pollution, and other life outcomes. Little Horn, who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said that the water from his faucet isn’t safe to drink, cook, or shower with, forcing him and his family to rely on bottled water. 

Life expectancy on the reservation is the lowest in the country, at 48 years for men and 52 years for women. Just over 38% of the residents live at or below the federal poverty level.

“It’s not like we don’t need money,” Little Horn said. “We just value the Black Hills far better than billions of dollars.” 

It’s the impoverishment of the land that’s created financial wealth for corporations. According to the Lakota People’s Law Project, illegal mining operations in the Black Hills are destroying water systems and polluting the soil—which are the habitats for traditional foods and medicines, not to mention foundational parts of the land’s ecosystems. 

It’s not clear whether any payment for the land would include a pollution remediation plan for the Black Hills, but even then, Lakota peoples should not have to tacitly condone a forced sale of stolen land to fund their municipal systems; they’re entitled to livable conditions based on the very treaties that the U.S. signed in the 19th century. In an email statement from Norma V. Cantú, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, she asserts that Native peoples are entitled to funding. 

“With great resilience, Native Americans have endured centuries of discrimination, injustice, and broken promises, and these harms continue to this day,” Cantú said in an email. “In exchange for and recognition of the forced dispossession and relinquishment of Native peoples’ land and natural resources, the U.S. government promised services and support to Native Americans.”

It remains that Black Hills never were, and still aren’t, for sale. 

“How can you sell something that’s priceless?” said Bunny Sings Wolf, who’s Lakota and lives near the Black Hills. “We belong to the land; the land does not belong to us. We are part of that wholeness, and until people come to that awakening, how can there be any justice or peace?”

LANDBACK, and who controls the narrative of land 

Land return is tied to stories told about the land. There’s the creation story of the U.S.—how a scrappy group of young soldiers founded a nation and fought for their freedom, and how Manifest Destiny allowed their descendants and ideological followers to push westward and snatch up land. It entices listeners to sympathize with and root for the Founding Fathers by ignoring exactly what actions they took, who benefited, and who was harmed in the making of the country. 

“The power of storytelling—it’s everything in some ways,” said Nadya Tannous, an organizer with the NDN Collective who first began organizing with the Palestinian Youth Movement. “Being able to know your truth means … that you’re able to become truly who you’re supposed to be rather than being victimized by the narratives that villainize us.”

American history weaves an erasure story of untouched and unoccupied land. Prior to 1492, when Christopher Columbus first made contact, an estimated 112 million Native peoples lived on Turtle Island, stewarding overlapping regions of land defined by mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, and stretches of desert according to distinct cultural traditions and practices. In the one hundred years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the federal government and U.S. military stole 1.5 billion acres of Native land, justified by treaties and executive orders. By 1880, the Native population was 306,543, according to that year’s federal census. In almost every other context of mass killing, this would be referred to as a genocide. 

“This entire country is founded on murders, massacres, [and] settler colonization,” Two Bulls said. “We, as Native peoples, were not intended to live this long. We were intended to be removed from the land so they can have access, and then either disappear via death or assimilate us into this so-called country.”

Two Bulls names the Dawes Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Removal Act, the Indian Relocation Act, long walks, death marches, and boarding schools as just some legal and militaristic tools the U.S used to make itself a nation on Native land. The legacies of such legislation are unrelenting, apparent in almost every marker of health and life outcome of Native peoples. 

The legacies of Native resistance to colonization aren’t as easily told in numbers. Tannous said that a country requires belief in some stories and denial of others, and how that selectiveness is strategic. Some stories reveal what we think is right or possible, while others reveal what repair looks like. She said that LANDBACK is the call to action once one learns the story of Native genocide by the U.S. government. 

“We’ve been told stories about our Black siblings our whole lives that aim to dehumanize and aim to separate them out of this place, but it’s also those stories that tried to separate them from each other,” Tannous said. “Part of storytelling is the power of taking our individual stories and weaving them into a collective fabric that we can use to find our way home.”

Tannous runs the LANDBACK Movement’s education arm, aptly dubbed LANDBACK U, as in university. Modules consist of “Cultural Fire: Bringing Good Fire Back to Our Communities as a Pathway to LANDBACK,” “Hawaiian Kingdom & Aloha ʻĀina: Contemporary Land Struggles,” and “Palestine & LANDBACK: The Right of Return and the Right to Remain.” These are the stories, lessons, and cultural touchstones that aren’t told in U.S. public education settings. 

While more media, television, and social media attention is beginning to connect the origins of both capitalism and climate change with land theft, fewer are connecting the solutions to the return of land. The use of cultural fire, one of the LANDBACK U modules, is a fitting example of this. For 150 years, the California state government maintained anti-wildfire policies, which turned forested areas—about a third of the state’s land—into a tinderbox precisely by not allowing the forest to routinely burn. Climate change-induced drought and industry-first water policies helped dry up the landscape, leading to intense and frequent wildfires we see today. 

California Native peoples were prevented from practicing cultural burning until recently when state agencies began to recognize the environmental benefits of helping to clear forests of their underbrush. 

King said the state appropriation of Native practices is something to be wary of, and might even be used as a diversion tactic away from returning land. Using Native cultural practices to address climate harms created by a colonial government doesn’t fundamentally change the government’s relationship to land or to Native tribes and nations. It happens all too often, King said, where a colonial government will offer a land acknowledgment or recognize climate harms, and then refuse to move into action. 

“It’s almost as if the acceptance of the harm—the acceptance of infringement on Indigenous rights, the acceptance of climate change, is used to say, ‘OK, we’ve accepted that now; we don’t necessarily have to do anything.’ It’s performative,” King said.

In the U.S., performance of American righteousness and later, of supposed repentance, are two threads in the same story, one that prioritizes approaching history without interest in turning those lessons learned into action. But that’s starting to change: not only is land return possible, it’s happening all over the country.  

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.