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Indigenous people across the US want their land back -- and the movement is gaining momentum

Published on November 28, 2020 11:41 PM
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by Harmeet Kaur, CNN

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American Indians Indigenous people
(CNN)Around this time every year, Americans come together to share a feast commemorating a myth about its first inhabitants.

An indigenous tribe did eat with the Pilgrims in 1621 and sign a treaty with the colonists that had settled on their shores -- an act of survival rather one of goodwill and friendship. But the relationship would eventually break down, decimating the tribe's population and whittling away its land. Nearly 400 years later, the descendants of the very tribe at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday are still fighting to reclaim their lands -- a fight that ironically hinges on whether or not the tribe meets the federal government's definition of "Indian." "We're kind of stereotyped as the tribes that met the Pilgrims and that's our whole history, like we ceased to exist in 1621," said Robert Maxim, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. "That couldn't be further from the truth."

The Mashpee Wampanoag have lived in what's now Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. Despite their storied history in the US, they weren't recognized by the federal government until 2007. And in recent years, court rulings challenging whether the tribe's reservation is eligible to be put in trust have posed an existential threat. Their fight is one in a broader movement by indigenous people across North America to reclaim their lands -- a movement that is gaining steam as the nation grapples with injustices committed against marginalized communities.

Each battle is unique. For some, reclamation is about identity: ceremonies, connections to ancestors and traditional knowledge. For others, it's about economics: being able to hunt for food, access clean water and build homes or schools. And it can be about sovereignty: jurisdiction and governance.