If we live on stolen land, activists say, give it back
It has become common for civic meetings in the region to open with officials reading "land acknowledgment" statements that say all surrounding properties were stolen from the original Indigenous inhabitants.
From the Portland City Council to the Multnomah County Commission, Metro, and the Oregon Historical Society, such statements have become routine before hearings, community events and other proceedings. They typically say the region was traditionally the lands of native peoples, including the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin Kalapuya and Molalla tribes, as well as bands of Chinook and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River. Today, their descendants are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Chinook Nation and Cowlitz Nation in Washington.
If local governments feel that way, Indigenous environmental activists say, then start giving it back.
"Land acknowledgment has been an easy thing to check off. It's nice to acknowledge disposed Indigenous people," said Xiuhtezcatl, an internationally known, Indigenous environmental activist and hip-hop artist living in Portland. "That's an entry point to a conversation that we need to move further."
Xiuhtezcatl, as he is professionally known, is not trying to be flip, sarcastic or offensive. On the contrary, in person, the 21-year-old is consistently polite and soft-spoken. But he is also a prominent voice of a youth-based environmental justice movement that believes the Earth is threatened by climate change and would be better protected by descendants of those who lived in harmony with it for so many previous generations.
"We are at a tipping point now, where we will either be remembered as the generation that destroyed the planet, as a generation that put profits before future, or as a generation that united to address the greatest issue of our time," Xiuhtezcatl said.
Portland leaders insist they are responding to the concerns of Native Americans.
The Portland City Council even approved a Land Acknowledge-related resolution last December which said the Indian Removal Act of 1830 "institutionalized the theft of tribal lands and removal of Native Americans from their ancestral territories," including in the Portland area.
Laura John, the city's Tribal Relations Director, said understanding the impacts local history had on Native peoples is important to acknowledge.
"The continuous increase in knowledge and understanding of Native culture, customs and lifeways is essential in bolstering the initiatives that are being implemented to promote greater Native visibility and engagement, decolonization of public spaces, inclusivity, systems change, sovereignty and treaty rights," said John.
Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced "shoo-tez-cat") supports the Land Back movement that seeks to return control of the lands occupied by Indigenous people before colonization. It is backed by Indigenous groups and their allies across the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Greenland, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands.
Although the movement is as old as colonization, it has recently gained momentum in the United States with the sprawling social justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd, including their support for a campaign to return the Black Hills in South Dakota that encompasses Mount Rushmore to the Great Sioux Nation. The tribe's claim to the land was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 but is not yet settled.
"The momentum created in the streets for Black liberation absolutely carried over into Indigenous liberation struggles and the Land Back movement, from the toppling of racist monuments to the changing of pro sports teams racist names and mascots. It fueled and amplified Indigenous sovereignty struggles that have been going on for generations. And, as the youth begin to lead these movements, we are organizing from a more intersectional place than ever, seeing that we can more effectively build power when we are committed to each other's liberation," Xiuhtezcatl said.
Tactics like vandalism are controversial, however. Even the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable denounced the destruction at the Oregon Historical Society that took place the same night that statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were toppled in the South Park Blocks last year.
Xiuhtezcatl released a new song and video in May titled "Take It All Back." It condemns the colonization of the Americas — including the stealing of native lands and the oppression of the original inhabitants — and it accuses those who signed the U.S. Constitution of having "bloody hands."
The video includes footage of protests at Mount Rushmore, which critics claim is a monument to white supremacy. It has already been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube. It promises that the younger generation is rising up against the injustices and resulting environmental degradation of the planet:
Hidden from the history, it's obvious (Can't you see?)
Younger generation carry all of this (Everything)
Do it for the elders watching over us (Over)
We leading the movement, watch us body this (Watch us body)
The video is part of a larger campaign to support the Land Back movement involving music, art and fashion. It was promoted in part by a large mural of a protest fist framed by a braided rope loop painted in downtown Portland on the front of the building that houses Industrial PDX, a creative consultancy working to shift the culture. It was designed by Mvskoke-Creek artist and fashion designer Hôtvlkuce Harjo, and incorporates the names of two organizations active in the Land Back movement, NDN Collective and LANDBACK.ORG.
But by "All," Xiuhtezcatl means every aspect of Indigenous culture:
"While the land is the center of many of our ways of life, I've learned from many front lines organizers that Land Back also means the reclamation and revitalization of our languages, our stories, our places of ceremony and our kinship systems. We are in the process of taking it all back. Starting with the land."
Is acknowledgment enough?
Some have criticized Land Acknowledgment statements as meaningless and patronizing.
"They situate us in the past, out of sight and out of mind, save for when a show of good faith is needed," Nick Martin wrote in the Feb. 10, 2020, issue of The New Republic.
The Portland City Council has tried to do better. It passed a resolution to formalize relations with tribal governments and the urban Native American communities in 2012. It replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day in 2015, six years before the 2021 Oregon Legislature did the same thing. The council then created a Tribal Relations Program including the position of tribal relations director in the Office of Government Relations in 2017, which is currently held by Laura John, a descendant of the Blackfeet and Seneca Nations with a history of working with Native communities. And the city began hosting annual Tribal Nations Summits in 2018 that included day-long training for city employees.
Before she retired from the council, Commissioner Amanda Fritz spearheaded the Regional Collaborative Land Acknowledgment Project in partnership with the cities of Beaverton and Hillsboro, Metro, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Multnomah County, NW Natural, Oregon Historical Society, Pacific Corp., Portland General Electric, the Port of Portland, the Portland Trailblazers, the PTM Foundation, Regional Arts and Culture Council, Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, and Washington County. It was intended to develop well-researched land acknowledgments to honor the legacy and continued presence of Native Americans in the region and signal a more profound commitment to strengthen meaningful relationships with Tribal Nations and the urban Native community. It resulted in the 2020 resolution that also requires the city to increase opportunities for Native Americas and waive parks fees for their events.
"Our government institutions have been responsible for the death, injustice, pain, loss of land, loss of income, disparities that we see in our community today. And it's our responsibility to make amends for them," Fritz said when they were adopted.
Still, the council has not returned any of the lands it owns to the descendants of those it acknowledges occupied them before colonization. Nor has any other government, including Metro, the elected regional government.
In her State of the Region address to the City Club of Portland in February, Metro President Lynn Peterson said, "We are on this land because of the forced removal of its Indigenous peoples by colonists, settlers, the U.S. government and state of Oregon."
"As a government striving to embed racial equity in our work, we must acknowledge the history of violence, genocide and theft of Indigenous land that is foundational to the establishment of this nation, and the state of Oregon."
Metro is considering what to do with the Portland Expo Center, the 35-acre exhibition facility along the Columbia River in North Portland once occupied by Native Americans. Although it is consulting with the current tribes, goals so far only include honoring and creating wealth-building opportunities for Black, Black American, Japanese, Japanese American, Tribes, Indigenous communities and other disenfranchised communities of color.
Deciding which tribe or tribes are entitled to the property would be complicated. In Oregon City, three tribes — the Grand Ronde, Umatilla and Warm Spring tribes — are currently debating which of them historically fished at Willamette Falls, another project with Metro involvement.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office has gotten involved in the dispute but has not yet resolved it.
Activist calls Portland home
Tall and lean with chiseled features and long straight hair, Xiuhtezcatl looks like an idealized Hollywood version of an Indigenous activist. But he has been completely authentic his entire life.
Xiuhtezcatl was born in Colorado but moved to Mexico in his infancy. He has two younger siblings, sister Tonantzin and brother Itzcuauhtli. His father, Siri Martinez, is of Aztec heritage and raised them in the tradition of the Mexica, one of the native peoples of México. His mother, Tamara Roske, was one of the founders of the Earth Guardian Community Resource Center, an environmentally oriented high school in Maui, Hawaii. Xiuhtezcatl says he sees the individual as part of a greater whole, and of believes all aspects of the natural world are connected.
Xiuhtezcatl became politically active at age 6, speaking at protest rallies and then conferences. He gave three TED talks as a teenager and was awarded the U.S. Volunteer Service Award by President Barack Obama in 2013. In June 2015, at age 15, he spoke before the UN General Assembly on Climate Change in English, Spanish and Nahuatl, urging immediate climate action and saying, "What's at stake right now is the existence of my generation."
A YouTube video of his speech has been viewed more than one million times.
In 2017, he was included on Rolling Stone's "25 under 25 list"' of young people who will change the world. In 2018, he received a Generation Change Award at the MTV Europe Music Awards.
Xiuhtezcatl also is one of 21 plaintiffs involved in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government in 2015 actions it has taken that have contributed to and worsened climate change. He was also one of seven plaintiffs in the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case, which was similar to Juliana v. United States.
Music has long been a means for Xiuhtezcatl to get his message out. He and his siblings released their first album, "Generation Ryse," in August 2014. It included eco hip-hop tracks like "What the Frack." In 2015 he competed with young musicians from around the world who submitted self-produced music "to inspire the negotiations" at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. His selection "Speak for the Trees" was chosen as the Jury Award Winner. He released his first solo album, "Break Free," in the spring of 2018, featuring songs like "Sage Up" and "Young." Through his music, Xiuhtezcatl has toured internationally for years, performing and speaking at environmental festival in numerous counties.
All that ended shortly after Xiuhtezcatl moved to Portland when COVID-19 shut down the world. Opportunities to continue his work seemed to disappear until the social justice protests brought thousands of Portlanders into parks and the streets to protest mistreatment of people of color. Xiuhtezcatl appeared at many large gatherings to present the Land Back movement with the mostly young, politically energized crowds.
And he began work on his next album, which will feature "Take It All Back," produced and promoted in his new home town.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.