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Land Back: A Way Forward

Note: This article was originally published in the May 2023 issue of The Friend (page 2). The article has been adapted for our website and contains full quotes and additional links to resources that could not be included in the printed publication.

In our scriptures, throughout human history, and especially here in Hawai‘i, land issues have been tied to great pain and struggle. From the Great Mahele, which was explored in the Hawaiian Kingdom History: The Kingdom, the Church, the Land webinar series that was hosted by our Justice and Witness Missional Team, to affordable housing, to rights of indigenous and aboriginal people around the world, and on to the Kaho‘olawe Nine, TMT, Pōhakuloa…land—ʻāina, that which feeds us—is at the heart of so many justice issues here in Hawai‘i and around our world. The Land Back movement was introduced in 2018 by Arnell Tailfeathers and seeks to reestablish sovereignty with political and economic control of traditional lands.

Land acknowledgements have become popular among organizations and individuals. A land acknowledgement might start, “I live on the land of the ________ people…” While important to acknowledge the land we are on, words without actions often fail to birth transformation, and that failure birthed the land back movement, which has taken many forms and expressions around the world. For this issue of The Friend, we invited people to reflect on Land Back and we offer their responses as a conversation starter.

(Our Editorial Team reached out to various Hawai‘i-based activists and leaders to invite them to share their mana‘o on land back. Responses were gratefully received from Kyle Kajihiro and Core Members of AF3IRM Hawai‘i.)

About the respondents:

Kyle Kajihiro, Ph.D., is a lecturer in Ethnic Studies and Geography at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Kyle is also a Board member with Hawaiʻi Peace and Justice and is active in countering U.S. militarization in Hawai‘i. He shares, "Although I am not Kanaka Maoli or indigenous Hawaiian my family history in Hawaiʻi goes back to the late 19th century. As a settler of Japanese ancestry I feel a strong responsibility to stand with the Hawaiian independence movement." (source)

Core Members of AF3IRM Hawai‘i

AF3IRM (Association of Feminists Fighting Fascism, Imperialism, Refeudalization, and Marginalization) is an organization of women engaged in transnational feminist, anti-imperialist activism and dedicated to the fight against oppression in all its forms. They are strong advocates for #LandBackBodiesBack. Learn more about AF3IRM Hawai‘i HERE.

In your own words, define Land Back.

Kajihiro: I am not Kanaka Maoli. My understanding of the term comes from working with Hawaiians engaged in land struggles. The specific term "Land Back" comes from a campaign by NDN Collective and other Native American groups to recover ancestral lands taken by the United States. The term has spread and become a rallying cry and slogan for many Indigenous peoples seeking to recover stolen lands. In the context of Hawaiʻi, that can refer to specific parcels of land, such as those occupied by the U.S. military, or it can mean the recovery of Hawaiʻi's national territory as a sovereign country. It means Indigenous people gaining control over land to govern in accordance with their ancestral knowledge, values, and social needs. In Hawaiʻi, the U.S. military occupies hundreds of thousands of acres of Hawaiian trust land, land of the Hawaiian Kingdom that were wrongfully taken. At some sites, such as Mākua, Kahuku, Poamoho, Pōhakuloa, and Haleakalā, the military leases vast amounts of land for 65 years for a dollar. It has conducted destructive activities in violation of the terms of the leases and of state environmental laws. These leases expire in 2029 or thereabouts. This presents a rare opportunity for land to be returned to the care of Kānaka Maoli.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: Land Back is an assertion of Native rights, sovereignty, and self-determination. It is the assertion that we will be free once more. Although Land Back is native led, the allyship of non-native members of the community is critical to its success. What is important to note is that Land Back must include ending patriarchy - the social, political, and economic system that allowed for the theft of land, people, and culture.

What do you want people to know about Land Back? / What are some misconceptions about Land Back?

Kajihiro: Apologies from settlers without actually returning the stolen lands are just empty words. I think the greatest misconception and fear by settlers is that Land Back will mean their own dispossession. While Land Back will constrain the freedom of governments and corporations to exploit and destroy the earth, in my experience, it is not intended as retribution against individuals. Land Back is a necessary step in correcting historical injustice and repairing relations.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: We want people to know that Land Back is a struggle that is connected across oceans and continents. Land Back started on Turtle Island (America) and was brought to Hawaiʻi through the relationships we have with other Native activists and organizers. We also want people to know that transnational feminism is crucial to how we are thinking about Land Back. Many movements for liberation are ones that are deeply misogynistic and exploit women in the process. When we call for Land Back we are also calling for the end of patriarchy and violence against women. A misconception about Land Back is that this statement is just about land. When we say “Land Back” we are not only asking for the physical land to be returned but for the reclamation of our bodies, families, and non-colonial ways of life that have sustained us for generations. If Land Back were to be solely about land, we would be replicating the same Western notions of property, ownership, extraction, and dominance that continue to sever our connection to this place and each other.

What are the benefits of Land Back? / Why is the Land Back movement important?

Kajihiro: Indigenous peoples will have greater access to the resources and relations with land that make them who they are. Reversing the tide of cultural genocide requires Indigenous peoples restoring kinship with their lands. I believe that Indigenous governance of land use in accord with their ancestral knowledge will be better for everyone, including the planet as a whole.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: The Land Back movement benefits all, not just Native peoples. Land Back is a way to address our economic, environmental, and social crises that are directly linked to the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi. Our current way of life is in no way sustainable, Land Back offers alternative futures that will sustain our communities for generations to come. Land Back means restoration of our life-giving mutual relationships built on care and reciprocity. The Land Back movement is important because it is encompassing of a variety of struggles we face today. From water, to land, to housing, education, and everything in between, Land Back is a call to address all of these problems with Native self-determination as the basis of liberation.

Conversely, what are the consequences of continuing with the status quo (if land is NOT given back)?

Kajihiro: A failure to right the historical injustice of Indigenous land dispossession will result in escalating conflict over land use and environmental impacts. Indigenous peoples alienated from their ancestral lands will continue to be orphans, separated from the lands that are their kin. In the long term, a failure to reverse the environmental and social catastrophe of unbridled capitalist development and militarism will make our islands and the planet increasingly unlivable.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: What is important to remember is that the status quo hurts everyone except for the one percent. If land is not returned our ʻāina will continue to be desecrated. Hawaiʻi as we know it will continue to disappear.

What questions should someone/a church ask of themselves if they want to support the movement for Land Back?

Kajihiro: I think settlers must ask themselves how they benefit from the ongoing theft of Indigenous lands. I say ongoing, because the historical event of the taking doesn't end with the incident. The persistent condition of land alienation continues to inflict harm even as others profit from that dispossession. Then the next question should be what substantial steps can we take restore right relations with Indigenous peoples and their lands, beginning with those lands where we have the power to change the course of events.

1) What is the accountability of recognizing the church’s role in the systematized erasure of indigenous peoples, in its participation in the land theft and severing connections to land, language, and cultural practices?

2) How do you reconcile with the history that Western religion has played in the abuses of indigenous peoples? (example: residential schools, theft of land to build churches, forced conversion of native peoples) 3) How can the church respond to the call to protect, heal, and restore what is sacred to indigenous peoples around the world?

What are some examples of Land Back that you’ve seen or would like to see?

Kajihiro: One example of Land Back in Hawaiʻi is the struggle to stop the bombing and win the return of Kahoʻolawe, which is currently held by the State of Hawaiʻi as a trustee for the (re)emerging Hawaiian Nation. This is an unfinished project, as the island has only been partially cleaned of its unexploded ordnance. But it is an important milestone and guide for other efforts to recover stolen lands. A failure of Land Back happened in Waikāne, when the military condemned land from the Kamaka family rather than clean up the unexploded ordnance. Raymond Kamaka went to prison protesting this injustice. After years of unsuccessfully fighting for the Land Back, he died. The land is still controlled by the U.S. Marine Corps.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: One example of Land Back that AF3IRM works on is MMNHWGM (Missing and Murdered Native Hawaiian Women Girls and Māhū). Going back to the truth that it's not just about land, but people as well, AF3IRM works to address the sexual trafficking and exploitation that occurs in Hawaiʻi. Many young Native Hawaiian women, girls, and māhū go missing in Hawaiʻi - this is directly linked to the military and tourism industry occupying our lands. With Land Back, we would get these harmful institutions out of Hawaiʻi and protect our women, girls, and māhū.

Maunakea, Draining the tanks at Red Hill, and efforts to restore ʻāina are all connected to Land Back.

One example of Land Back that we would like to see are churches in Hawaiʻi supporting Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination.

Anything else you would like to share?

Kajihiro: I think you should ask Kanaka Maoli who have been involved in Land Back efforts. Some names that come to mind are Andre Perez and Camille Kalama, ʻIlima Long, Joy Enomoto, Keʻeaumoku Kapu, Walter Ritte, Sparky Rodrigues, Lynette Cruz, Kaleikoa Kaeo, Davianna McGregor, Mililani Trask, Jonathan Osorio.

Note: Our Editorial Team attempted to reach out to the individuals listed above, but were unable to make contact or did not receive a response.

AF3IRM Hawai‘i: Mahalo for the opportunity to share about our Land Back Bodies Back! Here is to the continued support of the Land Back movement in Hawaiʻi and across the world.

~ This concludes the Q&A on Land Back ~

Understanding Land Back can be difficult for those of us conditioned to view land as merely property to be owned, but hard conversations are important for us in the church and for our world. We encourage people to do their own research and reflection, ask questions, and most importantly, listen to the wisdom of those who have stewarded the ‘āina from the start.

Interested in learning more?

What is the land back movement? (CNN, United Shades of America)

“Land Back to Indigenous hands must be collective task, advocates urge” (UCC News)


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