Questions about the LandBack movement, answered

Number one: Why are Indians spray-painting my Starbucks?

How can two little words have such combustible power, setting passions ablaze, threatening to undermine 500 years of written law, multigenerational ranching operations and modern-day sprawling subdivisions, not to mention contemporary conservation’s entire foundational concept of wilderness, in one fell swoop? These two little words, “Land” and “Back,” say so much with so little. That slogan spray-painted on bridges and Starbucks windows is more than just a Twitter trend. It has a storied history. Indigenous activists have painstakingly built its momentum over generations — and non-Natives are starting to take notice. Let’s talk about the LandBack movement and what it really means.


What is the LandBack movement really asking for?
The land. Back.

How did this movement get started?
Well, it all began in 1492 … 

But the 500 years-and-counting struggle has gained momentum in the last century, and particularly in the last 50 years or so. The federal government’s decision to return Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, which took place in stages between the Nixon and Clinton administrations, long after Teddy Roosevelt’s administration stole it to enhance a national forest in 1906, is considered one of the first modern LandBack victories. It took generations — 90 years altogether — of dedication and complex legal struggles to achieve.

While Taos Pueblo organized the return of Blue Lake, Indigenous organizers mounted the Alcatraz occupation in 1969, in a direct demand for the return of an island regarded as merely surplus federal land. Meanwhile, the rising American Indian Movement more broadly called for federal recognition of Native sovereignty.

LandBack returned in force in the digital age, when the Twitter hashtag cropped up in the early 2010s, referring to land theft and colonization in South Africa. In mid-2019, the hashtag gained traction in North America during the Tiny House Warriors’ blockade of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in unceded Secwepemc territory. Soon after, the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led policy research center at Toronto Metropolitan University, released a report called Land Back that examined settler-colonialism at work in present-day Canada. In August 2020, the advocacy group NDN Collective launched with a brief LandBack Manifesto, followed by a campaign launch on Indigenous Peoples Day. These developments brought the movement into the public eye.

The federal government has slowly and selectively begun to engage with the idea since the appointment of Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) as secretary of the Interior, and of Chuck Sams (Umatilla) as director of the National Park Service, the first Native people to hold either office. The United States is currently piloting tribal co-management of certain federal lands, a step in the direction of LandBack.

“Monsoon Season: Clouds Building on Rez Roads.” Aerosol, acrylic, oil stick and marker on canvas.


What about all the people who would say “I’m not giving up my hard-earned private property”?
Gee willikers, it really would be awful to have to give up land, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it???

While some private landholders may resist, others, including mainline conservation groups and even art galleries, have already taken it upon themselves to donate property to tribes or Native organizations. These acts are a positive and inspiring step, even if still largely symbolic.

Selling or donating a piece of land to a tribal nation or Native organization does not exempt the new owners from tax obligations on that land to the United States. So it’s not a true rematriation; it is a real estate transaction under U.S. law. Treaties, as the supreme law of the land, outrank U.S. law and demand something more.

The LandBack movement is less about a mass real estate transaction than it is about sovereignty, recognition of treaties, and, ultimately, the abolition of the United States’ concept of real estate altogether. From many traditional Indigenous points of view, land ownership is an illusion, no more possible than ownership of a rainbow. Land “ownership” is simply a legal concept — one that keeps wealth and power in white families.

Think of it this way: As a landowner, what you really own is a title. That’s just a piece of paper. But the courts will recognize that paper in case of any dispute. What’s more, they’ll enforce it through police violence. So-called “landowners” may have access to violent state force, but they still don’t really own the land. Don’t take it too hard, though. Nobody owns rainbows, either!

Many Indigenous civilizations recognized private property in the form of houses and personal belongings, while land itself remained communal. This economic structure was stable and egalitarian, free of many of the ills European-American thought has foisted upon this land, such as homelessness and neo-feudalism. True LandBack would reflect this.

From many traditional Indigenous points of view, land ownership is an illusion, no more possible than ownership of a rainbow.

Wouldn’t that mean white people have to go back to Europe?
No! LandBack is not a call for revenge. The white Westerner’s fear that the “other” will rob, dispossess, subjugate and otherwise violate them is a core fear of the colonial mindset, one that is often expressed through dystopian science fiction. It’s a projection based on the foreign doctrine that all humans are evil. Christian Europeans brought with them the idea of “original sin,” based on Adam and Eve’s shenanigans in the biblical creation story. If all humans are sinners by definition, the thinking goes, then everybody is just as evil as Western colonizers, so we’d better protect our (stolen) private property before somebody else inevitably tries to steal it.

Because this fear is so foundational to Western thought, Westerners often struggle to leave room for possibilities like the peaceful communal ownership of land. But the practice of communal land-holding has precedent, and supported stable civilizations for hundreds of generations in this hemisphere before being dismantled by Europeans. Perhaps, says LandBack, it could do so again.

And to those who doubt that this could ever happen, well, it already is: In American Samoa, where a hybrid legal system of traditional and Western law ensures that 96% of land is held in common, Samoans have retained their sovereignty, ethnicity and cultural traditions remarkably well. The continental United States could look to American Samoa as a model, although that model is not without problems of its own. (Hello, blood-quantum requirements!)

In short, white people would not be deported after LandBack, because Indigenous people are not colonizers. Honestly, though, is Europe really that bad? I mean, France is there! White people love France, right?

How can LandBack matter so much when we have things like climate change to worry about?
There’s an increasing public realization that humanity must look to Indigenous leadership if we’re going to survive the climate disaster. Westerners are beginning to realize that Indigenous ways of living are not primitive forms of resource extraction, as was once thought, but rather methodical and scientific practices, refined over thousands of years and designed to manage balanced and biodiverse ecosystems, something Western so-called-civilization has failed at.

So, LandBack is in the best interest of all living things, human, plant and animal alike. Rolling back the destruction inflicted by settler-colonialism, imperialism and extractive global capitalism requires returning the land.

Hot diggity, because I love biodiversity, egalitarianism, justice and the existence of life on Earth, I am on board with Indigenous sovereignty and land rematriation! How do I support the LandBack movement?
Tell your friends, show up at marches, donate wisely, and keep using the hashtag. You might also consider giving your land. Back.     

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.