PUBLIC LAND: an INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE

by Phil Bellfy, PhD

Land as Sacred

In the language of my people, the Ojibway of the Upper Great Lakes, the word “aki” refers to the land, the earth, the “dirt” of this planet, if you will. The city of Milwaukee derives its name from this word; Mino-aki, the “Pleasant Ground,” which has been Anglo-Saxonized to “Milwaukee.”

The word “aki” also has another, deeper meaning – That Which is Sacred – which is the “translation” that I would like you to keep in mind as you read this essay. When we, the Ojibway of the Upper Great Lakes, were facing Removal in the 1830s, we begged to remain “on the land where our ancestors are buried.” These burials are key to understanding how the Land became Sacred.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hugs the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area that Phil Bellfy calls home.

Although steeped in controversy as to its authenticity, Chief Seattle’s speech in 1854 to Treaty negotiators perhaps sums it up best:

Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.

When you consider the concept of “public land” from an Indigenous perspective, consider, as well, the words of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh: “The way, the only way to stop this evil [selling land], is for the red people to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now – for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers. Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”

Land as Public

So, when we consider “public land,” we have to consider, not only “That Which is Sacred,” but also “That Which is ‘Public’.” In our Indigenous way of thinking, we believe that if we take care of the earth, the earth will take care of us, but only if we act out of a sense that the earth, and all it contains, is Sacred. To us, “public land” is a relationship, a Sacred Relationship, built upon balance and harmony with all “that is sacred.”

When the world becomes out of balance, and disharmony seems to be the driving force in all human relations (with the land and with each other), destruction cannot be far behind. In 1992, the Hopi, and many other Indigenous Nations, went to the UN and gave the world a warning (I’ve made a few minor edits to this presentation by Hopi Elder Qu’ah Thomas Banyacya):

Nature itself does not speak with a voice that we can easily understand. Neither can the animals and birds we are threatening with extinction talk to us. Who in this world can speak for nature and the spiritual energy that creates and flows through all life? . . .  the Hopi prophecy shows us two paths. The upper path has technology; it is separate from natural and spiritual law, which can only lead to chaos. The lower path is one that remains in harmony with natural law . . . If we return to spiritual harmony and live from our hearts, we can experience a paradise in this world. If we continue only on this upper path, we will come to destruction.

Genesis gives us a very different “relationship” to ponder (that is, different for the non-Native): So God created man in his image . . .  And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Dominion versus Sacredness? Chaos versus balance and harmony, in harmony with the natural world, and in harmony with the “public land” of this continent and this planet. This is the choice we have faced for decades (perhaps centuries), and still face today. If you ponder this “public” versus “sacred” relationship, I hope you can come to look at this “land” as much more than “dominion” over “all of creation.” It’s really about sharing this land we might very well call “the commons,” as Tecumseh would have us do.

Land as Sharing

So, what do the speeches of 19th Century Indigenous leaders have to do with “public land” here in the United States today? Well, as I see it (and I’m not alone in this interpretation), “public land” is still “Indigenous land,” and here’s why. “Land Cession Treaties” only “gave the right” to the US government to buy “ceded” land from the Indians, and then, in turn, sell (or give) that land to settlers. Therefore, “Nation States,” like the US only have sovereignty over settlers and settlements – it is plainly obvious that “public land,” by definition, is not “settled” by “settlers.” Consequently, “public land” is not “ceded, settled land.” That is, it is still “Indigenous land,” land that we agreed, through treaty, to share with “settlers.”

During the time of “land cession” treaties, 1776 to 1894, Indigenous Peoples, “unlettered” as they were, most likely did not completely understand what the “selling” of their land truly meant. Treaty Council records bear this out. Probably the best way to understand the  “selling” or “cession” of land  can be wrought from the concept of “sharing the land,” which, again, seems to be the meaning behind Seattle’s and Tecumseh’s speeches (and that of countless others). In the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which “ceded” Northern Michigan and the east half of the Upper Peninsula (about 1/3rd of the State), the “Indians stipulate for the right of hunting on the lands ceded, with the other usual privileges of occupancy, until the land is required for settlement.” That final phrase is indicative of the “sharing” nature of the so-called 1836 “land cession.”

Land as Indigenous

Which brings me to the concluding thoughts on the subject of public land – with a reference to “public land” as “indigenous land.” The word “indigenous” means “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place.” Some years ago, I got into a discussion at a conference when I suggested that “settlers” in North America could not be “indigenous,” could not be “of this land.” “But my family has fished in these waters for five generations,” was the kind of push-back I encountered. In other words, settlers lay a claim to land after, maybe, five generations, but when people indigenous to that place assert their centuries-long “privileges of occupancy,” those indigenous rights seem to have no value whatsoever.

Members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe in Death Valley NP demonstrating for the restoration of their homeland on May 26, 1996. After nearly six years of activism, President Bill Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in 2000.
Photo courtesy NP archives.

But when a “sharing of land” becomes a “taking of land,” the world truly becomes unbalanced; when we invade the space of the animals, for example, we disrupt that balance and harmony, and when we do, we allow the natural world to invade our human “two-legged” space, as well. The results of that imbalance are all too evident – SARS, West Nile, Zika, MERS, Ebola, Lyme Disease, HIV/AIDS, and, of course, the pandemic currently ravaging the world –  with deaths in the US predicted to reach over 230,000 by November – Covid-19.

So, recall my reference to that “place” where your ancestors are buried, and, those burials that made you “indigenous to that place.” In my thinking on the subject of “indigeneity,” five generations of burials is not long enough to become indigenous to North America, not long enough for the land “of this place” to become sacred. European settlers were, quite obviously, willing, if not eager, to leave the land where their ancestors were buried and travel to the so-called “New World.” And, more importantly, in my mind, European settlers still had their spiritual connection to a “super-natural” being/entity; not a connection to a spiritual way of life that was wholly and solely based in the natural world, regardless of where your ancestors are buried, which is the world-view of Indigenous people – the people “of this place.”

Land as Relationship

So, how do we resolve this conundrum? How do we reconcile the problems engendered by the Biblical dominion over “public land,” and subjugation of the natural world wrought by that “dominion, with the respect and balance and harmony mandated by an indigenous approach to “the commons” – to viewing public land as Indigenous land?

In my mind, there is only one way, one way to save this planet, and “all of creation.” That is, we all – Settlers and Indigenous People, alike (and together) – need to forego the “supernatural” and re-focus on the natural world as if it were “aki,” “That Which is Sacred.” For, if we don’t view “public land” from the perspective of Indigenous People, with acknowledgement of its sacredness, and with a recognition of the mutual respect the land has for us, and we for it, with a goal of maintaining a harmonious and balanced relationship with that natural world, we are all dead.Phil Bellfy is an Enrolled Member of the White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa, and Professor Emeritus of American Indian Studies at Michigan State University. He has been involved in environmental activism in the Upper Great Lakes at the local, state, national, and international levels for almost 50 years.  His hobbies include woodworking, weaving, printmaking, book-making, and photography.