Protecting the Land and Its History

March 18, 2021, Feature, by Cort Jones, Vitisia Paynich and Roxanne Sutton

2021 April Feature Protecting the Land and Its History 410x410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

Sara Sinclair and Stephanie Lozano discuss Native lands in the past, present and future

As far as Sara Sinclair and Stephanie Lozano are concerned, you don’t have to know much about the history of the Indigenous people or the tribal nations of North America to start a dialogue. You just need to have enough curiosity and desire to ask the questions and broaden your foundational knowledge about Native people.

“I think, sometimes, conversations don’t happen because people are afraid of revealing how little they know, and that’s ultimately really damaging to everyone. So, find a way to engage with that curiosity. There are lots of resources out there to be found more and more,” says Sinclair, an oral historian of Cree-Ojibwa and German-Jewish ancestry, a Columbia University professor and editor of the book How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America.

As for Lozano, she is a tribal liaison for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, which works with 11 federally recognized tribes located within the state to provide child welfare support for families and other critical services. She is part of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Recently, Sinclair and Lozano shared their insights with NRPA and Parks & Recreation magazine about the tribal nations in North America, how they define equity as it applies to Indigenous people, and why land acknowledgement should be important to everyone.

Parks & Recreation: Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the work that you’re currently doing?

Sara Sinclair: I was invited to be part of the [TEDxCollegePark] conference [in March] to speak…about a book that I’ve been working on for the last few years. It came out in October [2020 and] it’s called How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America. The project actually began as my thesis work; I came to New York City to study oral history at Columbia University. And while I was in the program, I started interviewing other Native students that I was meeting in the Columbia community, and then…people specifically from Native American reservations, who left their homes to come and study at these elite academic institutions and then moved home again to work for their nations. But in the context of doing that work, I quickly envisioned putting these interviews together in a book, because the people that I was interviewing were such incredible narrators, storytellers and educators. I felt like they were able to narrate North American history — not Native American history — in a way that was really lacking from most North Americans’ experiences. There’s a lot of research being done recently, in particular, an organization called IllumiNative. They’ve done some research that shows that 87 percent of state-level history standards fail to cover Native people after 1900. That’s crazy! We’re in 2021 and 87 percent of people are not learning anything about what happens to Native Americans after 1900. So, I was really motivated by what I thought was a real gap in the educational experiences across the continent.

Ultimately, I went to Voice of Witness and said, “I want to do this book. Do you want to do it with me?” Voice of Witness is [a nonprofit] organization that works to amplify the voices of people impacted by and fighting against injustice. They said, “Yes.”

So, I was able to travel far and wide across North America, speaking to people about some of the most universal issues that are impacting Native life today. These are issues that include environmental injustices, the legacy of the Indian residential school system, the high prevalence of kids in foster care today, extraction, treaty violations, barriers to healthcare and education, and on and on.

Stephanie Lozano: Before I came to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, I worked for my tribe [Ho-Chunk Nation] for several years doing child welfare work, focusing on Indian child welfare. And as a part of that experience, I got to learn not only my language, my culture, my kinship system and how we’re all interrelated, but I [also] started learning a lot about the history and how children were coming into foster care as a result of these federal Indian policies that were impacting tribes back in the 1800s, and, in particular, how they impacted my tribe, our children and our families — some of that historic trauma that we carried with us.

One of the things that I do for the department…is provide a lot of training to them on tribal history and how that impacts the programs and services that we’re providing out there. In particular, [we’ve] been focusing a lot on…land acknowledgements, making sure that folks [know] the importance of why we need to start understanding the history of the land and how we’re connected to it, who was there before us and why that changed. It’s been really incredible to see other departments look at establishing their own land acknowledgements…[and] being able to provide them with the resources to do that and do it with a level of accuracy.

P&R: Sara, at this writing, you’ll be speaking at TEDxCollegePark’s ‘An Equal Future.’ One of the things that will be discussed is the importance of amplifying contemporary, Indigenous voices to help change the narrative for future generations. Can you expand a little bit on the importance of amplifying these voices?

Sinclair: I think one of the things that was really important for me when I was working on the book is that…the book should be a call to action. For non-Native readers, I wanted them to be able to contextualize these issues within a much longer historical context and within a much broader sociological one. [Within] the 12 narratives that are contained in this book, there are people who are working really actively to change the narrative for future generations.

There are people who’ve experienced real challenges and injustice in their own lives, but [also] there are people who are actively working to change that reality for future people. [For example,] Marian Naranjo, who is based in Santa Clara Pueblo (New Mexico)…, was a victim of a secret radiation experiment when she was a young person. And today, she leads her pueblo and surrounding pueblos to do the rigorous work of filing environmental impact statements, to make explicit what the consequences of living near Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory are for her people, their health and their sacred territories.

So, for non-Indigenous people, I want them to have a lot more context about the ongoing struggles that exist for Native people and [their] community to protect rights and life. And then for Indigenous people, I think a lot about…one of the first people I interviewed for the book, Ashley Hemmers. She’s from the Fort Mojave Nation, which is a small nation where California, Nevada and Arizona intersect. And, she spoke about how before she became aware of the resources that would help her to understand her own tribe’s history and the history of colonialism in the United States, she became really drawn to books about the Holocaust that she could find in her school library. When she read those stories, she saw in them the intergenerational trauma, [which] was something that she recognized in her own communities but didn’t yet have the language for. And so, reading about it in that other context helped her to better understand what was happening…in her own community.

P&R: Stephanie, could you talk a little bit about the Ho-Chunk Nation’s history, the land and some of the key conservation and environmental challenges your tribe is currently facing?

Lozano: The Ho-Chunk land actually spanned from what is now Green Bay (Wisconsin) to Minneapolis (Minnesota), down to St. Louis and up to Chicago. So, that was our original territory. Throughout the 1800s, the federal government had a policy of removal. They [wanted] to move tribal people West. And my people got removed from this plan several times. There are differing accounts of exactly how many times, but we know that our people were moved to Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and, eventually, Nebraska.

So, the Ho-Chunk people that are here in Wisconsin are actually the descendants of the ones that continued to come back…or the ones that never left. Sometimes, they hid out and would avoid the removals. When our last removal was to Nebraska, a portion of our family stayed there and a portion of us came back. And now, we’re two separate tribes — federally recognized. We have the same language, the same culture, the same history, but we are counted as two different tribes. And I think it’s this piece for me, in terms of the land that we’re connected to and some of the challenges that are faced. The Ho-Chunk people have always considered themselves to be stewards of the land. We are mindful of the wildlife that is here and making sure that things continue in harmony, but I’ve not really heard about my tribe facing a lot of environmental challenges like some of the other tribes with the pipelines and different things like that. I see us supporting other tribes and their struggles, but I think a lot of it has to do with some of the fierce advocates that we have that are speaking on our behalf on state and national levels.

And Ho-Chunk is actually in our language and…means “people of the big voice or people of the sacred language.” So, we’re kind of known out there for being pretty outspoken and pretty strong in our advocacy.

P&R: Stephanie, could you share any insights around activists, activism and advocacy within the Ho-Chunk Nation?

Lozano: One of the things that we had going on here [in Wisconsin] about five years ago, was some pending legislation regarding a piece of land that had to do with our burial mounds in Madison. And so, it [was something] to see…the people come down to the capital and start advocating against that legislation to support the land and our heritage. Those mounds are really connected to who we are as a people. We were one of the only mound builders in the area. And, there’s a company that had purchased some land that had a mound and had been slowly destroying that mound because there were a lot of minerals and rocks buried within it that were quite valuable.

It’s been really nice to just watch and learn and be able to just share that with folks who don’t know the history. They don’t know what’s going on. When nobody’s out there promoting or sharing the information, it’s kind of up to us to educate each other — even one or two people at a time. They go out and they tell another couple of people. And before you know it, there’s an entire movement.

P&R: Moving to today, the current administration has pledged to put equity at the center of its governing policies. And looking at the needs of tribal nations, as they relate to health and well-being and land and water conservation, what does real equity look like to you?

Lozano: For me, there’s a few different types of equity. There’s an equity in practice, but there’s also equity in consequences. So tribal activists often face harsher consequences than activists from other groups; people of color, in particular. And I think we’re seeing that play out in some of the more recent historical events…who goes to jail or who gets charged and who gets kept in jail, who can make bail — that type of thing. I think it’s really important to make sure that everybody is held to the same standard when we’re standing up for what we believe in.

There’s also equity in policy, which looks a lot like what we’re doing here in Wisconsin, in terms of having a robust consultation policy with tribes and making sure that the leadership understands why it’s important to consult with tribes.

Here in Wisconsin, our governor has really stood up and challenged every single cabinet agency to do better in terms of our tribal consultation and making sure that we are putting tribal voices at the front of development versus an afterthought. So, one of the things that we’ve been using as a metaphor is: in state government, we tend to bake a lot of cakes for our stakeholders. We develop a policy or a program and we do all of the work here at the capital. And then we take it out to all of our stakeholder groups and say, “Look at this beautiful cake; look at what we made you. Don’t you love it?”

But we have no idea if somebody has an allergy to gluten, or my personal favorite is, “I like whipped cream frosting, not buttercream. How would you know that unless you asked me?” And so, consultation to me is about picking the ingredients together — looking at that recipe and figuring out what’s going to work for everybody that [is] impacted versus coming at me with cake that I might not like. Or, you might have to change [the recipe] because you didn’t talk to me ahead of time.

Sinclair: There’s a movement now to repatriate land…. And, I know a lot of people get scared hearing the phrase ‘land back,’ because they think that it means Indigenous nations are asking for everything back. Of course, that’s not what it actually means. What it means in the United States is finding some of the public lands to give back to Indigenous nations, [but] it also means things in different urban contexts. There are organizations…like Oakland’s (California) Indigenous women-led Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. It’s funded by local residents and businesses who voluntarily pay them a land tax for living on Ohlone land. The organization has these three plots of land for the local Indigenous community to cultivate traditional medicinal plants, to practice urban farming and to provide space for ceremony. And one of those plots, a quarter-acre site, was gifted by a non-Indigenous organization, Planting Justice, after they returned from Standing Rock and asked how they could support Indigenous people in Oakland. So, it’s a lot about thinking about how to give back land and also how to share land in different ways.

P&R: How can park and recreation agencies and other local government agencies support some of this work?

Lozano: I think what we see here locally in Wisconsin is a real partnership with local government and the tribes. So, they’ll partner on different programming. In a lot of our state parks, we have these historical markers that talk about the park or the history of that particular piece of land. A lot of these historical markers have some tribal connotation or tribal tie that goes with them and [tells] the story of that particular area. So, it might be a local family that lived nearby or a village that was in that area, and a piece of history that might’ve happened on or near that land.

[T]here’s a lot of opportunities for partnership, but it really takes that drive and curiosity to go out and find somebody who is knowledgeable and willing to work on it together…having some type of cultural liaison to be able to talk about the history, talk about what’s relevant and talk about it with a level of accuracy based on the stories that…have been passed down from generation to generation. What we might know at the historical society may not be the same as what is known by a tribal community with the accuracy of what is documented versus what actually happened at that site. So, reaching out to those partners and building a relationship. And that level of partnership is really important to go forward and see what would work for that community. But that’s where the relationship comes in.

P&R: At this writing, we’re awaiting Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s confirmation as the next Secretary of the Interior. What are your thoughts about her confirmation and what do you believe should be at the top of her agenda?

Sinclair: It just makes me happy. I know that she’s still going to have to work within a lot of really challenging and limiting structures, but she’s going to be bringing a very different mindset and set of values with her to that office. And, I’m excited that someone with her point of view and with her values is going to be the person navigating that very particular set of challenges.

Lozano: I think there’s going to be a lot of competing interests, a lot of different wants, desires and needs out there that she’s going to have to try to balance. At the heart of the administration, they’re placing a high priority on this concept of tribal consultation. And tribal consultation, hopefully, in a different way. It’s, hopefully, going to move away from sitting around the table and reporting out everything that you’ve done in the last year and really [move] toward having a conversation about where priorities lie. Not to say that should be her entire agenda, but, hopefully, it will guide the direction…in terms of where she wants to take the department and the relationship. [But] I’m really excited. It’s been incredible to...see women of color being considered, even for some of these high positions in our federal government.

P&R: Is there anything that you didn’t get a chance to talk about that you would like to share or that you feel is important for people to know?

Sinclair: One of the things that I was really hopeful [for] with the book, How We Go Home, is that it would give people…some good foundational knowledge so that they wouldn’t be afraid of having further conversations. You can start this work in the privacy of your own home. You don’t need to reveal that you didn’t have this education, because it’s become so obvious with the research that is happening today, that so many people are not learning this in their traditional educational experiences.

But there are now so many other ways to pursue it. There are so many incredible Indigenous thinkers on Twitter and Instagram and many organizations, like IllumiNative, to follow to get a sense of what people are working toward, what Indigenous people are fighting for, what they care about, and then as Stephanie said, it’s going to be really different in different cities and reservations across the continent, but there’s a lot of information out there to start this learning.

Lozano: I go back to the start of our conversation about the importance of amplifying voices and making sure that we’re using the tools and the privileges that are afforded to us to help amplify the voice of another. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, and to me, those are some of the bigger buzzwords that are happening right now. If you’re not doing equity, inclusion and diversity, then you’re just not doing well in your organization. But I’d like to take that to a different level in terms of what it means to truly be equitable and truly be inclusive in the work that we’re doing and really making sure that the voices that typically aren’t at the table are there and taken into consideration at the point of development versus having to retrofit. Let’s stop baking the cake and taking it out to our stakeholders, and let’s start building relationships and picking ingredients together.

Tune in to the April bonus episode of Open Space Radio to hear Sinclair and Lozano talk more about preserving the history and land of Native people at

Cort Jones is NRPA’s Communications Manager and Cohost of Open Space Radio. Vitisia Paynich is NRPA’s Executive Editor, Print and Online Content. Roxanne Sutton is NRPA’s Communications Director and Cohost of Open Space Radio.