Giving Land Back is Really the Bottom Line: A Conversation with Dina Gilio-Whitaker

“Any diversity and equity or anti-racist work that doesn’t include an anti-colonial commitment, just perpetuates further erasure.” – Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Due to my interest in the history of the U.S. National Park Service and displacement of Indigenous peoples, last quarter I dug in a bit more and reached out to Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a prominent author and scholar on this topic, and read her book, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice From Colonization to Standing Rock. We sat down over Zoom in January to talk about the book, her new project, and ways forward for Indigenous activism on National Park lands. We also discussed the land back movement, a movement to return Indigenous lands back to Indigenous management and control.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, scholar, journalist, author, and adjunct professor of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. Photo courtesy of Dina Gilio-Whitaker.


Dina: I am a descendent of the Colville Confederated Tribes, which is a Washington Tribe. I have been working on this environmental justice stuff for a long time, even since I was a student too, fifteen years ago or more. I wrote As Long As Grass Grows because all of the work and literature that I was exposed to as a student was not addressing Indigenous issues specific to environmental justice. It was really like a glaring chasm of omissions. All throughout my master’s program, I’d been writing and theorizing about what environmental justice looks like through a Native lens and through the lens of sovereignty. The book has a chapter on sacred site protection, which is a distilled version of my master’s thesis. That chapter was really the seed for the whole book.

The book has opened up this whole world now. Environmental justice is infused in all the courses I teach related to environmentalism in our program at California State University San Marcos, including a course on Traditional Ecological Knowledge. I am also writing a new book which is an outgrowth of As Long As Grass Grows and really builds on this concept of settler privilege. Environmental racism is not broad or deep enough to understand the history of genocide or land theft in this country, which of course is the original environmental injustice for Native people.

Building on that argument, we have this concept of privilege that we understand through the lens of race, which again is also highly inadequate because the settler-colonial project was not about racism. It includes it, it involves it, but land theft and genocide was for acquiring land for the sake of land itself, not for the exploitation of bodies in the same way that chattel slavery was. So, these are really two big, different animals, and the problem is that they get conflated. When we talk about subsuming Native issues of justice under this umbrella of race, it is in a way that does harm and disservice to Native people and makes illegible Indigenous struggles for decolonization and justice. So that is what the new book is looking at.

The argument that I am making is that if we are going to talk about a land ethic, a real land ethic that is responsive and all-encompassing of the settler-colonial history of this country, then it must also include ethics of human accountability to each other. It’s not enough to be accountable as humans to the natural environment because of where we are at with all of this environmental degradation and climate change. All of that stuff is a result of the settler-colonial history of this country. We have to talk about all of that if we are going to talk about a land ethic in this country. That’s what I am working on right now.

Sam: I think my frustration with environmentalism in the U.S. is that we are trying to do good and we are trying to protect and preserve resources and nature, but it is built on the theft of land and genocide of Indigenous people. It seems like we are not addressing the root of the problem.

Dina: Right, and that is what settler colonialism does: it works really hard to hide itself, because its goal is to constantly disappear Indigenous people, and that doesn’t square with democracy and justice. That’s why we have this whole matrix of mythologies and lies about the foundation of this country that doesn’t get to the genocide and land theft, and that is the elephant in the living room in the U.S. [In my new book,] I am addressing these mythologies through the ways in which many Native people look at the state as illegitimate.

Settler colonialism sweeps everybody into its orbit, People of Color included; it’s not enough to look at Indigenous erasure through the lens of race, because it’s not about race. If you are a non-Indigenous racial minority, it is always about State subjectivity (i.e. citizenship). If you are a minority then the brass ring is inclusion in the State, through equality. Again there is that conflation, that everybody takes for granted that equality under the State is what everybody wants.

For Native people, that has never been their goal. Vine Deloria in 1969 said in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins, that “what we need is a national leave-us-alone policy.” He wrote his book in the middle of the Civil Rights, Black Panthers, and Black Power era, and he was very clear that what we want is not what you want. We don’t want equality, we want our treaties to be honored and our territories to be protected.

Sam: I work in our Diversity Forum within our school, and we talk about how the term “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is not enough because including marginalized people in a white supremacist system doesn’t solve the problems.

Dina: Yes that is a big problem, and especially for Native people, because it is too close to assimilation. We have all of this diversity, equity, and inclusion programming on our campus, and now the State of California has an ethnic studies bill, so now it is mandated that each student in the community college and state university system has to take an ethnic studies course. This is a way for us to make those distinctions. On our campus we have these DEI committees, but we are trying to distinguish that for us as Native people, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is not what we are working towards. It has to be anti-colonial. Any diversity and equity or anti-racist work that doesn’t include an anti-colonial commitment just perpetuates further erasure. We need to have the language for that.

Sam: Originally my frustration stemmed from getting ads or presentations at the University to work for the National Park Service (NPS), and I was still grappling with my feelings of not wanting to work for the NPS because of its foundations in injustice.

Dina: You know what, there is some good work happening in the National Park System, and I am becoming more and more present to it. There are Native people working in the NPS, like Frank Lake. I think he is Yurok and Kuruk, and he is known for his work in cultural burning. He is a prolific writer who has published a lot. There was an article he co-authored, a peer-reviewed article, about some of the tribal partnerships they have with the National Park Service.

I do this professional development training with this organization called the Upstander Academy. We do a six-day training every year, and last year we had a bunch of high-level people from the National Park Service. I really started to see that within National Parks there are people even at high levels who have the same frustrations and are working to try to bring an expanded awareness to this history and change the way that they are working. There are also people like you who are working to increase your understanding of traditional perspectives and how the NPS works collaboratively with Native people. Is it super widespread and paradigm shifting? Probably not at this point, but it seems to be potentially moving in that direction.

Sam: What do you see as a way forward for the National Park Service? What is the way for these lands to be managed, given back, or transformed into something new to right historical wrongs?

Dina: The land back movement is interesting since 48% of all of the land in the U.S. is owned by the federal government; it is public land. I think talking about giving land back to Tribes is a good starting place. As I wrote about in the book, there are a number of different models that can be followed, like land trusts and conservation easements. Land back is another way, and that has been happening. The Trump Administration has given back 40,000 acres of land. In Oregon for example in 2018, 32,000 acres were returned to Tribes in Oregon. Just this week there was another 19,000 acres of land returned to tribal control in Montana for the National Bison Range. I am really suspicious about what that is all about and why the Trump administration would do that.

Moving forward, especially if Deb Haaland gets confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, we will see if giving land back increases. I think that returning lands to Tribes, even if it’s in federal trust (which is what we refer to as tribal trust lands, a.k.a. reservations), is problematic. I am very critical of the federal trust framework: I think it is part of the hegemonic framework of the state’s relationship with Tribes that needs to be dismantled, as part of dismantling and transforming settler colonialism.

I think this is generational work. I don’t know that it can happen any time soon, because you would have to dismantle the whole system and rebuild it from the bottom up. In the meantime, the tribal trust framework can be used to transfer public lands into tribal trust lands, and if they are then organized as tribal parks, those lands can still be public lands and would be available for everyone to use. There is no reason that they cannot remain public when they are transferred into tribal trust lands, especially if they are formed into tribal parks. There are a few of those, including the National Bison Range that got transferred this week.

Tribal parks, where the parks are available to the public but under tribal control, are one way to transfer land back to tribal control. Other examples would be to increase co-management, which is sort of a lesser form [of restoring control] I suppose. Co-management agreements are a lesser form of restoring or creating justice, but if incrementalism is the way that people are looking at it, then those agreements are one way to go. It depends on the ultimate goal.

As far as land back, what about all of that privately held land? I think if you are looking at decolonization as the framework for correcting these historical wrongs, giving land back is really the bottom line. But I also think it’s more than giving the land back: I think you have to restructure the legal system too. Land is a big part of it, so if you are giving the land back, anything less than that is going to be less than.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah – This park is within the homelands of the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Navajo peoples. Due to its thousands of culturally and spiritually significant sites, it was formed into a national monument in 2016 after tireless work by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, (Photo credit: Bob Wick, Creative Commons license)


Sam: My next question is on this tension between Indigenous sovereignty and the fact that most environmentalists in the U.S. support public land no matter what and think we should all have access to it. But some Indigenous folks might respond and say, “This is our land and we should have control over what happens to it.” There is this widespread acceptance that public lands are good and that’s it. I was wondering what your perspective on public lands is.

Dina: Right, and that exists within a particular narrow understanding of how public lands come to be. If you are thinking holistically and historically, then it becomes really hard to maintain that argument, that public lands are good for everyone, because the way they were created wasn’t good for American Indians. But here’s the thing in the U.S. federal political system. There are three sovereigns, not two: the federal government, the state government, and Tribal governments. So why would tribal parks not be an option to maintain lands for the public, for example at Bear’s Ears? There are so many sacred sites in Bear’s Ears that need to be protected, so why shouldn’t Tribes be able to block those sites off? These sites have been so exploited; there is this whole history of grave robbing and stealing artifacts there. These are sacred sites for Native people.

If Bear’s Ears was a tribal park, they could have the power to block access and protect these sites. Even a co-management agreement with other stakeholders would likely offer more ability to protect the site, because they would have had more power to say they want to exclude these areas from the public. A co-management option was considered for Bear’s Ears before it became a national monument, but it was rejected because, as I wrote about in the book, using religious arguments to protect these sites doesn’t work because they don’t have the legal teeth.

Sam: Yes, in the example you brought up in the book, about the Save Trestles Campaign and Panhe, the campaign sought to speak out against a six-lane toll road that would have cut through San Onofre State Beach, damaging the last remaining undeveloped watershed in southern California and sacred Panhe sites.

Dina: Panhe was kind of an exception, but it was not necessarily because of strong state laws to protect sacred sites, but I think it was because of a sense of moral responsibility. The view of that site as a sacred site weighed very heavily on the coastal commission’s decision. I am on the board of an organization, the San Onofre Parks Foundation, that formed as a result of the Save Trestles Campaign. We work in tandem with the state parks as an interpretive wing of the park. I was asked by a member of the Native Acjachemen community who helped establish the organization to join the board a few years ago. I did join because the organization sees itself as stewards for the land that have a responsibility to protect that site. Steve Long, also one of the founders of that organization, has said to me that he thinks that it was the Panhe sacred site that ultimately tipped the scales. But that got completely overlooked in the years since then; the surfers kind of glossed over it, and you can see that in Surfrider Foundation videos. The environmentalists and the surfers glossed over Panhe as a sacred site and how it contributed to the protection of the site. White liberal environmentalists are who I write to. They are ultimately my audience because they need to understand historical context, and then once they do, this context can re-shape their projects and how they work.

Panhe, Orange County, CA – A sacred site to the Acjachemen people of Southern California. For more than 10,000 years, Panhe was home to several Acjachemen villages. Today it is within San Onofre State Park, which is within Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. (Photo credit: Dina Gilio-Whitaker)


Sam: Earlier you asked me about why I am interested in this work, and to answer that, my capstone project is about restoration work in the Duwamish River in Seattle. The river is highly studied and highly contaminated, and there are so many stakeholders working to try to fix the situation. Our work is based on this novel restoration technique using floating wetlands to improve salmon habitat in industrialized areas instead of traditional restoration. We have collaborated with the Duwamish Tribe to do some creek monitoring, and my motivation is to support their work and what they want to have happen with the river. So that is also how I am thinking about Indigenous sovereignty and environmental work.

Dina: Yeah, the Duwamish situation is very similar to the situation down here in San Clemente with Trestles and Panhe. They are federally unrecognized Tribes in a very urbanized environment trying to preserve and restore these very vulnerable sites, from which they have been systematically dispossessed.

Sam: You did touch briefly on Deb Haaland being nominated, and that hopefully under her, the Department of Interior can be more supportive of Indigenous efforts in managing lands. Was there anything else you wanted to say about that?

Dina: I have confidence that she is the right person for the job. She is from New Mexico. She has shown deep commitments to protecting Chaco Canyon from further exploitation, and as we know the Southwest has been considered a sacrifice zone. There is a lot of uranium contamination still there, and they want to open it back up for uranium mining and oil and gas extraction. She has been very, very staunchly against it. I think she is the right person for that position to protect lands, but it remains to be seen how much the structure and the political system will hamper her ability to work collaboratively across the aisle as someone in a Cabinet-level position.

I am very skeptical about Native people’s ability to find justice in the settler system because it is a system created not by us and not for us, ultimately to disappear us. I think some good can come from working within that system, but it remains to be seen what large-scale positive impact it can have. I am willing to have my mind changed. You can do little tweaks here and there to make things better, but I am skeptical unless there is a large-scale land back movement, for example, or a large-scale commitment to co-management agreements. The legal structure is very weak on Native rights protections and land protection. And there also needs to be the political will, which remains to be seen.