Reflections on Land Back and Education

By: Erica Neeganagwedgin


Dr. Erica Neeganagwedgin is an Assistant Professor in Critical Policy, Equity and Leadership Studies within the Faculty of Education at Western University.

Part I. A Taino Perspective on LandBack

Before focusing on the implications of LandBack for education systems, I offer a window into my perspective on land in the context of the LandBack movement. This is important because Indigenous peoples are not monolithic; rather, they reflect many languages, cultures and ways of life. In fact, Coulson-Drasner highlights the many Indigenous peoples living in 90 countries, with approximately 5,000 cultures and 4,000 distinctive languages.[1] Despite their differences, for many of these communities, their cultural development and kinship ties were grounded in the lands where they lived.[2] The continued struggle to preserve and protect Indigenous lands is a central component of the global movement for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. From this lens, it is unsurprising that LandBack has struck a shared chord for many Indigenous communities across the globe.

As a Taino individual from the Caribbean, Indigenous peoples’ activism to create structural and transformational changes is very important to me, and I support Indigenous peoples’ efforts to reclaim their lands throughout Canada and globally. Dubois and Turits recount the impossibility “to disentangle accounts of the Indigenous Caribbean from the history of how such accounts came to be produced within the history of European empire in the region.” My perspective on LandBack in the Canadian context is informed by the dispossession experienced by the Taino people and by the shared legacy of colonialism.

From 1492 onwards, Taino people from the Caribbean Islands – my ancestral territories – and other people experienced loss of land, along with the retelling of the story that Taino people no longer existed.[3] This has been a dominant theme for centuries. Since 1492, Indigenous Caribbean peoples have had many attempts to “categorize, define, and contain” them.[4]  This history of oppression cannot be dissociated from the effects of land dispossession.  The theft of land and displacement has severe implications for Indigenous people worldwide, sometimes leading to Indigenous death. For example, Purtell reported that, globally, approximately 212 known people were killed defending their lands against capitalist industry, and at least 40% of those 212 were Indigenous. 10

Colonial oppression sought to remove the Taino people from our lands with which we have intimate relationships. This caused immeasurable cultural and social harm. The land has fed and protected us. As González states, “[a]ncestral lands and geographical features… nourish Taíno and provide a deep sense of belonging thereby forming a cultural and spiritual foundation for Indigenous life and vitality of body and soul.” Who we are as Taino people reconnects us to our Lands. The Lands are connected to us and are our relatives; they are inseparably linked to who we are as Taino people. As Caribbean Indigenous people, we are the land, and the lands are us.

Land connects us to our past and present, but it also serves as a foundation for our future. Dubois and Turits explain that “the historical struggles over land and autonomy in the Caribbean have been about mapping the future. Agents of empire and too many national leaders in the region have, again and again, been capable of imagining only plantation futures.”[5] Yet, they write that multiple communities in the Caribbean have imagined other futures, too, rooted in their experiences and struggles within, and against, the colonial order.[6] This is critical because when we, as Taino people, have persisted. We are expressing our self-determination and sovereignty, guided by the lands in which our ancestors lived, and guided by our caves and mountains and the Caribbean Sea.

The Taino people are not alone in this journey. Over the last few decades, evidence has shown the great extent to which Indigenous peoples have been forcibly and violently removed from their lands, and the efforts made to legitimize and justify the theft of Indigenous lands and genocide policies against Indigenous peoples.[7] These land thefts have taken place across continents over a continuum of more than five hundred years. For example, historically, the Portuguese erected stone crosses all along the coast of West Africa to symbolize their possession. Similarly, the doctrine of Discovery was used to justify Indigenous dispossession by multiple countries.[8] Through my own lived history and experiences, as someone who has deep ancestral roots in lands that were claimed, I can attest that the colonial legacy is still present even though such actions were historical. It is from these standpoints that I frame my understanding of the LandBack movement in Canada.

My perspective is also informed by my work in education. In fact, LandBack is a fundamental movement that must be met with transformational change by a variety of public and private actors, including educational institutions. Accordingly, the remainder of my article will focus on the role of the education systems, and the need for them to implement significant changes in the wake of the LandBack movement.

Part II. An Educational Perspective on LandBack

A. LandBack and Educational Institutions

Cariou remarks that “Land Back” grounds the dismissal of Indigenous demands for jurisdiction in the “stubborn insistence by Canada, the provinces and territories, that they own the land.”[9] Gombay and Palomino-Schalscha call on us to consider “how these processes are enacted and governed at multiple scales, from the body to the globe.”[10] These settler colonial processes are systemic and entrenched in the “logic of elimination” and the taking of Indigenous land.[11] To counter these policies, the LandBack movement re-emphasizes Indigenous jurisdiction over lands. As Two Bulls and Tilsen contend, LandBack means getting rid of the systems that enabled the theft of Indigenous lands. The movement serves as a reminder of the rights of Indigenous people to their lands and to what is inherently, and through Treaties, their lands, and territories.

Education is an important component of this discussion: First Nations have inherent and Treaty rights to their education, including post-secondary education which is part of a lifelong learning process.[12] The government is complicit in the dispossession of Indigenous lands, but also schools and universities as well. Postsecondary institutions, which continue to operate on Indigenous lands, have an obligation to examine their history and current practices.

Indigenous people continue to work to regain control of their education on their own terms. The current Canadian education system, despite its rhetoric of reconciliation, continues to exert structural violence in the lives of Indigenous peoples. The Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group reports that racism toward Indigenous students can take several forms, including “verbal attacks, psychological abuse, low expectations, social isolation and marginalization, professional indifference, systemic racism, and denial of racism and its effects.”[13] Fowler adds that the denial of systemic racism and the oppression of Indigenous people is entrenched in school and government policies, curricula, teaching and classroom pedagogy from K-12.[14] In the postsecondary context, at least “45 per cent [of Indigenous students] said they had experienced racism, a sense of isolation, or marginalization,” within these systems.[15]

From an American perspective that is equally applicable in Canada, Red Shirt-Shaw writes that the creation of postsecondary institutions and schools, which are settler colonial educational institutions built on Indigenous lands, was dependent upon “the denial of Indigenous rights and the erasure of Indigenous people.”[16] The author asserts that “the truth is – if it were not for the loss of land experience by Indigenous peoples, American colleges and universities would not exist.”[17] Red Shirt-Shaw calls on universities to challenge themselves to move away from performative words, and towards actually committing to, transformative change.[18] The question is whether educational institutions are prepared to make this commitment.

B. Performance and Transformational Change

Most postsecondary institutions in Canada have developed mission statements and commitments to Indigenous peoples, scholarship. In particular, many universities engage in Land Acknowledgement.[19] However, their engagement must go beyond talking and praising themselves after reciting a Land Acknowledgement; it must also aim to put the principles of the land in practice. Land Acknowledgments are not enough if they are not followed by concrete, meaningful action, gratitude, and responsivity demonstrated toward Indigenous communities and peoples in every capacity.

I have many times observed people applauding others who have done Land Acknowledgements. I have observed people having conversations about whose Land Acknowledgement was better. Acknowledgements and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ and their lands must be done from the heart. Daigle recounts, at times, that non-Indigenous people seem to be more preoccupied with learning how to recite an Acknowledgment.[20]  Mills argues that “part of the point in making Land Acknowledgements is to recognize how systemic and institutional systems of power have oppressed Indigenous peoples,” and how this oppression “has historically influenced the way in which non-Indigenous people perceive and interact with Indigenous peoples.”[21] Consequently, Land Acknowledgement as a performance expresses empty words that lack an understanding of their purpose.

Instead, Mills discussed the need for honesty about why Land Acknowledgements are important and calls for the recognition of the history of attempted genocide and genocidal policies of Indigenous peoples in Canada.[22] Such Acknowledgements in the postsecondary context should recognize and confront responsibility for past actions in order to have the type of necessary conversations that could result in genuine change among students, faculty, and staff within them. This is essential if they are to move away from denial towards meaningful and respectful relationship with Indigenous people.

C. The Way Forward

While many universities in Canada acknowledge being located on Indigenous lands, they tend to ignore and avoid addressing the violence which is embedded in and inherent to Indigenous peoples being forced off the lands which the universities occupy and continue to benefit from at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Not only does settler colonialism describe a process of confiscating land from the Original peoples, it also “casts a cloak of invisibility” over that process.[23]  This means that there is a culture of complicity connected to the entitlement of the theft of Indigenous lands, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the notion of empty lands to be used and exploited. How, then, can universities directly address the question of land? How will they reconcile the notion of LandBack?

Educational institutions must question their own history. Education systems in Canada, from K-12 to postsecondary institutions, must make way for honest discussions leading to concrete action in relation to LandBack. This requires a deep understanding of the land on which all schools and postsecondary institutions were and are built. Two Bulls and Tilsen state that “issues worth examining are the ways in which schools and postsecondary institutions acquired Indigenous land through their particular institutional histories,” and they call for “returning all public lands back to Indigenous hands.”[24] It is also important to examine the settler colonial structures and systems that created the theft and ownership of Indigenous lands in the first place. In many postsecondary institutions, the architecture tells its own story of violence through means as simple as whose pictures are on the walls in its hallways. The story is often a colonial one that is long established in power relations. Gombay and Palomino-Schalscha speak to the violence and denial “which for many settlers have culminated in a widespread ignoring of, or indifference to, their colonial histories.”[25]

Alternatively, Red Shirt-Shaw argues that, if institutional land cannot be returned to Indigenous nations, then these institutions must provide higher education to Indigenous students on their traditional territories at no cost as “land-based reparations.”[26] The author explains that “universities are morally obligated to acknowledge the educational needs of Indigenous peoples and to face their ongoing system of power that perpetuates the repression and erasure of Indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems.”[27]

Since Canada has built its wealth from and on the sacred lands of Indigenous peoples, I call on its postsecondary institutions, all of which are located on Indigenous territories, to remove systemic barriers and offer both application and tuition waivers for Indigenous students who wish to pursue postsecondary education in the spirit of LandBack. This is a call to all settler postsecondary institutions which are built on Indigenous lands and territories.

Part III. Conclusion

For transformation to occur, there needs to be a shift in how the dominant power structure view Indigenous peoples and their lands. LandBack cannot be “turned into a performance.”[28] Rather, it requires a recognition of the importance and relationship of land to Indigenous peoples. Gouldhawke states that “[l]and is the terrain upon which all our relations play out, and it can even be seen as a living thing itself, constantly shaping and being shaped by other life forms. Land isn’t just a place, it’s also a territory, which implies political, legal, and cultural relationships of jurisdiction and care.”[29] 

LandBack embodies the attachment and intimate relationship that Indigenous people have with their lands no matter where they are, and the centrality of land to their education system. Therefore,Indigenous education and pedagogical practices are essential for any understanding of lands and the relationships that Indigenous people have with the land. LandBack is a recognition that all of Canada is built on Indigenous lands. From this lens, LandBack is inseparable from Indigenous education. LandBack is reflecting and acting on one’s accountability to Indigenous peoples. LandBack is everything that Indigenous peoples say that it is.

[1]  See Amanda Coulson-Drasner, “Land loss threatens indigenous communities worldwide” (9 September 2018), online: DW <;.

[2] See Myra Lamaree, “Making Sense of Aboriginal Education in Canadian Public Schools: A Case Study of Four Inner City Elementary Principals and Their Vision of Aboriginal Education” (2008) 1:1 First Nations Perspectives 57 at 57.

[3] Erica Neeganagwedgin. “Rooted in the Land: Taíno Identity, Oral History and Stories of Reclamation in Contemporary Contexts” (2015) 11:4 AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples at 376–88.

[4]  Laurent Dubois & Richard Lee Turits, Freedom: Histories from the Caribbean Roots (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[5] Ibid at 319–20.

[6] See ibid.

[7] See Kimball Cariou, “Indigenous Peoples Want Their #LandBack” (9 January 2020), online (blog): People’s Voice <;.

[8] RJ Miller, “The Doctrine of Discovery: The International Law of Colonialism” (2019) 5:1 The Indigenous Peoples’ Journal of Law, Culture & Resistance35.

[9] Cariou, supra note 7.

[10] Nicole Gombay & Marcela Palomino-Schalscha, “(Trans)forming Indigenous-settler Colonial Relations” in Nicole Gombay & Marcela Palomino-Schalscha, eds, Indigenous Places and Colonial Spaces: The Politics of Intertwined Relations (New York: Routledge, 2018) at 1 [(Trans)forming].

[11] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native” (2006) 8:4 Journal of Genocide Research 387 at 387–88. See also Margaret Nash, “Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession” (2019) 59:4 History of Education Quarterly 437 at 443, who writes that “[s]ettler colonialism needs settlements, and settlements need land.”

[12] See e.g. Assembly of First Nations, “AFN Update on First Nations Post-Secondary Education” (July 2019), online: AFN Bulletin <;.

[13] Directions Evidence & Policy Research Group, “BC Antiracism Research Final Report” (2016) at 6, online (PDF): British Columbia Ministry of Education <>.

[14] TA Fowler, “Racism Contributes to Poor Attendance of Indigenous Students in Alberta Schools: New Study” (29 September 2020), online: The Conversation <>.

[15] Indspire, “Truth and Reconciliation in Post-Secondary Settings: Student Experience” (2018) at 31, online (PDF): Indispire <>.

[16] Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, “Beyond the Land Acknowledgement: College “LAND BACK” or Free Tuition for Native Students” (2020) at 2, online (pdf): Hack the Gates <; [Beyond].

[17] See ibid.

[18] See ibid.

[19] See ibid.

[20] Michelle Daigle, “The Spectacle of Reconciliation: On (the) Unsettling Responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples in the Academy” (2019) 37:4 Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 711.

[21] Selena Mills, “What are Land Acknowledgements and Why do they Matter?” (18 March 2019), online: Local Love <;.

[22] See ibid.

[23] Margaret Nash, “Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession” (2019) 59:4 History of Education Quarterly 437 at 446.

[24] Krystal Two Bulls & Nick Tilsen, “This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, We Don’t Need Celebration. We Need Our Land Back” (12 October 2020), online: In These Times <;.

[25] Gombay & Palomino-Schalscha, supra note 10 at 9.

[26] Red Shirt-Shaw, supra note 16 at 2.

[27] Ibid at 6.

[28] Claire Elise Thompson, “Returning the Land” (25 November 2020), online: Grist <>.

[29] Mike Gouldhawke, “Land as a social relationship” (10 September 2020), online: Briarpatch <;.