SPAA Professor Partners in the Creation of #Landback Website, Advocating for the Return of Land to Indigenous Communities

“Native Host,” a series of five signs by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne, Arapaho), Spencer Museum of Art

SPAA Associate Professor Ward Lyles has partnered with fellow KU Professor Sarah Deer on the creation of #Landback North America, a website dedicated to documenting instances of land restitution to sovereign tribes, offering resources for those interested in pursuing land back, and fostering connections among researchers, advocates, and individuals interested in land return.

Dr. Sarah Deer, University Distinguished Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Indigenous Studies and by courtesy law at KU, read an article about a landowner in Pennsylvania who found arrowheads on his family’s property growing up. Curious about who to return the artifacts to given the absence of federally recognized tribes in the state, the landowner eventually discovered that the Delaware or Lenape tribes, initially displaced to Oklahoma, were the original inhabitants of the land. Subsequently, it was restored to them.

Deer later approached Prof. Lyles due to his expertise in land use, planning and land use mapping.

“That story got me interested in private landowners giving land back that was stolen. I didn’t have a project in mind per se at first,” Deer said. “I collected these stories, then got to know Ward. He’s very interested in this movement and is very conscientious about land ownership and return and is a true ally. We decided to launch the project as a way to give credence to #landback, not just as a metaphor, but to also inspire landowners who came into stolen lands generations ago. We wanted to help show this is grassroots, on-the-ground framework.”

The website is updated on a regular basis and currently documents over 90 instances of land owners, institutions, and other entities returning land to indigenous nations. Deer and Lyles explained that they haven't documented every occurrence because individuals frequently opt not to publicize land return for differing reasons. The provided locations are approximate, reflecting the researchers' commitment to respecting both those who choose to return land and tribes that have reclaimed their ancestral territory.

Prof. Lyles is quoted on the work saying: “We hope that multiple audiences will benefit from our efforts to compile and link information about so many instances of #landback in one place. For Tribal leaders, non-profits, and charitable organizations working to facilitate land return to Indigenous peoples with ancestral ties to the land, the site can spark inspiration about what is possible, provide information about specific strategies and tactics used elsewhere, and facilitate connections with peers working in other communities across the continent. For land owners considering how to foster long-term stewardship of places they care about, the stie may help them consider new partnerships and strategies with Indigenous groups, whether the current owners are individuals, businesses, state and local governments, or universities. And, for students and researchers, the site can support inquiry into a wide array of fascinating and policy-relevant questions about everything from legal mechanisms for land transfer, long-term stewardship plans, motivations for those returning lands, and more.”

Professor Bonnie Johnson, Program Director/Associate Professor in Urban Planning is quoted on the project saying: “One of our mottos for the KU Urban Planning Program is ‘Renewing the Relationship between Humans and the Land’. This resource helps all of us think about land in terms of gratitude and care.”

Click here to access #Landback North America