‘The Only Way to Save the Land is to Give It Back’: A Critique of Settler Conservationism

By Majerle Lister

The narrative that conservationism is an ally of Indigenous people and Indigenous land serves the opportunistic purpose of unifying Indigenous people and pro-conservationist to fight for the land. At the center of the US conservation movement is Theodore Roosevelt, a notable racist and violent imperialist. Any act or criticism against conservation is painted as an insult to the president — or the innocence of a settler nation. Settler conservation, however, has provided great victories for Indigenous people in the form of protecting sacred lands from capitalist development, such as, most recently, the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. Settler conservation plays a dual role, it keeps land away from Indigenous control while conserving land for the settler public. Narratives like this usually flow from one person to another without evaluating the reality from which it was created, all the while ignoring the historical dispossession of Indigenous lands.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the US, is the soul of settler conservationism. Roosevelt, a “big stick” imperialist, supported the US military invasion of Cuba in 1898, the violent annexation of the Philippines in 1900, the blockade of Panama and annexation of the Panama Canal in 1903. His bloody foreign policy matched his Indian policy. As part of his famous conservation policies, Roosevelt worked to transfer 230 million acres of Indigenous land to public lands. Besides calling Indigenous people “squalid savages,” he firmly believed that the land belonged to the “white race” through conquest and superiority, a staple of imperialism by violently increasing the land mass of the invading settler nation. Roosevelt also defended the Dawes Act of 1887, which opened 90 million acres of Indigenous land for white settlement. He praised the Act because it “pulverized” the tribal land mass and encouraged private ownership and the dissolution of collective tribal lands.

The history of the US conservation movement is a history settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism operates on certain myths so that it can reproduce itself. One of those myths is that Indigenous people of the U.S. were unproductive with the land therefore white settlers were entitled to the land. There are two main points in this myth, the capitalistic characteristic of productivity and the notion of white supremacy. When settlers came over, they deemed the land unproductive despite the complex use of the land by Indigenous people. Following this, they believed they were entitled to the land because they thought themselves superior to manage land and labor. This white supremacy ideology initiated the Indigenous genocide, Indigenous land dispossession, and the enslavement of the African people. Settler land management operates on this notion that indigenous people cannot management their lands themselves despite the romanticism of the “ecological” Indian. If Indigenous people cannot manage the land, who should be in charge? The discussion of control of stolen land shifts to a discussion of the public vs the private.

Indigenous people are quick to recognize the land grabs by the Federal government, or any other government, as the continuation of colonial land accumulation. Yet on the other end, conservationists see it as consolidating lands for the public. The conservationists rally around the term “Public lands” harkening to the spirit of Wood Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land.” This shifts the narrative away from Indigenous land claims and dispossession towards a discussion of the public good. Indigenous lands become the public’s land and “the public” — which excludes the original owners of the land — should be the ones who manage and control the land. Examples demonstrating the shift away from Indigenous land control are seen by corporations and non-profits, such as Sierra Club and Patagonia.

The photo above was spread throughout social media and many individuals rallied behind it not fully recognizing the harm it does for indigenous people whose land the public claimed was theirs. Patagonia called it an illegal move because it was an affront to the settler public but the corporation would not recognized the determinate factor behind the foundation of the U.S., Indigenous land dispossession.

Furthermore, Sierra Club posted an image of a white woman wearing a shirt that said “hands off our lands” intended to sell the shirt, and it included #PublicLands in the post. The irony behind a white person wearing a shirt is part of the settler context.

These are small ways in which Indigenous land claims are threatened by the way conservation groups and pro-conservation businesses advance settler colonialism.

Many conservationists can argue that Indigenous people are part of the public therefore it is inclusive. Due to mass genocide, Indigenous people are a small fraction of the settler public and it becomes apparent that indigenous people are rarely invited to the table let alone given much decision-making power — but that doesn’t make their concerns less important. Tribal consultation is usually unilateral or ignored when it comes to use of lands. It is obvious why the notion of public control is questionable from the standpoint of Indigenous people: they are a minority within the public.

The oppression of Indigenous people, via land dispossession, will be not be hidden by putting the sticker “environmentalism” on it. Trump’s attack on Indigenous lands is a clear manifestation of settler colonialism; but conservationism’s shift towards public lands rather than returning Indigenous lands to Indigenous people is little more than theft. (Also, Trump, a violent racist and nationalist, has more in common with Teddy Roosevelt than most conservationists care to admit.) Conservation must be seen for what it is and how it operates in settler-colonialism. The land does not belong to “the public.” It is necessary that it be returned to the management and control of Indigenous people. The only way to “save” the land is to return it to its rightful caretakers — Indigenous people.