This report is part of "Turning Point," a groundbreaking month-long series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States and exploring whether it can lead to lasting reconciliation.
In Oklahoma, the people of the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation have just won their long-standing fight for sovereignty. In San Francisco, the Ohlone are fighting for a land to call their own. And in upstate New York, the Iroquois people are demanding that the true history of the United States is told and that the treaties they signed hundreds of years ago are recognized.
Native Americans across what is now the United States have been fighting for their land and culture ever since Juan Ponce de León became the first European to invade the country in Florida in 1513. For those living today, reparations come in many forms, as that which was taken away from them over the years varies as well.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all policy of reparations for Indian tribes in the U.S.,” Matthew Fletcher, a foundation professor of law at Michigan State University, told “Nightline.” “There are 574 federally recognized tribes. They are all unique and individual.”
New York Natives ask for their stories to be told
New York City is one of the most populated urban areas for Native Americans with 110,000 living throughout its five boroughs. Interdisciplinary artist Ty Defoe, who lives in Brooklyn, is hoping his art and performances will give a voice to Native Americans and their history.
“We learn it through a specific lens, and that lens is a white, Westernized, [Euro-centralized] lens perpetuating myths of colonizers as heroes and Native people as evil villains and devil worshippers,” he told “Nightline.” “So I think what’s really important to underscore is, how are we learning this information.”
He said New York City is full of images that portray Native Americans and settlers together, such as the one seen on the city’s seal. But when looking at them, he says “there’s a lack of information” regarding the Native American narrative, whereas a person seeing it will most likely know the story of the settlers.
Similarly, he says the statue of Christopher Columbus standing atop the pillar at the center of the city’s Columbus Circle represents “rape” and “murder,” and that it “needs to come down.” The city currently has no plan to remove the statue.
“A symbol like that is saying that we don’t believe you," Defoe said, referring to those who support keeping the statue. "[Native Americans] believe that this person discovered something that was already inhabited by people with large cultural systems, values and missions. That is like Big Brother taking a hand and saying, ‘You do not exist.’”
“I think that with land being stolen, language being wiped away, there was a silencing that was occurring,” he added. “And it almost is strategic genocide when you sort of think about history and what has happened. But what I think is important is that our voices are heard.”
For urban Natives like Defoe, the American Indian Community House (AICH) has become a sanctuary.
AICH’s executive director Melissa Lakowi:he’ne' Oakes said her organization represents up to 72 different tribal nations across New York City. Oakes said the lack of space has been one of the biggest obstacles for her organization.
“Fifty-one years since we've been established, and we're having a hard time maintaining space. ... We're basically couch surfing with another organization in Chinatown because we can't afford real estate,” Oakes, a member of the Mohawk Nation, told “Nightline.”
To address their lack of funding, AICH has teamed up with settlers in creating the Manna-hatta Fund, a voluntary “land tax” provided by non-natives as a form of solidarity.
Oakes believes the lack of space has contributed to a lack of visibility for those she represents.
“Our culture is our strongest trait,” she added. “If you lack that as a Native and go out into these urban spaces … it’s almost unhealthy. We’re on Native land and we don’t see ourselves anywhere, and that becomes a constant reminder of genocide, just another constant reminder of [the] erasure of our people.”
Oakes asked that those who are concerned about the welfare of Natives in North America reach out to organizations like hers and engage in deeper conversations about allyship.
In upstate New York, on the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, Iroquois elder Kanasaraken, whose English name is Loran Thompson, gathered with his longtime friends Ateronhiata:kon and Tekarontake.
Kanasaraken was part of the first American Indian, Native and Indigenous delegation to the United Nations that advocated for the passing of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 1977. The declaration, adopted in 2007, provided a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of indigenous people around the world.
“Our people have fought for generations just to hang onto the land, just to hang onto our status as free and independent people, regardless of how small we are,” Kanasaraken told “Nightline.”
The Iroquois Confederacy, which straddles the border between upstate New York and Canada, comprises six tribal nations. The St. Regis Mohawk territory, of which Kanasaraken is a member, is one of the five original nations. The Confederacy is also one of the world’s oldest democracies.
Kanasaraken was once a Mohawk Nation chief and is currently the spokesperson for the Bear Clan of Akwesasne. He was also involved in several other land disputes with government agencies over the years, including the Oka Crisis of the 1990s, when protests erupted against companies attempting to build golf courses on an ancestral burial site on the Canadian side of the reservation. Ateronhiata:kon and Tekarontake participated in the protests as well.
Oakes, who remembers the crisis, said that she looks up to Kanasaraken’s generation because it has always been there “fending for our land and people.”
Oakes told “Nightline” she respects Kanasaraken for advocating for the freedom and recognition of Indigenous People and helping the younger generation.
“These kinds of things, the knowledge and the wisdom from the generation before us … this is who we are,” she said. “All these teachings from our elders … they are irreplaceable.”
Kanasaraken said the United States owes it to its people to tell its full history, honestly.
“Somewhere in this world, there’s going to be people that are gonna open their eyes and ears and put pressure on the oppressors of North America, and make them respect the original peoples of this land,” he said. “America owes its people, more so than me, it owes its people the truth as it actually is. Right from the first day [that] we met on the shores of the ocean all the way through to correct history, because all of the history that you’re being told in the public schools, it’s all lopsided.”
Reclaiming land lost long ago in California
Most tribes from outside of the original 13 colonies have some form of a treaty recognized by the United States, which gives them peace, land jurisdiction, natural resource rights and protection by the United States. The United States signed nearly 400 treaties with Native tribes before the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871, which made all Native tribes that had signed treaties beforehand “wards of the state.” Those that have come forward afterward have had to qualify through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior -- a long and arduous process.
Fletcher says that there were over 100 tribes, mostly in California, that had drafted treaties with the federal government but were never ratified -- a “historical accident,” he said. Many of these tribes are still not federally recognized and have not been granted their land back or federal funding.
The Ohlone People, who once populated much of the Northern California coast, are one of these unrecognized tribes.
“Folks like us, the Lisjan, we don’t have a land base,” said Corrina Gould, a member of the Lisjan Ohlone. “So we’re homeless in our own lands, on our own territories.”
Gould and others in her tribe have been working to reclaim a piece of land in Berkeley, California, that was once a burial and ceremonial site for her ancestors -- called a shell mound. It’s one of many that existed in the Bay Area of San Francisco.
Although it’s now being used as a parking lot, the site was designated a Berkeley City landmark in 2002. On Thursday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that it had placed the shell mound site on its 2020 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“We actually started fighting for this site over 20 years ago,” Gould, co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and Indian People Organizing for Change, told “Nightline.” “We’re fighting for this little postage stamp in the Bay Area.”
Like Oakes’ AICH, part of the funding for the land trust comes from a voluntary gift from local non-native residents, which the Ohlone call Shuumi.
She said her people’s “dream” would be to preserve the space and to use it to keep their traditions alive.
“We’re at this point right now where people are in the streets asking for the truth of history to be told,” she said. “No matter where you are in the United States, you're on stolen indigenous land. And it's important to find out what your history is and what's your connection; who are those first people on whose land you're settled on? What was their language? What is their language? What is the name of them? And how then is it your responsibility to work and engage with those people?” she told Nightline.
Until now, the Ohlone People have relied on donated sites like the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a Native women-led organization, to hold community events and ceremonies. “The trust gives us a way to take care of land and to re-engage it in a sovereign kind of way,” said Gould.
Part of their journey includes reviving their Native language. Gould said her great grandfather was the last Chochenyo language speaker. Others in her family and community lost the language over the course of decades as a result of assimilation policies that began in the late 19th century, when Natives were forced to attend government- and church-operated boarding schools. These policies were implemented as part of the Natives’ treaty obligations.
Gould’s daughter, who has been able to learn Chochenyo, is now the language holder of the tribe and has been teaching her family and tribal members at the land trust.
Gould says there will be justice for her people when her descendants don’t have to tell stories of their history being erased. As part of their land battle, she emphasized that the Native connection to the land is one that’s familial. Most Native people consider land to be part of their family, which is why they often call it “mother earth.”
“We need to bring balance back to the earth so that when we leave this place, the next seven generations have clean air and clean water and good soil to grow food,” she said.
Still, even indigenous nations that have signed treaties have had trouble remaining sovereign.
The Supreme Court affirms indigenous sovereignty in Oklahoma
Just this summer, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma should have jurisdiction over all native people within its borders -- the state had previously been prosecuting natives for crimes committed on the reservation.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
“I still get goosebumps thinking about that day, because it was a day we got to celebrate,” JoEtta Toppah, assistant attorney general of the Muscogee Creek Nation, told “Nightline.”
She says that since the Supreme Court’s ruling on McGirt v. Oklahoma, her caseload has tripled, causing her to seek additional staff to manage it and lobbying for additional funding from the federal government. She’s appreciative of the additional work, though, as it acknowledges the independence of her people.
“It gives us our right to the land,” she said. “Some of the biggest factors for a tribe are its people, its language, the culture and the land. So the land is a huge piece. And so, these cases are in essence giving the tribes a part of what makes their political government, their sovereign government, exist.”
Melody McCoy, a member of the Cherokee Nation and attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said the way in which their land has been taken away over the years is like a folding napkin.
“The napkin gets folded and the U.S. comes to the tribes and says, ‘You know what, you don't really need all that land. ... and it goes on and on until there is such little left.” But what happened with the Supreme Court in the McGirt case is that the original napkin that was promised to the tribe is now guaranteed again.
McCoy says the case also “sets a precedent for all tribes that have treaties or acts of Congress that have promised them homelands.”
“Those homelands are extremely important,” she said. “Second, probably, only to the sovereignty itself of tribes.”
McCoy represented 13 of the 17 tribes that, in 2016, settled with former President Barack Obama's administration for $492 million for the mismanagement of natural resources and tribal assets.
Much of the land in Oklahoma became occupied by Native Americans after President Andrew Jackson authorized U.S. troops to evict tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the southeast U.S. and escort them west of the Mississippi River.
The Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Seminole and Choctaw were among many other tribes that were forced to walk west on a path they called the “Trail of Tears.” However, even after their relocation, their land continued to be taken.
Today, while many people might say that “half of Oklahoma is Indian country,” Toppah says that’s incorrect -- at least not yet. “It will be,” she said, “and we all believe that. But for today, from the Supreme Court ruling, it’s the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation.”
But even if the other tribal nations of Oklahoma have their treaties affirmed, they would not have jurisdiction over everyone -- just natives.
“On the civil side for the homes and landowners, you own your home still,” Toppah said. It's just like when you pay taxes to the county or the tax assessor. They don't own your home, you own it. You're just paying the taxes to them… It’s the same case here.”
Still, the jurisdiction could apply to local taxes, which would help provide additional funding to the reservation. Toppah noted that the reservation employs and houses non-Natives in its casinos and hospitals.
Fletcher says the McGirt case “shows how the Supreme Court should behave, which [is] as lawyers [and] as judges, not as policymakers.”
Principal Chief of the Muscogee Nation David Hill is still processing the impact of the Supreme Court ruling. The leader of the fourth largest tribe in the U.S., who was sworn in just this year, said he hopes the Supreme Court made its decision based on the constitution deeming all treaties made by the federal government as the “supreme law of the land.”
“There are some people that still don’t realize that we are here,” he said. “We are a nation. We still have a government.”
Hill grew up not seeing any difference between his Muscogee Creek heritage and being an Oklahoman, he said. He’s proud to be both, he said, and his family history is rich, with relatives that served in different branches of the military over the years and a great-great-grandmother who walked on the Trail of Tears, named Hotoje Avanaki.
Hill’s great grandfather, Charley Coker, was also part of the group that went to the U.S. Capitol in 1906 as Congress debated Oklahoma’s statehood. Coker, along with Chitti Harjo, a Muscogee Creek leader known for his anti-allotment views testified in front of a Select Committee of the Senate against individual land allotment policies.
By the time his tenure as principal chief is over, Hill said he hopes the economic development among his citizens will have improved and that the Muscogee Creek Nation has a better working relationship with the state of Oklahoma and America overall. He said that he hopes his future grandkids don’t have to struggle with the same issues he’s dealing with now. “Everything would be set in stone,” he said. “That’s my goal.”