This Land isY̶o̶u̶r̶Indigenous Land

Jubilation, an awkward folk song, and early opposition to Haaland nomination mark Biden’s bright beginning in Indian Country

Jenni Monet
Jan 23 · 7 min read
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Jennifer Lopez sings “This Land is Your Land” during the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. (YouTube)

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Wednesday’s inauguration of the 46th President ushered in a great sense of relief across Indian Country, but not without a faux pas. On a historic day where the transfer of power resulted in an unprecedented defense for Indigenous land and life, remarkably remiss was an acknowledgment of those lands. Upon an American turning point largely defined by confronting colonization, it’s a signal that there is much work to do.

Within hours of being sworn-in, Joe Biden signed 15 executive orders to undo many of former President Donald Trump’s destructive policies — among them, preventing the Keystone XL oil pipeline from crossing treaty-protected river beds in the Great Plains.

Biden also canceled the construction of the border wall, which has threatened the cultural survival for the Tohono O’odham. And he made a new pledge: to restore protections of Bears Ears, the holy lands of my Laguna Pueblo people and that of Congresswoman Deb Haaland, whose Secretary of the Interior nomination also looms large.

Naturally, Indian Country was elated by these reversals by Biden — issues that have drawn much ire and activism from Native Americans these past four years under Trump. But the moment was met with a hiccup of sorts, by of all things, a folk song sung by Jennifer Lopez.

As pomp and circumstance played out during Biden’s swearing-in ceremony, Indigenously-minded social media users took special note of Ms. Lopez’s rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” the campy sing-a-long written by Woody Guthrie to great appeal in 1940, but in 2021, revealing a particular blind spot in America.

“I cringe along with so many other Natives when I hear ‘This Land,’” said Jolie Varela in a post on her Instagram account @indigenouswomenhike. Forty-eight hours after Lopez’s performance, Varela, who identifies as Nüümü hupi, saw her simple meme “liked” as many as 15-thousand times (and as many as 33-thousand on another feed). The comments were a generous flow of Indigenous perspective about colonial land theft that, at times, was met with perplexion from onlookers.

“That song is actually critical of America,” said one observer, regarding the various verses that Guthrie had changed. But the commenter was quickly shut down. For all Guthrie’s social justice idealism, “This Land,” the melody, fell incredibly flat — perhaps even more so in the absence of an actual land acknowledgment.

For the record, the inaugural ceremony took place on the Indigenous homelands of the Piscataway people.

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A meme posted on Inauguration Day on the Instagram feed, @indigenouswomenhike

In the last two years, there has been a steady uptick in Indigenous land acknowledgments — formal statements to open events and gatherings by recognizing the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of that land. In some colonizing countries like Australia, certain institutions have made it policy to correct the erasure of Indigenous Peoples.

“When we talk about land, land is part of who we are,” said Leech Lake Ojibwe elder Mary Lyons about the importance of land acknowledgments, explaining the historical context. “It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us.”

In December, two days before the Christmas holiday, then-President Trump signed into law the Leech Lake Reservation Restoration Act, perhaps the most symbolic land acknowledgment in recent history because of what the law states clearly: an admission that what it did to tribes like the Ojibwe was wrong.

“Historic injustices” is how Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) describes the Leech Lake land theft which led her to introduce, along with Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), bicameral legislation that will return nearly 12,000 acres of the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota back to the tribe.

The Leech Lake Band, one of six comprised of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, lost all but five percent of their treaty-protected reservation lands beginning in the late 1800s — some 547,000 acres out of 600,000.

“The United States violated these solemn promises repeatedly,” said Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr., in a statement in early December.

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The 1948 Congressional amendment to the Indian Reorganization Act that was wrongly interpreted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs which led to the illegal sale of nearly 12,000 acres of Ojibwe treaty-territory.

In 1948, Congress amended the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act to allow the Secretary of the Interior to authorize tribal land transactions referred to as “Secretarial Land Transfers.” Except, the Bureau of Indian Affairs misread the law allowing the federal government to take Ojibwe lands illegally — and for a little more than a decade. When the error was addressed, a U.S. Supreme Court decision prevented Leech Lake from seeking restitution.

Until now, the government hasn’t given any of the land back.

To little fanfare outside of Ojibwe country, the Leech Lake Reservation Restoration Act has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to return 11,760 acres of taken land back to the Ojibwe band, treaty territory that will be held in trust by the Department of the Interior.

“Restoring this small portion of our homelands will enable us to combat the lack of housing and related problems that have been highlighted as urgent needs by the ongoing pandemic,” said Chairman Jackson.

Jackson was recovering from Covid-19 when he learned the bills were making their way to the president, a bizarre balance of emotions — worry met with joy. But on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the tribal leader encountered fresh concerns.

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Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe activists protest the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in 2017.

Republican Congressman Pat Stauber — whose northeastern Minnesota district is home to Leech Lake and several other bands — began building opposition to withdraw Haaland’s Interior Department nomination. In a draft letter circulating among other lawmakers to drum up support, Stauber argued she was unfit to lead the agency based on her Green New Deal advocacy and opposition to oil and gas drilling on public lands.

“We felt like we were blindsided,” Chairman Jackson told the Star Tribune. After all, Stauber sits on the House’s subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples.

But the GOP lawmaker’s opposition should not come as a total surprise. Stauber has campaigned hard for fossil fuel and mineral extraction projects including the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project. Jackson and other tribal leaders and activists have steadily tried to stop that construction, including recently when Water Protectors locked themselves together inside a segment of the pipe. Meanwhile, tribally-led lawsuits hang in the balance.

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Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

If confirmed, Haaland will become the first Native American to ever hold a cabinet position in U.S. history — and to lead an agency that has long-mistreated tribes like Leech Lake.

“This historic nomination is more important to us and all of Indian country than any other Cabinet nomination in recent history,” leaders of the Minnesota Chippewa’s five tribes wrote in a letter dated Jan. 14, including Chairman Jackson.

Other letters from alliances and caucuses across Indian Country surfaced as well, intensifying what lies at the heart of Haaland’s hopeful confirmation: a realized bridge where symbolic land acknowledgments meet action; where broken treaties get restored.

The land restored to Leech Lake is a treaty victory and one in which those same treaties are testing new ground in the fight for environmental justice, a signature issue at the start of a Biden Administration. To put it plainly, tribes were promised clean rivers and streams and healthy homelands when they signed treaties, preserving their traditional hunting and fishing rights.

Centuries later, the roughly 400 hundred treaties that the U.S. entered with Native nations remain binding legal documents; they have never expired. By virtue of the U.S. Constitution, they reflect the “supreme Law of the Land,” what the Supreme Court announced in its landmark ruling, McGirt v. Oklahoma, that when it comes to such treaties, it will “hold the government to its word.

The Standing Rock Tribe and other bands of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, represent the most promising treaty stand making its way through the courts in the ongoing fight to try and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Today, oil flows beneath the Nation’s treaty-protected Missouri River and an order to shut down the DAPL for a lengthy environmental review is a near possibility. Many of the stakeholders in that battle are the same who convinced Biden to revoke the permits to the Keystone XL pipeline project, and under the same treaty reasoning.

It is because of Indigenous land why Biden’s nomination of Haaland to lead the Interior Department is at once symbolic and charged — there are those who support defending Indigenous lands against those who have historically gained by lewdly exploiting them.

It’s why land acknowledgments at Inauguration Day are essential, beyond any performative function. They represent a doorway to understanding that to recognize the land is to honor the treaties connected to those lands, a relationship steadily resurfacing after a legacy of being forgotten.

This land is Indigenous land, and the sooner our nation can recognize that, the sooner this country can truly represent the unified America that Biden spoke of in his inaugural address — one which upholds Treaties as the truest version of the American story. In this way the Treaties belong to all of us.

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