This Is the Old Way That’s Also the New Way:
#LandBack, Indigenous Pragmatism, and Climate Change
vol. 3, August/September 2021
As an Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) girl growing up on the Reservation, I learned early on about our relationship to the land, not so much by words spoken, but through actions and daily life. I was born into a family that still lived as our ancestors did— by hunting, gathering, and planting.
Spring was for sowing seeds. Summer was about growing and gathering. Fall was when we harvested, dried, and preserved our food. In the winter, we survived on what we had prepared in the prior year. I look back on my childhood with fond memories of working the soil in my mother’s garden; picking Native fruits, berries, prairie turnips, wild onions, and medicines in the wild; hunting and fishing with my father; and then skinning, butchering, drying, canning, pickling, and freezing what we’d collected. Our pantry was always full, and we gladly shared our bounty with friends, neighbors, and relatives. It was a point of pride for my dad, as generosity is a Dakota/Lakota value and only the best providers and leaders were able to give so much of themselves. This is the old way.
I knew that the land took care of us, and for that reason I understood that it did not belong to us. We belonged to the land. The land and water gave us life, and with a little effort, it freely produced everything we needed to get by.
We didn’t need to drive the land to do anything. We simply needed to observe it as our ancestors did, educate ourselves about surrounding ecosystems, and tend to it. They successfully thrived in our homelands for tens of thousands of years by living with nature instead of fighting against it and trying to force it to behave unnaturally, as the colonizer does. Priceless knowledge about where food and medicines grow and what their uses are were passed down generation after generation. We taught one another about migration patterns, cycles, seasons, and the movement of the stars.
As Indigenous, we became experts on the land our people evolved with and are thus best qualified regarding how to protect and conserve it.
The very foundation of the United States of America reveals the stark difference in how invading settlers viewed the land versus what Turtle Island’s original caretakers understood that relationship to be. Christopher Columbus and a host of other lost, patriarchal, germ-infested Europeans landed on our shores and proclaimed that they had “discovered” a continent occupied for millennia by thousands of unique Native nations with a number of firmly established civilizations and societies.
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Indigenous people saw filthy, starving immigrants wash ashore and plant their flags, and frankly, pitied them. Their proclamations of primary and exclusive land possession weren’t a threat, because the idea of owning the very dirt beneath one’s feet was wholly alien. Our Native ancestors had lived sustainability in the western hemisphere for time immemorial and knew that the land could provide; that if the strangers lived as they did, there would be enough for everyone for countless generations to come. While some view this Indigenous mindset as naïve, those who see the truth of the climate emergency we now find ourselves in recognize that they were pragmatists and realists who knew how to live in harmony with their environment — indefinitely.
While Indigenous people in precolonial times understood greed, it was considered a sign of weakness: a cancer that spreads and destroys not only the carrier, but all it comes in contact with. Avarice was not only discouraged but shunned and cast out. Today we bear witness to unabated capitalism, and the unmitigated greed of a select few now threatens to destroy all life on earth.
Contrary to what pop culture and white-washed textbooks would have you believe, Indigenous people still exist, and we still know how to protect and conserve the land. Studies in recent years are proving this point. Recent estimates have found that forestlands protected by Indigenous communities store one quarter of all above-ground tropical forest carbon, or nearly 55 trillion metric tons — that’s four times the total global carbon emissions in 2014. Given that data isn’t available for all Native lands, their actual impact is much greater. As wildfires worldwide rage at an unprecedented rate, scientists are suddenly realizing the vital role Indigenous fire management has played in saving forestlands. And while we are just 5% of the world’s population, we currently protect 80% of all global biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments we live in.
Ever since they were broken, a common refrain throughout Indian country has been Honor the Treaties. Treaties are contractually binding agreements between Nations, and according to the U.S. Constitution, treaties are the supreme law of the land. The federal government made hundreds of treaties with Native Nations and subsequently and unilaterally breached them all. They used treaties to trick Tribes into dropping their defenses so they could steal their land and resources.
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Honoring treaties — which are still good law — would involve land reclamation, or returning lands to the control, management, and safety of their rightful titleholders, the present-day Native Nations whose ancestors signed them.
An old friend of mine, Milo Yellow Hair, once reminded me that the U.S. government must honor the treaties and the people of the United States should demand that it does, not just because the documents were and remain legally binding but because there is a moral obligation they must fulfill. In order for the country to survive and become whole, they must keep their word. Only then will honor and dignity be achieved.
Now we find that all has come full circle, and the future of humanity hangs in the balance. If Indigenous people are not given their land back, climate change will ravage all we know until there is nothing left.
An Indigenous relationship to the land does not involve exclusive dominion and exploitative possession. We are not the colonizer. Returning the land to us does not mean settler subjugation. Nay, we are the caretakers of Mother Earth.
Ruth Hopkins is a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer and enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. She is also a biologist, tribal attorney, former judge, and co-founder of Lastrealindians.com. Ruth resides on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.