Rainbow Rant: Land Back and the future of Thanksgiving

The true meaning behind the slogan of ones of today’s most powerful movements

Joy Ellison
The phrase "land back" is spray painted on a National Guard riot shield and the word "police" is crossed out on Friday, July 3, in Keystone.

“You see the graffiti on that sign back there? I think it said, ‘Land back.’”

“Didn't it?”

“Well, what do you suppose it means?”

“Well... I reckon the Indians did it.”

In the opening of the third episode of FX comedy "Reservation Dogs," an elderly white couple debates the meaning of graffiti reading “Land back.” In a wryly funny scene, show creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi introduced a mainstream audience to one of today’s most important political movements. 

Land Back is a contemporary continuation of an Indigenous movement that has existed for generations. Its goal is to see Native lands back in Native hands. That means that Native activists are pressuring the federal government to honor their treaty rights and respect tribal lands as the sovereign nation states that they are under U.S. law. 

“They mean the whole damn thing? They want the whole damn thing back?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“That's just not possible.”

“I could see some of it back.”

“You reckon that's what they mean? Some of it back?”

Across Turtle Island, the Indigenous name for North America, Native peoples are waging Land Back battles that are aimed at protecting the web of relations between people and the rest of the natural world that are central to the collective survival of all of us. From Standing Rock to the current struggle to stop the Line 3 pipeline, Native people are asserting their rights in powerful protests.

Many people dismiss Land Back as irrelevant or unrealistic. But the movement boasts many victories. Thanks to our unwillingness to act to stop global warming, the environmental challenges we will soon be facing make the protectionist actions of Land Back all the more important.

“I mean, the whites did kill an awful lot of them and took the land. So, America ought to be ashamed of itself.”

This Thursday, many of us will acknowledge the history of violence against Native peoples while we gather around our Thanksgiving tables. Telling the true story of what happened in 1621 is a crucial first step toward justice. The version of history that is taught as “the First Thanksgiving” hides the profundity of the violence done to the Wampanoag nation and portrays them as naïve and noble savages.

In fact, when the English settlers arrived, the place they called Plymouth Rock was a Wampanoag village in a land called Patuxet. The village was empty because the Wampanoag population had been decimated by a plague brought over by previous European settlers. Between 50 and 90 percent of their nation had died, leaving Ousamequin, the Massasoit or leader of the local Wampanoag, in a dire situation. The Wampanoag hung back throughout the winter, closely observing the English. Eventually, they decided to enter into a mutual defense agreement with the settlers, feeling that it was the best way to ensure their survival. 

The Wampanoag taught the settlers how to plant beets with squash in a mount with corn and how to use fish remains as fertilizer. The man responsible for communicating this life-saving knowledge was Tisquantum, called Squanto by the English. He was able to serve as translator for the Wampanoag, because he had been kidnapped and enslaved by the English a few years earlier. Funny how that fact wasn’t mentioned in my elementary school Thanksgiving lessons.

On the day that we call Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag were not invited to a feast, as the story is typically told. Instead, they heard the settlers firing off guns. Ready to honor their defense agreement, 90 Wampanoag men hurried to the village. Finding nothing amiss, they agreed to join the settlers’ harvest celebration, but, unsurprisingly, they had to provide the food that the English had little idea how to obtain for themselves. For the Wampanoag, this history is not a story of generosity and friendship, but of difficult strategic decisions made by a community determined to survive. 

Telling the true story of the first Thanksgiving helps to challenge anti-Native stereotypes, but simply correcting the historical account does little to improve the lives of Native communities today. Recognizing past violence is not the same as respecting the sovereignty of Indigenous nations today.  

“Well, they got the casinos. I hear they get paid a thousand dollars a month just to be an Indian.”

“Will you quit being a shit-ass?

“Well, that's romantic.”

“This ride is not fun anymore. And no, they don't. And whatever they get, they deserve.”

“Well, let's not get into a political discussion here”

Acknowledging the true history of our country is the first step toward justice for Indigenous people. Land Back is the second.