As the newest member of the SGC team, I am excited by all the ways that funders are deepening how they weave sustainability and equity. On May 20th, I attended a webinar hosted by SoCal Grantmakers and Smart Growth California: Beyond Land Acknowledgements: Indigenous Leadership and the Environment in Southern California. The conversation was moderated by Greg Masten, Vice President of Tribal Nations Engagement and Special Projects at Native Americans in Philanthropy, and the esteemed panel of speakers included Jo Carrillo, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Indigenous Law Center at the UC Hastings College of the Law; Lauren van Schilfgaarde, Director of the Tribal Legal Development Clinic at the UCLA School of Law; Nicole Johnson, Secretary for the Native American Land Conservancy; Rudy Ortega, Tribal President for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians; and Wallace Cleaves, President of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy.
The conversation began with a reflection on the question: What does going ‘beyond land acknowledgments’ mean to you?
With so many organizations and individuals present, it’s apparent that many are trying to answer this question in a meaningful way. The conversation that followed was enlightening, as the speakers shared their reflections on how we can go beyond land acknowledgments as individuals working in philanthropy, and collectively as a nation of native peoples, immigrants, and colonists.
Three distinct goals for going beyond land acknowledgments emerged:
- Understanding and committing to land acknowledgments.
- Engaging respectfully, building trust, and developing communication efficiencies.
- Returning land and allowing self-determination over its use.
Goal #1: Understanding and committing to land acknowledgments.
Land acknowledgments are a statement honoring the native, tribal, and indigenous communities whose land we gather on or where we reside. We need to see them as evolving and relational, and recognize how new they are outside of tribal circles. Wallace Cleaves said they should be a start and should constantly be revisited and checked in on. However, there is a danger of it being a checkbox and not really in the spirit of how it is intended to be, as Greg Masten reflected. Or, as Professor Carillo warned, it can fall to the performative and be simply functional. Instead, how can we allow this minute or two at the beginning of a meeting to create a moment to accept the truth about the land we occupy, to collectively admit to the wrongful past of our country, and honor the people who stewarded the land for generations before?
Like prayers, land acknowledgments can be said with many words, or with few. They can be flourished and specific, bare and honest, and above all, sincere. If we are sincere with a land acknowledgment, we are recognizing original tribal ownership, and committing to engage in a way that is respectful and uniquely appropriate to each tribal community.
We should know and include non-federally recognized tribes in acknowledgments, as this is an inclusive practice and a way to reckon with how the US government divided and lessened tribal sovereignty by recognizing select tribes and not others. In California, there are at least 80 tribes that are yet to be federally recognized.
We acknowledge that the burden of education is on us – to be thoughtful about our approach in the work we do with tribal communities. We elevate the presence of the 80 unrecognized tribes and work towards their federal recognition.
Goal #2: Engaging respectfully, building trust, and developing communication efficiencies.
Every speaker talked about the need for respect and mutual trust in building relationships with tribal, native, and indigenous communities, and engaging in a deep and meaningful way. This must be at the core of everything we do when it comes to interacting with tribal communities, and in order to make these relationships possible, it needs to be intentional. Organizations should carve out intentional time and resources for developing deep, long-lasting, reciprocal relationships with the tribal communities they seek to understand.
It was repeated by the panelists that we need to develop a high regard for tribal community leaders, and given that they represent a sovereign nation, treat them as we would any other well-respected government official. “We need to think of tribal leaders in terms of leaders of our current government,” shared Greg Masten. It’s “like calling up the governor [and expecting to speak with them; that] just wouldn’t happen.” They, like many other government officials, are severely under-resourced, stretched thin, and wear many hats to run their community. They are also the experts in their communities and their time and skills need to be highly valued and compensated.
Lauren van Schilfgaarde’s shared how tribes can be consulted for their expertise from a place of respect and high regard. “Consultation is a government-to-government interaction. Interacting with a tribe is distinct from other [service-oriented] organizations or foundations. Many people rely on tribes assuming they’ll be altruistic in their endeavors but that they’ll hold the burden of educating. Organizations should do the work of finding out what they want to know about the tribal communities and how to interact with them. Tribes are governments with a number of internal and external obligations; we need to build our own systems of being able to engage with tribes institutionally.”
Each tribe governs differently from another and we shouldn’t assume they are all the same. Foundations must do proper research and use due diligence to find out how to interact and engage with them respectfully. We should be aware of tribal protocols, and build an awareness of how to interact with tribes.
Tribes are inundated with requests and outside organizations and agencies should create efficiencies when reaching out to tribal governments. We should ensure we know about tribal consultation procedures in order to prevent miscommunication and create trust.
Goal # 3: Returning land and allowing self-determination over its use.
While we look at our relationships with native, tribal, and indigenous communities, we should also ask, “how can our work lift up tribal communities and support the just return of land rights?” There are many reasons why tribal, native, and indigenous communities seek to take back the land. They know how to take care of the land and steward it as they had been for centuries prior. There is an incredible amount of biodiversity that these communities are familiar with and deeply connected to – and because the land and culture are connected in so many ways, many of them simply want a “place to house their lore – a place to preserve their stories. They have lost so many members over the last 10 years, forced out by rising property costs, so this land has potential to house community members and many tribes are working to keep their people on their land,” as stated by Wallace.
The return of land holds important symbolic importance and gives many tribes a stronger identity. President Ortega pointed out that it’s difficult to conceptualize a land-based community without having or owning any land to govern on. Owning land can help tribes build the capital that so many tribal communities simply do not have, and restore their sense of place.
But returning land to its rightful stewards is not an easy process; rather, it is complex, lengthy, and bureaucratic. Wallace Cleaves spoke of a “property owner [who] knew her home was important to the indigenous community. She was interested in returning it to a conservancy and started working on the process of giving it back. The process was excruciating and many folks didn’t have the capacity to work on it. It was a lot of work, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it if we didn’t have support from many organizations and individuals, including 3 attorneys who contributed pro-bono work. Conservancy now owns that land and it is a very important and sacred place for them, [but it came with] intense and difficult hurdles.”
There are many obstacles and hurdles that get in the way of making the land-transfer process an efficient and effective one; though, with the challenges come a surplus of opportunities to fund and improve the processes. Professor Jo Carillo suggested that funds could be used to increase capacity by supporting the purchase of land, land maintenance, and a broad category of self-determined management and control.
This should also include funds for expanding the foundation of legal knowledge since these transactions are more complex than regular commercial transactions. We should look to ensure that tribes are equal co-creators in building legal transactional structures and processes that work for them.
A final challenge and opportunity in the land-return process is that of self-determination. This means trusting that tribes and indigenous communities know what is best for the land they own in terms of how they wish to use and take care of it. Some donors, particularly well-intentioned environmentalists and conservationists, may grant land but try and put restrictions on what it can or cannot be used for. Lauren van Schilfgaarde says that it is a “mindset similar to those that create national parks — one that envisions a protected area as one that is void of human interaction with the land — often in conflict with indigenous connections with the land.” Nicole Johnson stated that “fully buying into a commitment of supporting tribal ownership of their communities and land is necessary to step back and truly let them run it on their own the way they want to and believe is best for them. The ultimate end-goal is to fully step back and let go of control.” Ms. van Schilfgaarde leaves us with this charge: “we need to disrupt our own idea of how tribes should look, behave, and how we interact with them. This means allowing tribes to define ‘land conservation’ for themselves.”
How Philanthropy Can Help
- Supporting land back policy research, bureaucracy, and recommendations for improvements.
- Providing funding for land purchase and land maintenance.
- Legal support. All of this takes a foundation of legal knowledge.
- Flexible capital that allows for land acquisition costs and technical support.
- Dedicated pool of funding specifically for the assessment of the land-transfer process.
For more on this topic, check out:
- Native Land Acknowledgements Are Not the Same as Land, an article by Wallace Cleaves and Charles Sepulveda
- The Challenges and Opportunities for Rematriating Tovaangar, a talk given by Wallace Cleaves
- Native Voices Rising Fund, a partnership between Native Americans in Philanthropy and Common Counsel Foundation
- California Truth and Healing Fund, a partnership between the Decolonizing Wealth Project and the California Truth & Healing Council
- Engaging Indigenous Leadership in Climate & Disaster Resilience webinar series co-hosted by NAP, Smart Growth California, Philanthropy California, and other regional PSO partners
- Land Tax Platforms:
- Bay Area: https://sogoreate-landtrust.org/institutional-shuumi/
- Los Angeles County: https://www.acknowledgerent.org/
- Seattle: https://www.realrentduwamish.org/
- New York: https://mannahattafund.org/