WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The Frontline talks to Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, on the lies we tell ourselves every Independence Day. For many Indigenous people, the holiday is a painful reminder of all America stole from them.
Every Fourth of July, we see red, white, and blue flags blowing in the wind. We see so-called patriots grilling their burgers and hot dogs, celebrating the creation of the United States of America. However, many of us are still not free. Not the more than 2 million people currently incarcerated. Not the Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer communities under siege by a militarized police state.
None of us are free until we’re all free.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re taking down July Fourth. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Don’t get me wrong. This holiday is often a day of rest for me—a day to spend time with family and friends. However, why don’t we make it a day of resistance instead? That’s what it should become, said Nick Tilsen, the president and CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led group that advocates for returning land to tribal communities. He shares his thoughts with me in a conversation about the holiday.
The interview below has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
What does July Fourth mean to you?
July Fourth is a celebration of a so-called democracy that has been used to steal land from Indigenous people. So when I think of July Fourth, I think of it in the same way I think about Mount Rushmore. It’s an entire hypocrisy. It’s this false narrative of “democracy” that continues to be lifted up and celebrated. The problem with it is they celebrate democracy as a purity rather than actually saying, Hey, this is an opportunity for this country to reflect on what it hasn’t got right and that people are still suffering as a result of this democracy. To me, when I see the American flag being waved, I see this false, overdramatized version of patriotism. It pisses me off because if this so-called democracy is about giving people rights, then how is it that this entire nation has been built from the stolen lands of Indigenous people and that the act of returning the land to Indigenous people has not yet made it into the mainstream society today?
It’s important that we push back against the narratives on the Fourth of July. It’s an opportunity for people to take action. It’s an opportunity to challenge those false narratives, and it’s an opportunity to introduce new ones that will actually help move the nation forward.
How about the words freedom and liberation? The words that this holiday is supposed to symbolize—but actually doesn’t for many of us. What do those words mean to you?
I never actually associated freedom and liberation with the American flag. When I think about freedom and liberation, as an Indigenous person in this country, I think about the time in which we, as a people, were able to live freely. We were able to speak our languages. We were able to raise our children. We were able to freely be on this land and stewarding in relationship with this land—not managing this land but being in relationship with this land. I think about that unencumbered ability to be in relationship with the land and with the people. Of being able to do everything from growing our own food to raising our own families—and to do it without persecution and without a system that keeps us down. So when I think of liberation and freedom, that’s what I think of: the power to act in self-determination.
Something you said really resonated with me. Freedom is being able to raise your own families without persecution. That feels especially relevant as we enter this moment of reckoning with our history as a nation but also as Turtle Island—as we find more remains of Indigenous children in boarding schools in Canada. How do you see those discoveries relating to the Land Back movement and in reclaiming that way of life before colonizers came and inflicted all this trauma?
Oh, yeah. I think there’s this assumption that because we say “land back,” we just want to go back into the past and undo everything that’s been done. When I talk about “land back,” it’s about returning land back to our people and undoing the power structures and the system of white supremacy and racism that made it possible for the stealing of our lands in the first place. So if we’re going to have a true and honest conversation about reckoning with this country’s past and present, Indigenous people’s struggle must be center stage. And the starting point of that conversation can’t just be about healing. Fuck that. The starting point of the conversation has to be about the return of Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands.
When they stole the land, they stole our food systems. They stole our societal structures. They stole our economic systems. They destroyed. They took our children away from their families and put them in boarding schools. What’s being uncovered through all the children who’ve been killed by the boarding schools is a reminder that, Hey, we’re not just a bunch of radical Indians saying to make things right. There was a systematic approach to colonize Indigenous people, and there are dead Indigenous children in mass graves throughout this nation who are beginning to be uncovered. Is that what it really has to take in order for people to realize that we are here? That we’re part of the cultural fabric that makes up this country? And we’re absolutely part of the cultural fabric of the future of this country?
So “land back” is a war cry for the liberation of Indigenous people. And it’s unapologetic. We have to say what we want, and we have to say what we mean—and the fucking land needs to be returned. And then we can talk about healing. And then we can talk about what racial justice looks like. That’s what I love about the Land Back movement: It is really simple. We, as Indigenous people, have learned throughout history, through the court system, through the process of colonization, that if you don’t say exactly what you mean, the system will try to twist it.
“The Fourth of July has to be a day of resistance.”
I remember what you all did at Mount Rushmore last year brought attention to how that land was stolen. Talk to me a little bit about that movement. I’m curious if anything’s going on this year to pay homage to the organizing y’all did last year.
The fight for the Black Hills and for the Paha Sapa is one of the longest legal land struggles in the history of this nation. It is also one of the places where the Lakota were some of the last resistors. Today is June 25th—145 years ago today, the Lakota and the Cheyenne defeated the 7th Cavalry and George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn when we wiped out the 7th Calvary. We were doing that to protect our land. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was after the treaties were violated. They were designed to be peace treaties. In those peace treaties, the protection of the Black Hills and the Great Sioux Nation were promised. As soon as those treaties were signed, they were broken. And when they broke those treaties, they didn’t just violate the treaties and erode the human rights of Indigenous people. They also violated Article Six of the U.S. Constitution.
This is important to understand because some people think that Indigenous people are just complaining about an injustice. Well, everybody’s here on the Fourth of July celebrating a so-called democracy, but the people who run this democracy constantly shit on it and use it to violate people’s human rights. When we rise up and say what we want back, then we’re considered radical. What we were doing last year is we wanted to reignite the fight for the Black Hills. I’ve been fighting for the Black Hills since I was in diapers. We wanted to reignite the fight for the Black Hills because it’s a sacred place to our people. We also wanted to connect the Indigenous people’s struggle and the Land Back movement to the conversation happening in this country about entering into reparations. The only way to make this issue right is to return the land.
Mount Rushmore was a sacred place for Indigenous people, and they stole the land, violated their own constitution, and then carved the faces of people who are murderers and rapists of Indigenous people. That’s why Mount Rushmore is an international symbol of white supremacy, and that’s why we’re continuing to call for a closure of Mount Rushmore and the return of all public lands in the Black Hills to the Lakota people. And there is a movement brewing. Tribal leaders in this region are calling for a sit-down face-to-face meeting with President Joe Biden to talk about the return of the Black Hills.
What words might you have for those who have conflicted feelings on this day? How can folks enjoy their day off while also honoring all that this day ignores? I recognize that, for many, this may be one of the only times of the year they get time off from work.
I think about that a lot on a lot of holidays. I think that the Fourth of July has to be a day of resistance. If people want to be patriots and believe in this democracy and moving this nation forward, this should be considered a National Day of Resistance in which we hold this democracy accountable for how not only it has destroyed people’s lives historically, but also how it is directly doing it today in society. This isn’t just historical injustices.
As people are sitting back comfortably in their backyards around their fires roasting marshmallows, people should be taking to the streets. We should be shutting down the things that continue to perpetuate false patriotic narratives. We should use it as a true opportunity to mobilize because here’s the thing with racial inequality: It is coming to roost in this country.
If you don’t think it affects you—if you’re a white person—get real. The only way we’re going to undo this is for people to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And we’ve got to have those conversations. Why the hell not on July Fourth?