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Can the Indigenous #Landback movement secure self-determination?

History from Iowa suggests that it can.

Assemblyman James Ramos (D-Highlands), of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, fifth from left, opens a meeting with tribal leaders from across California, attended by Gov. Gavin Newsom, fourth from left, at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center in West Sacramento. From coast to coast, tribes are regaining ancestral lands. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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On Friday, the Rappahannock Tribe in Virginia reacquired 465 acres of sacred land. The move reflects how, from coast to coast, Native American communities are restoring their land bases after centuries of dispossession. In March, the Chickahominy Tribe regained control of some of its land in Virginia. A few months ago, a consortium of tribes called the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council reclaimed 523 acres of redwood forest in Northern California known as Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (Fish Run Place), adding to land reacquired since 1997. Last summer, the Passamaquoddy Tribe bought a 140-acre island called Kuwesuwi Monihq (Pine Island) in Maine.

Tribal land reclamation has recently become known as #Landback. For decades, Indigenous peoples and their advocates have used court cases, government programs and protests to reacquire land or protect treaty land and culturally important sites. According to the Department of the Interior and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, although tribal land still reflects a minuscule portion of the American landmass, Native land holdings in the contiguous United States have grown from around 47 million acres at the end of the 1950s to more than 56 million acres today.

Native America, of course, is vast and diverse, and each tribe has its own perspective on how and why land reclamation can be useful. Some Indigenous people, for example, see #Landback as a means to strengthen economic development and self-governance. Others hope to restore balance to an Indigenous world upended by colonization.

The history of the Meskwaki Nation, a tribe in central Iowa, shows how reclaiming lands, while no panacea, can help secure self-determination, affirm tribal sovereignty and improve life within Indigenous communities.

Beginning in 1804, treaties chipped away at Sauk and Meskwaki territory along and just west of the Mississippi River. By 1832, these cessions had sparked the Black Hawk War. In 1842, a final removal treaty ordered both tribes to a reservation along the Osage River in the “Indian Territory” of present-day Kansas. As with other removal treaties, the U.S. government’s goal was to take Native land while confining and controlling Indigenous peoples.

Meskwaki people never left Iowa, however. Although some tribal members moved to the Osage River reservation, others remained, living along the rivers as they evaded American dragoons intent on pushing them south. When violence broke out in Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa in the 1850s and early 1860s, the Meskwaki Nation deployed strategic diplomacy to achieve its permanent return to Iowa.

Tribal leaders lobbied Iowa lawmakers to support the tribe’s efforts to defy the 1842 treaty and come home. Meskwaki people achieved this by gaining the support of neighboring settlers, many of whom vouched that the tribe was peaceful and welcome in the area. These efforts culminated in July 1856, when the state proclaimed that the Meskwaki Nation could remain in Iowa indefinitely. The tribe still commemorates this event with a “Proclamation Day” celebration each summer.

The next year, 1857, the Meskwaki Nation bought 80 acres from a White farmer. Half the size of the tracts that settlers would receive under the 1862 Homestead Act, the parcel became known as the Meskwaki Settlement. Located about an hour northeast of Des Moines, the Settlement was a small, riparian plot upon which Meskwaki people set about restoring their population and reconnecting with place.

Subsequent generations of Meskwaki families pooled their money to buy more land as opportunities arose. By the 1930s, the settlement had grown to around 3,300 acres. Today, the settlement totals more than 8,000 acres, and the tribe is among the largest employers in the area.

The growth of the Meskwaki Settlement, however, was not a story of smooth progress. For over a century and a half, the settlement’s unique status and history have provided the tribe with a critical source of political leverage. Local, state and federal governments, as well as Indian reformers, repeatedly tried to divide up Meskwaki land, assimilate Meskwaki people and assert civil and criminal jurisdiction over the Meskwaki Nation.

Because of the removal treaty, for example, the tribe could not buy its land outright in 1857. So tribal leaders persuaded the governor of Iowa to complete the transaction using Meskwaki money, then place the settlement in a state/tribal trust and pass it down from governor to governor. For four decades, this arrangement enabled the Meskwaki Nation to avoid policies like allotment, which stripped about 90 million acres from tribes nationwide between 1887 and 1934.

But after jurisdictional battles in the 1880s and 1890s, the Meskwaki Nation fell out of favor in Des Moines. In 1896, Iowa transferred the settlement’s title to the United States, which placed it into federal trust. The federal government argued that this transfer made the Meskwaki Settlement a “reservation” subject to the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Despite the tribe’s insistence that it still controlled the settlement, within decades, federal overreach had almost completely eroded the power of Meskwaki leaders.

Federal Indian policy changed frequently, requiring Meskwaki leaders to develop new strategies. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration ended the allotment program, thereby slowing the momentum of Indigenous dispossession, and offered new avenues toward tribal self-governance. Like many tribes, the Meskwaki Nation wrote a constitution and elected a tribal council. Significantly, this body tested its powers by using government programs to improve infrastructure and natural resources on the settlement.

By the 1950s, the political winds had shifted again, this time toward a policy known as “termination.” By ending its recognition of tribal sovereignty and dissolving reservations, the U.S. government believed it could complete the project of assimilating Native peoples into White society.

When the Meskwaki Nation was targeted for termination, tribal leaders found new ways to use their settlement’s legal status to their advantage. After arguing for decades that their unusual land ownership insulated their community from federal meddling, Meskwaki people argued that the 1896 trust transfer reflected a federal commitment to maintaining the integrity of their settlement. Termination proved disastrous for the tribes it affected — a fate that the Meskwaki Nation dodged by selectively embracing the federal trust responsibility to protect its land and preserve tribal members’ access to vital government services.

The 1950s and 1960s saw various civil rights movements in the United States, a wave of decolonization efforts around the globe and the coalescing of an international Indigenous rights movement. Informed by these developments, the U.S. government refocused on supporting tribal self-determination by the 1970s. Meskwaki people still saw the settlement as a critical asset for improving their quality of life. In 1978, the tribal council developed a settlement-based economic development plan. That document planted the seedlings of tribal businesses that would revive the Meskwaki economy and shore up Meskwaki sovereignty in decades to come.

Recovering its land did not solve all the Meskwaki Nation’s problems. But for more than 160 years, the settlement was a vital anchor whenever the Meskwaki Nation faced uncertainty. Meskwaki history underscores the utility of #Landback as a tool for cultural restoration, community rebuilding, economic development and political leverage. It suggests that when Native peoples reclaim land, it helps their nations recover.