What does Indigenous reclamation mean? Three Native voices discuss

The concept of taking back Native land isn’t new. But it encapsulates more than most realize.

From left, Lakota activist Matt Remle; Lacey Stevenson Warrior, Native works manager at Chief Seattle Club; and Charlotte Coté, a University of Washington associate professor. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

In the past year alone, the movement led by Native communities to reclaim lands and spaces — sometimes called the “Land Back movement — saw huge gains in mainstream momentum.

Some of that has come from rallies, like those led by Indigneous activists fighting to close Mount Rushmore. Other conversations about Native lands have been sparked by major court decisions, like the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the McGirt case in which it ruled that a large portion of Oklahoma is still Native land. And with U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland now the country’s first Native secretary of the interior, many Land Back advocates are finding renewed hope in their aspirations.

But make no mistake: The concept of Indigenous reclamation — land and otherwise — isn’t new. The movement encapsulates everything from protecting treaty rights to reviving cultural practices that have been historically threatened to securing farmland, all of which Native nations have fought to protect since settlers first arrived. 

Crosscut spoke with local Native activists and scholars to learn more about the concepts and evolution of reclamation. We asked them to share what it means in their own lives and to reflect on what these movements look like today, as more and more non-Native people are eager to lend their support.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

How do you define “reclamation” for yourself? What does the word bring up for you? 

Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota), activist: Having a background with environmental work, I think of land. We use that word when referencing the return of the land, specifically back to how it was supposed to be. That goes hand in hand with the broader narrative around tribes and Native communities, and the returning or the reclaiming of lands and waterways. How they’re supposed to be, with the stewards of those particular lands who best know how to steward that land.

Lacey Stevenson Warrior (Dena’ina/Gros Ventre/Alutiiq / A'anii), Native works manager at Chief Seattle Club: Reclamation kind of brings up personal stories of my family's journey and reclaiming our identity — just processing and working through it, and trying to reclaim our identities from what happened to my family as far as boarding schools and the [Indian Relocation Act of 1956], and all of those things.

My grandpa’s parents met in boarding school. Our language, culture, songs, dances, everything was beaten out of them. When he would ask about it, his parents would beat him, because that’s what they were taught in boarding school. 

My mom ended that cycle. She always wanted to be connected to that side of who we are. As my grandpa got older, he let some of that stuff go, and then from there she was really digging into our family tree and our heritage. So that's really what that brings up, a lot of the battles that my mom fought to bring our family back to our culture.

Charlotte Coté (Tseshaht/Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation), chair of University of the Washington’s wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ: It’s a large movement that's taking place right now, and an important one, in looking at land reclamation — especially for tribes who have lost their land bases or their federal recognition in some way. And so many of the tribes that have been moving forward with federal recognition are also moving forward with restoring their connection to their ancestral homelands, reclaiming land that is significant to their cultures and to their identities.

It really fits in with the movement toward sovereignty over your community and also over your foods, and the ability to harvest on those lands. The relationship is not just with those plants and animals that are providing themselves to you as a food source, but also to those landscapes. As you’re carrying out traditional harvesting practices, you’re also reengaging with the land in a very spiritual way. 

Remle: There's no segmenting off of anything. You can't just focus on land, you can't just focus on water, you can't just focus on language, because they're all inherently connected with one another, you know? [For the Lakota], with no Black Hills, with no sacred sites, there is no Lakota way of living. 

portrait of Matt Remle
Lakota activist Matt Remle on March 10, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When did the idea of reclamation become something tangible for you? 

Remle: Most profoundly was having the ability to be taught my Lakota language — also combined with the history and knowledge about how the language was taken, not hundreds of years ago, but just a generation ago, with my grandparents and mom’s generation, and how that occurred through the boarding schools. 

A lot of my family know Lakota, but primarily — at least how I would hear it — it was just used in words. You’re talking about a dog, you say “sunka”. It wasn’t really used beyond that. So for me, a lot of it was self taught for quite a long time through cassette tapes, until later on when access to language speakers became more readily available because of the internet. 

Our worldviews, philosophies, cultural perspective and so much more is tied into the language. Much of our language isn’t a direct translation from, say, English to Lakota. We’re talking about an entirely different philosophical worldview that, in many cases, is absolutely opposed to a Western Euro worldview. More than just language, it became a true sense of cultural awareness and identity and that became pretty profound, pretty powerful. That seeps into every aspect of your life.

Stevenson Warrior: That happened for me when my mom first asked me to go to a sweat. I was fresh into the world of motherhood and really wanted to provide that sense of identity for my kids. I didn't get to grow up that way. My mom didn't get to grow up that way. 

We’d been invited to sweat lodge at Daybreak Star. My mom knew that was something I was looking forward to, and she invited me to go with her. My oldest daughter came with me. She didn’t go in the lodge, but she was there, and so from her infancy, we’ve been able to do that. I just feel like it's so beautiful that my kids are able to [be around our culture]. I'm a third generation boarding school survivor, so that means my kids are the first generation, in our family anyway, to be able to grow up with our culture post-boarding school.

Coté: [With land reclamation specifically], it was hearing more conversations, hearing people talking about it, seeing it on the news. It's not something that impacts my community the same way because we are in our traditional homelands, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The door's always open to having autonomy over our lands that were removed during colonization, but the conversations are different from when we’re talking about the many, many tribes that were removed off their traditional territories and placed on small reservations where they barely survived, never mind thrive. So then the reclamation means being able to subsist on those lands, practice ceremonies that are sacred to those specific lands, revitalizing those relationships to those lands.

Portrait of Lacey Stevenson Warrior
Native works manager at Chief Seattle Club Lacey Stevenson Warrior on March 19, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

As these movements have gained mainstream attention, non-Native communities have shown more interest in supporting them. Some examples in recent years have come in the form of financial support or projects to Indigenize outdoor spaces, or through the popularization of land acknowledgements. What do you make of this? What’s helpful, and what needs improvement? 

Coté: There have been some positive steps in that direction — some finding ways to financially support tribes in getting their lands back. I think a lot of it’s getting the word out, what the possibilities are, creating an awareness around it so that people understand the importance of those lands to Indigenous peoples after decades of them trying to reclaim land and to support that. 

Stevenson Warrior: One example I can think of from my work is that the Vitalogy Foundation is helping to fund a traditional Coast Salish welcome pole that will be put up in front of Chief Seattle Club’s new ?al?al building. And I was just talking to a non-Native person about Indigenizing [an outdoor space], and really — when they talked with me — they wanted to know what would be most impactful for the Native community as far as that kind of help. 

Remle: I have mixed feelings about [land acknowledgments]. The one positive I would see is that it could at least start to bring some understanding to a non-Native population that Native peoples were historically there, and they’re still there. But the negative I see is that it also feels too dry and academic — a pat-yourself-on-the-back type of thing. 

Stevenson Warrior: At first, when I saw it happening, I thought, “Oh, that’s really cool!” But after a while, it started to look kind of like a check box for non-Native organizations and companies to kind of just say, “Oh, we honor the Coast Salish peoples of this land,” and then move on. 

If non-Native organizations and companies and communities are really looking to acknowledge the land and the first peoples of the land that they're on, it needs to be action-based. It can't just be a check box. 

Remle: I'll put it this way: Acknowledging other tribal nations is absolutely not a new practice among Native peoples, and among Indigenous peoples globally. We do it all the time. Any presentation or event or activism I've been involved with, regardless of where I'm located, it always starts with giving thanks to [the specific Indigenous peoples that] are allowing me, a guest, to be here on their lands. 

With that, though, there's a second piece. This is what a dry-piece-of-paper land acknowledgement doesn't get at. For us, it's not only paying respects to the peoples of that land, but there's a responsibility that comes with it. One is that I'm a guest in your lands, I'm asking permission to be on your lands. And I have a certain responsibility as a guest on your lands. 

So any activism that I've done, depending on what the issue is, I won't do it unless it first has the blessing from the local tribes of where I'm doing that work. Once I get their blessings, then I’ll start working — like when I wrote the Indigenous Peoples Day resolution for the city of Seattle. Four years before I did that, I went to one of the annual gatherings of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, wrote an Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution, and saw if they would pass it or not. I don’t want to push something that they’re opposed to, whether I think it’s the right thing or not. And they did. If you read Seattle’s Indingeous Peoples’ Day resolution, it’s included in there that this was passed by ATNI, and pretty much every resolution or ordinance or work that I’ve done goes the same way. 

Coté: We’ve seen some challenges, too, especially where those lands have already been developed in some way. If that's the case, then what happens? We are place-based cultures and societies, so our cultural identity is tied to the land. That’s very significant for any land restoration project that goes forward. 

A lot of those lands have been developed in some way that isn’t conducive to Indigneous culture and ideas around human and land relationships, especially if they involve something that is very destructive to the land like fracking or mining, that basically strips the land of its cultural identity. What is the process of reconnecting with those lands in a sacred and cultural way? I’m sure those are questions that are being raised in these communities as they move forward. 

Portrait of Charlotte Cote
University of Washington associate professor of American Indian Studies Charlotte Coté on March 12, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

What has stuck out to you in your life journey or work when thinking about these different forms of reclamation? 

Stevenson Warrior: My mom passed almost three years ago now. And so that torch she carried got passed along to her children. We're all still learning and doing the same work that she did, which was being really involved in our communities and trying to help all of our communities in that reclamation process.

With my kids, I bring them when I go to ceremonies, when I go to sweat lodges or Sun Dance. I don't want to push it on to them. I just want them to be around it so they can experience it. Just having them around is part of that reclamation. Hearing them laughing in the background during a ceremony while we're saying the songs is beautiful, and I'm just happy that my kids are able to be around it and know what it is from the very beginning of their lives.

Remle: We need to be part of passing it on, especially to our younger generations, so that they grow up with it — [so they] don't have to reclaim anything; it's just a part of who they are. They can grow up understanding the world through an unfiltered lens. 

I’d hate to say it, but [for] me it’s filtered. I have to translate back and forth between English and Lakota thinking. I'm hoping that our young ones don't have to do that. They might speak English, but their worldview and framework is through that perspective of Lakota, and not vice versa. 

Coté: Looking at the larger picture with both the land reclamation movement and the food sovereignty movement, it really is about healing past wrongs. If we could move together in a united way, with non-Indigenous people’s support, then it's really about healing the past wrongs, especially the colonial wounds that we have suffered and continue to suffer with the perpetuation of colonialism that continually impacts our communities and our abilities to sustain ourselves on our ancestral homelands.

And so these movements are creating spaces for dialogue and action to overcome those past wrong, and to mend those colonial wounds. 

Remle: I always use this example: I was born in ’77. It was 1978 when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which officially decriminalized our spirituality. So even in my own lifetime, I was 1-year-old and it was still law that our sweats, our Sun Dances, our ceremonies were a criminal act in this country. And that really hit me. When I was 1-year-old was when this stuff was finally decriminalized. After that, everything is a total act of reclaiming.