Native Land Taxes Reclaim Rights, Power, and the Environment

One of the most prevalent tools of colonialism has been the removal of land and natural resources from the hands of Indigenous peoples. This has led to the cultural, social, and spiritual disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples and, as Native methods of land stewardship vanish, wide-ranging environmental effects are harming both Native and non-Native communities.

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, only 20% of the globe’s land is legally in the hands of Native peoples who protect and promulgate 80% of its biodiversity.

Supporting efforts to return land to Indigenous peoples, like the LANDBACK movement, is not only a moral imperative but also an environmental one. For conscientious investors and activists, the clearest path to environmental protection is Native Rematriation of land and natural resources.

Rematriation, as opposed to repatriation, is a movement which supports the return of land to Indigenous communities and a return to land stewardship using Native techniques and traditions to restore the natural balance of the land.

The effort to reclaim Native land rights—which also reclaims Indigenous cultures, traditions, and history— has gained traction in the United States in the last few years. One important innovation in the space has been the implementation of land taxes by Tribal governments, Native organizations, and their allies.

These land taxes encourage local non-Native people living on stolen Indigenous land to pay taxes on their land use, which shows their respect for Native sovereignty and supports efforts to revitalize Native land, regain control of ancestral territory, and reinvigorate Native culture.

The first of such taxes was innovated in Humboldt County, California in support of the Wiyot Tribe’s sovereignty. The Wiyot people have lived in the Humboldt Bay and its surrounding areas since time immemorial, but since the first American settler arrived in Humboldt Bay in 1850, the Wiyot people have been forcibly dislocated from their land and traditions. The Honor Tax is “a way of recognizing and respecting the sovereignty of Native Nations” and by participating, non-Native community members can directly pay a tax on the benefit they derive from native land.

Growing out of this success, several other such taxes have been created to benefit Indigenous communities:

  • Real Rent Duwamish is a monthly income based “rent” implemented by the Duwamish Solidarity Group to benefit the Duwamish Tribe whose ancestral land is what is now Seattle;
  • Manna-hatta Fund Collective created a fund for non-native inhabitants of New York to contribute monthly to support the Indigenous peoples of the New York area;
  • Honor Native Land Tax in Albuquerque, NM, which supports Indigenous organizations on Tiwa Land;
  • Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an urban Indigenous women-led land trust based in the Bay Area, whose Shuumi Tax encourages non-Native inhabitants of the Bay to pay an annual tax dependent on the size of their home or their monthly rent. Such taxes have created a tangible way non-Indigenous people can easily support Native sovereignty in a way that viscerally ties back to the ill-gotten gains of the land on which they reside. Some Natural Investments clients are already contributing within their communities.

These taxes have not only been embraced by individuals living on Native land, but organizational partners have also stepped up. In 2021, Community Vision began implementing its Reparative Land Fee Program in partnership with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the California Tribal Fund, a California-based organization that supports local Indigenous communities.

Community Vision is a nonprofit community loan fund which has been a popular community investment choice for some Natural Investments clients for many years. The fund serves Northern and Central California’s low-income communities by providing loans for affordable housing and community facilities. Its mission is to support communities that have been systematically disadvantaged to gain access to real estate in one of the most expensive localities in the country. Their growing partnership with Sogorea Te’s land tax is a natural extension of this mission. The Land Fee Program collects a 0.5% fee on the amount Community Vision lends in all real estate transactions, which is then distributed to Sogorea Te’ and the California Tribal Fund.

Community Vision’s program is a great representation of investing in organizations that are aligned with the values of social and economic justice, which feeds into the broader ecosystem of socioeconomic revolution. These taxes provide a more approachable means of supporting Indigenous rights for average people and a simple step toward much needed reparations to U.S. Native communities. These mechanisms are also an opening for action for those who would like to further support their local Native community. Most of these taxes germinated in support of, not by the Native peoples they benefit. As a result, federally unrecognized tribes (like the Wiyot) can access capital in a more direct fashion.

The original Wiyot Honor Tax is a blueprint for other groups to create similar taxes for their local Native communities, and provides a toolkit for would-be organizers.

Respecting Native peoples means respecting their access to, and control of, their ancestral lands. Land taxes and other efforts to put capital resources back into the hands of Native communities is a means of supporting Native governments, organizations, and communities in regaining lost control and provides an accessible way for non-Native residents to support this effort. Regardless of where in the United States you live, you can directly contribute to the rematriation of Native American land and the return of our natural resources to the hands of those best placed to rehabilitate, utilize, and protect them.

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