Many years ago, my wise friend Marie-Helene Laraque-Paulette was talking about traditional indigenous knowledge and how incorporating it into policy could help repair our society’s relationship with the natural world – but few others were. So when I saw this story from the Yale 360 Environment review – How Returning Lands to Native Tribes Is Helping Protect Nature, I immediately thought how pleased she would have been to see that link so clearly stated.
It is a story that brings together so many other current themes – rewilding the land by restoring apex predators like bison, recognizing the natural connections among species (think ‘mother trees’), understanding traditional indigenous land management techniques including cool burning, using regenerative agriculture techniques, thinking seven generations ahead when making decisions – that we are increasingly recognizing as crucial in conserving the natural world around us. It also is a key part of reconciliation.
“The use of Indigenous management styles that evolved over many centuries of cultures immersed in nature — formally called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) — is increasingly seen by conservationists as synergistic with the global campaign to protect biodiversity and to manage nature in a way that hedges against climate change,” the article explains. It is profoundly hopeful that so many conservation organizations have made common cause with indigenous people worldwide – not just because they are indigenous people, but because they understand how to manage and care for the land sustainably. Returning land ownership, or management, to them makes that possible.
The story gives some wonderful examples.
I did not know the Australian story of the vast Nimmie-Caira wetlands in New South Wales. The federal and state governments bought 19 farms and associated water rights for $180 million, with the goal of restoring wetlands that had been damaged by agricultural water diversion. The right to manage the wetlands was granted to a consortium that includes the Nature Conservancy and the tribal council of the Nari Nari, who have lived in the region for 50,000 years. They removed the irrigation infrastructure, found and protected ancestral burial grounds and cultural sites, and hunted out invasive species such as feral pigs. In 2019, the Nature Conservancy transferred ownership to the Nari Nari, who have renamed it ‘Gayini’, meaning ‘water’ in their language.
One of the things that indigenous people seem to have always known – and we are just relearning – is that the land has a great power to heal itself if we respect its principles, and that this has potential for building a new and sustainable economy. The indigenous technique of ‘cool burning’, for example, has helped to create a strong indigenously-led economy in northern Australia.
It is a lesson that is increasingly being applied in North America, too, as the article notes. The traditional technique of cool burning reduces the “intensity of conflagrations” and thus has implications for managing fires in the western US where ‘homes and forests are intermingled’.
I have been following the #Landback movement and looking for stories where ownership is returned to tribes or where co-management of lands is instituted and how this affects the land. These stories are not nearly as well known as they should be, but they are extremely heartening to read, from many viewpoints.
Take, for example, the return of Duluwat Island to the Wiyot people by the city of Eureka on California’s north coast, in the fall of 2019. While this was the first known voluntary municipal land return done without sale, lawsuit, or trade in the US, it was just the final step in a long process which also involved the tribe having to fundraise to buy part of the island from the city and then having to clean up the toxic legacies left by a lumber mill and boat repair facility that had operated there for decades.
The land return was also clearly a form of civic repentance for a horrifying massacre that occurred during the tribe’s most sacred ceremony. “According to tribal history, Duluwat’s 250-odd acres form the center of the Wiyot Universe, and…. is the land from which the tribe was born. For generations, it’s also where the tribe held its sacred “world renewal” ceremony every February, a seven-to-ten-day celebration during which the tribe “rebalanced the world” and rang in their new year.” On Feb. 26, 1860, a group of Humboldt men came to the island during the ceremony and murdered as many as 250 people, mostly women, children and elders, in the darkness of night, in what was the start of a systematic attempt to erase the Wiyot culture. By 1990, their population had been reduced from almost 3,000 people living in 20 villages across 40 square miles in Humboldt County, to only about 650 tribal citizens – many of them descendants of those who were displaced from Duluwat Island.
Days before the 1860 massacre, a while settler bought the land from a man who’d claimed it through the federal government, and he turned the island into a cattle ranch. In 1870, a shipyard was built on the part of the island where the renewal ceremony was held; by the 1990s, the yard was abandoned, with boat parts, rusting oil and paint barrels littering the ground, and a sea wall of batteries oozing toxic sludge into the bay.
The Wiyot began asking for the land back in 1970, but were rebuffed. Starting in 1992, the tribe and a group of non-native Eureka residents began holding yearly vigils to mark the massacre, and this helped build understanding of the “deep community wound” that had been inflicted in 1860. While many people in Eureka ignored that history, the vigils gave others a chance to learn and a desire to want to do something about the past.
After 1.5 acres of the island was put up for sale in the 1990s, the Wiyot raised more than $100,000 to buy it but missed the deadline by a few days. The price was raised to $106,000. Again they fundraised, and this time, they bought the land. In 2004, the city gave the tribe another 45 acres.
“Nearly every weekend for years, members of the tribe and other volunteers in the community worked to remove the piles of debris that had accumulated on the grounds. The battery seawall was slowly replaced with a less-toxic one made of oyster shells donated by a local seafood company. Railroad tracks that led into the bay, once used for lifting boats, were removed.” Sixty tons of scrap metal and garbage was cleared. The environmental cleanup helped convince those Eureka citizens who were still on the fence that the tribe would be good environmental stewards.
In 2014, three important things happened – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Duluwat Island a clean bill of health; the Wiyot celebrated world renewal day for the first time in 150 years; and Mayor Frank Jager, grandfather of two Wiyot girls, drafted a formal letter of apology to the tribe on the city’s behalf. While the letter was gutted by the city’s lawyer, it opened something up in city residents’ awareness.
When Natalie Arroyo and Kim Berel won seats on Eureka City Council, they asked the tribe how they could make amends. The answer was consistent: “Give us back the island.” On Dec. 4, 2018, the council voted unanimously to declare the island ‘surplus property’ and directed the city manager to negotiate its return. Not everyone agreed with the plan – one businessman offered to buy the land, some feared the tribe would build a casino.
The ceremony of return was emotional, for everyone present. Arroyo said via letter that while Eureka may have owned the island, “it was truly never ours….and I firmly believe it is our moral obligation to return it.”
Some parts of the island haven’t been returned, because some local people still own land on the island. The tribe is content to be a good neighbour. “We know what it feels to be marched here and marched there. We know what it’s like to lose our land,” says elder and former tribal chair Cheryl Seidner. “We will not do that to somebody else.”
The tribe was planning a world renewal ceremony for 2020 with the goal of bringing balance not just to the tribe but to Eureka itself, which has its share of social problems. “We need to bring balance back, to get rid of all the addictions hidden in Humboldt County—children not having homes, being homeless, there’s a lot going on,” tribal chair Ted Hernandez told KQED. “I feel that since we’re in Wiyot country, everybody here needs that healing. That’s why the world renewal ceremony is important to us.”
“I’m hopeful now that when people—especially our young people —look at what happened with the island, with the massacre, that they will realize that making amends is the most important piece,” Bergel said after the return ceremony. “[It’s] a small thing considering what they went through, but it’s critical.”
Even after the decades of pain, Seidner hasn’t held onto resentment for the white settlers of Eureka. “It all depends how you’re indoctrinated into the ugliness of a society,” Seidner said. “The way my mom put it and my dad put it is: It happened back then. The people of today are not your enemy. With that, you come along and say you’re not my enemy—be my supporter.”
How Returning Lands to Native Tribes Is Helping Protect Nature. Yale 360 Environment, Jun. 3, 2021
Duluwat Island is Returned to the Wiyot Tribe in Historic Ceremony. North Coast Journal News, Oct. 21, 2019.
This Land Is Your Land: A City Returns a Stolen Island to a Native Tribe. Bloomberg CityLab, Nov. 5, 2019
The healing work of returning stolen lands. YES Magazine, Nov. 15, 2021.
An Indigenous Community Land Trust Is Creating Housing Through #LandBack. Next City, Mar. 23, 2023