Black Hills in South Dakota

LANDBACK Panel Addresses Importance of Indigenous Leadership in Land Reclamation and Conservation

Restoring Indigenous power in land stewardship and co-management policies were at the center of a YSE-Wyss Foundation panel discussion that brought together Indigenous voices from across the country.

By Thomas Birmingham

Can the #LANDBACK movement to build Indigenous power in U.S. land stewardship and promote co-management policies exist within a capitalist framework?

That question was at the center of a recent Yale School of the Environment forum that brought together Indigenous voices from across the country to discuss Indigenous leadership in land conservation and righting historical wrongs. The forum, moderated by YSE Professor of Environmental Justice Gerald Torres, included Charles Sams, director of the National Parks Service; Kevin Washburn, dean of the University of Iowa College of Law; and Krystal Two-Bulls, director of the #LANDBACK campaign.

“I think there are multiple justifications for LANDBACK,” Torres said.  “I believe tribes can do a better job than federal agencies on tasks related to the land Indigenous people love.”

That’s what activism looks like. It’s up to us to make the space for politicians to act. That’s our obligation.”

Gerald TorresYSE Professor of Environmental Justice

Two-Bulls, of the Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne peoples, emphasized that #LANDBACK is not just a metaphoric idea — it is a movement of the literal reclamation of land stolen from her people, she said.  Priority number one in the campaign, she said, is the area around the Black Hills of South Dakota, which she described as sacred.

“Land reclamation is at the heart of everything,” Two-Bulls says. “Everything we need as peoples, everything we need to survive and thrive, exists on those lands.”

She also stressed that people with doubts about Indigenous peoples’ ability to be stewards of this land should look to the past, prior to European colonization when these communities were thriving. 

Sams, of the Cayuse and Walla Walla peoples, is the first Indigenous person to serve as director of the National Parks Service. He spoke about the Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative that has the goal of conserving and protecting 30% of American land by 2030. Sams discussed how he steered the NPS towards emphasizing Indigenous sovereignty within that framework.

He also recounted his personal connection to one key NPS initiative: restoring Indigenous cultural and land connections to bison, specifically at Gallatin National Forest in Montana, where he was able to participate in his tribe’s first bison hunt in years. 

“The National Park Service is picking up on a tradition that has been going on for thousands of years here in Indigenous territory,” he said. 

Reflecting on the work of his own generation and the future, Torres said he is hopeful
about younger people’s commitment to actions on climate change and conservation of lands.

“I’m really excited about this generation, and I think we’re pivoting to a time of real change,” Torres says. “I hope it’s not too late.”

The forum was sponsored by the Wyss Foundation, the Native American Cultural Center at Yale, the Yale Center for Environmental Justice, the Law Ethics and Animal Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School, the Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative, and the Ecosystems Conservation & Management and People and PE2 learning communities.

Image credit: photosbyjim / iStock

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