All land of the United States
is Indigenous land.
Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have been an integral part of the diverse landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. They have cultivated an intimate understanding of the land–of the plants, animals, and natural features–and all of their respective places in the environment. The land provides everything needed for life and, in turn, they carry a responsibility to protect it.
To understand land justice, we must recognize that land is a source of life as well as power. As conservationists, it is imperative that we reconsider what conservation does in practice and who it serves. As a movement, land justice seeks to upend the inherent inequalities that stem from land ownership and access (or lack thereof) by shifting power to marginalized communities, especially Indigenous people, in order to promote their own self-determination.
More than 50 tribes and bands have lived in what is now Oregon, each with their own unique language, culture, and subsistence patterns. What they have in common, though, is that their identities are inseparable from the landscape. Stewarding the land is vital for the perpetuation of their lifeways, especially for the benefit of future generations.
There are currently nine federally-recognized Tribes in Oregon with more than 24,000 members. Several other federally-recognized and non-recognized tribes also have usual and accustomed land in Oregon. They all have the right to hunt, fish, gather, harvest, and hold ceremonies. But these practices rely on having the ability to access the land unimpeded.
Tribes own just a little over one percent of Oregon’s land (in comparison, the federal government owns 53 percent). This inequality contributes to a lack of access to First Foods, the restricted ability to practice traditional ecological and cultural knowledge (such as cultural burning), and otherwise steward land in an appropriate and sustainable way.
At COLT, we believe that we have a responsibility to use our resources to address, not just acknowledge, the reality of Indigenous land loss. Our conservation efforts must include Indigenous voices and perspectives in order to be both successful and equitable.
We are committed to developing a framework within the Oregon land trust community to ensure that the conservation movement is focused on increasing land access and promoting land return to Indigenous communities across the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon Land Justice Project
In 2021, COLT launched the Oregon Land Justice Project (OLJP) alongside the Tributaries Network and First Light. The Project works with land trusts across Oregon to increase land access, support Indigenous sovereignty, and return land to tribal communities.
“[We] should harness the benefits of knowledge from among Indigenous Peoples, who manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface, including rainforests, but preserve 80 per cent of the remaining biodiversity. They are the best stewards of our environment; the rest of us pale in comparison”
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Supporting land justice means supporting land access, land return, and Indigenous sovereignty. Here are examples of how Northwest land trusts have supported these efforts.
Photo by Sarah Kleinhanzl.
Reconnecting to the Land, Culture, and Each Other: Wallowa Land Trust and Tribal Partnership Host Root Gathering Event
Tribal Ownership Promotes Community Healing: The Nature Conservancy in Oregon returns cultural site to tribes
John Day River. Photo Credit: Dave Jenson, Western Rivers Conservancy.
Photo by Brian Bull, KLCC.
Reclaiming Fire: Indigenous-Led Cultural Burning Training in Partnership with McKenzie River Trust Brings Healthy Fire Back to the Land