Posted on January 3, 2020

Native American ‘Land Taxes’: A Step on the Roadmap for Reparations

Maanvi Singh, The Guardian, December 31, 2019

The two-acre plot deep within east Oakland is a bright green oasis surrounded by urban sprawl. The creek that runs through it has been sealed with cement, and an interstate highway has been built overhead. But for Corrina Gould, this piece of land represents justice for Native Californians.

It is the first parcel promised to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an intertribal, women-led organization that Gould co-founded in order to restore Indigenous land in the Bay Area to Indigenous stewardship.

“This is where my people – the Lisjan people – come from,” said Gould, a spokeswoman for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan and a community organizer. She often imagines her grandparents’ grandparents sitting by the creek back when salmon still swam through it.

To help the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust rework the land, populate it with native fruits and herbs, transform into a community and to restore even more land to California’s Indigenous community, local residents and businesses can pay the organization a Shuumi land tax.

“Shuumi in our language means gift,” Gould explained. Non-Native residents can choose to pay the tax as a way to show support and gratitude for the Native people hosting them on their ancestral lands.

Over the past year politicians and presidential candidates have expressed an increasing desire to right historical wrongs against Indigenous people and black Americans. Scholars of Indigenous law and policy say the issue of how best to deliver justice to Native Americans is exceedingly complex – and the use of the word reparations in this context is often fraught. But grassroots programs in the Bay Area and around the country can provide insight into what form these types of social justice efforts could take.

For Gould, the Shuumi land tax is a way to begin undoing centuries of erasure. When she first began her work as an activist for Indigenous sovereignty two decades ago, she said, “most people thought that we were dead. That we no longer existed.”

In fact, Indigenous Californians were literally written out of the books. Spanish settlers and missionaries called the Native people who lived along the northern California coast “Costenos”, and later, anthropologists plucked the term Ohlone from historical records, to use as a catchall. In 1925, AL Kroeber, a local anthropologist, declared that the Ohlone people were “extinct so far as all practical purposes are concerned”. The government further drove this erasure by refusing to uphold the original treaties negotiated between the US and California tribes, leaving dozens of tribes without federal recognition or land rights.

The Shuumi tax, Gould said, is in one sense very practical: it’s a monetary donation that can help Native people in California regain access to stolen land. But the tax is also symbolic. It’s a way for Bay Area residents to show respect for the original stewards of the land.

A similar program in northern California allows residents of the Humboldt Bay region to pay a voluntary tax to the Wiyot people. And in Seattle, nearly 4,300 residents have signed up to pay the Duwamish Tribe symbolic rent. “Real Rent Seattle” was started by the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, a group made up “of white people in the Seattle area working to undo institutional racism”.

Whereas the Shuumi land tax program allows people to calculate their tax based on the size of their homes and whether they rent or own property, Real Rent recommends amounts based on annual income. In both cases, people are free to donate more or less than what’s suggested. Or, people can contribute a symbolic figure, like $18.55 to reference to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, in which the Duwamish signed 54,000 acres of land over to the colonial settlers in exchange for a reservation and hunting and fishing rights that were never granted.

“Paying rent is just a straightforward way that people feel like they can take action, to do something to try and right the wrongs of our government,” said Patrick Tefft, who helped organize the Real Rent program. “Because you know, we’re all tired of sitting and waiting for the federal government to address the injustice.”

The idea of a broader, federal program to deliver justice to Native Americans does appear to be gaining political traction. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have released plans to address issues affecting Native Americans. In July, Julián Castro released a policy plan to better support tribal sovereignty, by establishing tribal advisory committees in every Cabinet-level agency, and supporting legislation to protect tribal cultural heritage, among other things.

“We deserve a president who will strengthen tribal sovereignty, honor treaty commitments, ensure justice for Indigenous women and advance tribal-federal partnerships for progress,” Castro said in a statement introducing his plan.

Several other candidates, including Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, have released their own plans and proposals. Along with Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, Elizabeth Warren proposed a wide-ranging Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, which aims to hold the federal government accountable for honoring legal promises made to Native Americans and upholding sovereignty in Indian Country.

Prior to releasing the plan, Warren had also indicated that Native Americans should be “part of the conversation” on reparations for Black Americans. Though Warren has yet to expand on that notion or include it in any of her official policies, her mention of reparations for Indigenous people sparked a debate about what that would mean – and whether it’s an idea worth pursuing at all.

“I was really pleased to see Elizabeth Warren, putting on the table a proposal for fully funding the United States obligation to Indian Country,” said Matthew Fletcher, a law professor and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at the Michigan State University college of law. “That would be absolutely huge.” But the word reparations in this context “is politically fraught, and it’s kind of a misnomer”, he said – because the US signed treaties with tribes, promising certain services and rights in exchange for land. “It’s not reparations if we’re talking about something the US already owes,” he said. “I don’t really think anybody’s taking a serious theoretical consideration on what reparations are in the context of Indian people would look like.”

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People uses the term restitution, though Dina Gilio-Whitaker, the policy director and senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, prefers to frame discussions around the idea of decolonization. “I would say ‘restoring justice’, but there’s never really been justice in the first place,” she said. “Justice for Native people is about confronting the privilege of settler colonialism.”

To that end, Gilio-Whitaker is broadly an advocate for policies that reinforce the sovereignty of tribal governments and consult Indigenous people on policies that affect Indigenous people and their land. Programs in California and Washington are “just one of the numerous kinds of strategies for decolonizing”, she said.

This spring, for the first time in maybe a century, wild strawberries grew by what Gould refers to as Lisjawn Creek, which runs along with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust’s parcel in east Oakland. “They’re these little tiny things,” Gould said – about half the size of most supermarket varieties. “And sweet – very, very sweet,” she added.

The strawberries were just one of the native plants that workers and volunteers have planted on Sogorea Te’ land across the Bay Area, which now includes a garden in west Oakland and a portion of a community farm to the north. Tobacco, sage and mugwort have flourished on these patches, which Gould likes to say have been “rematriated” under Indigenous stewardship. The Shuumi tax helps pay for staff and supplies to transform these tracts.

The land trust doesn’t necessarily hold the deeds to all the properties – yet. The two acres in east Oakland are technically owned by a not-for-profit called Planting Justice, which maintains a nursery on more than half the plot and is working to pay off its mortgage before transferring property rights to Sogorea Te’. At that point, Sogorea Te’ will lease some of the land back to Planting Justice.

For now, the technicalities matter less to Gould, who is most concerned with ensuring that Indigenous leaders are able to govern how the land is maintained. On the east Oakland plot, in addition to cultivating culturally significant plants, Gould has overseen the construction of a ceremonial arbor, a rainwater harvesting facility and an emergency shelter built from an old shipping container. The latter is a “resiliency hub for the whole community”, Gould said – because part of Lisjan philosophy is to take care of everybody living on their land.

“We see ourselves as the hosts of this land,” Gould said. “And we want to be able to take care of all of our guests.”

The metaphor is one she often uses when explaining the concept of Indigenous sovereignty to school children, and one that is useful in broader discussions of justice for Native people, according to Gould. “We – Indigenous people – can’t be good hosts unless we have good guests,” she said. “So think about, what does it look like to be a guest at your friend’s house? You don’t touch things that aren’t yours without asking. You say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’, and you don’t break things.”

Working out how to create that sort of a relationship between Native people and those who live on Native land is quite a bit more complicated, Gould said. But she’s heartened to hear more mainstream discussions on where to start. “I think there’s starting to be a shift in the world,” she said. “People are really trying to understand how to try to fix some of the wrongs and the pain that has happened over the last few hundred years since America was created.”