Dr. Pam Palmater is an acclaimed activist, lawyer, professor, podcaster, author, Mi’kmaw citizen, and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, Canada. She has spent her 30-year career advocating on behalf of Indigenous peoples, focusing on Indigenous sovereignty, governance and nation-building, while advocating on issues related to human rights, treaty rights, education, and legislation. As she put it in our interview, the unifying theme in all of her work is educating for action—getting people of all ages engaged, active and ready to lift their voices for Indigenous rights, social justice, and earth justice.
It was a pleasure and an honor to talk with Dr. Palmater about her life, her work, and Land Back, the increasingly influential movement to return land to Indigenous nations.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you first got involved in this work?
I'm from the sovereign Mi'kmaw nation, on unceded Mi'Kma'ki, which is the Eastern part of Canada and a little bit into the US and my home community is Ugpi'ganjig, known as Eel River Bar First Nation. And I come from a huge family of eight sisters and three brothers and a million cousins, nieces, and nephews. They all just happened to be, for the most part, very politically active. And so a lot of them are older than me and they were getting involved at the grassroots level, working for organizations that represent Native people that live off reserve or Native people in child and family services, like in foster care, or they were working on Native housing issues or recognition issues, Aboriginal and treaty rights, hunting and fishing, you name it. And so literally, since the time I was a little girl, that's what I spent most of my time doing: going to protests, rallies, government negotiations, community education sessions, and strategy sessions, such that I just grew up in this world and didn't know anything different.
What is the Land Back movement about?
It’s literally about giving land back to Indigenous nations. But it's also “resources back.” It's “waters back.” It's about respecting sovereignty, our right to be self-determining, and our laws and jurisdiction over all of those lands that were wrongly taken from us. And it also includes making amends for all the lands we won't be able to get back and all of the things that we lost from those territories.
And while Land Back sounds new, it's basically the same thing we've been saying since shortly after first contact. So you could say Wetʼsuwetʼen Strong, Mi'kma'ki Strong, 1492 Land Back Lane, or the Secwepemc land defense—all of those things really encapsulate the same idea.
It feels like the movement has really picked up more mainstream media attention recently. Why do you think that is?
It’s all about our access to social media and the internet. What social media allowed us to do as Indigenous peoples is break through that impenetrable barrier that used to be the mainstream media. So prior to social media and the internet, the only information you ever heard was from government speaking points, press releases by powerful businesses that had money for advertising, or the stereotypical media commentators that you hear on the news every night. You didn't hear from grassroots people, you didn't hear from communities on the ground.
Now you have videos, podcasts, blogs, pictures, reports that can be sent instantaneously from anywhere around the world. And, of course, within that broader framework, we also are able to get connected to one another in our communities across Turtle Island - North America. So it's about access to facts beyond political rhetoric, and I think Canadians and Americans really appreciate access to facts in real time, so they can help us keep the pressure on.
Could we take a step back and talk about how we got to where we are today, with Indigenous people having only a tiny percentage of all the land in Canada?
Indigenous peoples in Canada have 0.2% of the land that they used to have! I know that Native American or Tribal governments in the US have a little bit more, but it's not a whole lot more. How did we get here? Well, it's centuries of violent colonization by settlers and settler governments and businesses and corporations, and also genocidal laws, policies, and practices that continue today.
It all comes back to what they used to call Indian Policy in Canada and the United States. And what was that? Well, the governments had two objectives: (1) to acquire Indigenous lands and resources and (2) to reduce any financial obligations they might have acquired through treaties or other agreements with Indigenous Nations. And that's exactly what they've continued on with, engaging in acts of forced assimilation, residential or boarding schools (as they’re known in the United States), and more, all under the guise of moving Indigenous peoples from their lands, putting them onto small reserves so that they could take their lands and their resources and their sovereignty and gain governing power over those territories.
What is the Land Back movement calling for? How would it work?
Well, I think the most important thing for people to understand is that Land Back does not mean kicking all settlers out of their homes. That's a common misunderstanding, but it’s not about that. All of the people in the Land Back movement that we work with have said over and over again, we would never commit the violence and trauma and dispossession and human rights abuses upon our friends, neighbors, and allies like has been done to us. That's not the solution. Plus we also know that lands, especially here in Canada, held privately by individuals is a very, very small percentage. The majority of the lands, more than 90%, are held by the Crown, either the federal Crown or the provincial Crown. So there's more than enough land to return to Indigenous Nations, and it wouldn't impact our settler allies, friends and neighbors and family members.
How would it work? Looking at governments first, it's where you sit down and you negotiate in good faith what areas are going to be returned, in what process, and in addition to returning lands, how are we going to share the resources from those territories? How are we going to jointly govern the territories and those resources? And I think those are very, very important. When I say resources, I don't just mean natural resources. I'm talking about the other kinds of resources: the taxes, fees, licensing, leasing, royalties, and all of the wealth that's generated from these territories, including any kinds of land taxes, could be shared in part with Indigenous Nations and have enough money to sustain our Nations as they should be.
Land Back is pretty simple. It just means people sitting down and negotiating. This includes businesses, corporations, and universities, which have a long history of appropriating Indigenous lands and resources. They could take up the call of reconciliation and return land to the local Tribes in the US or First Nations in Canada, and find out other ways where we could share lands for different purposes. It applies to individuals too. Many people with a lot of land are already starting that process of giving land back.
With respect to Land Back, can you talk about the importance of land stewardship, especially when it comes to climate change and environmental degradation?
I think that Land Back is the solution to those issues because governments aren’t making enough progress. We just had COP26, the international gathering of countries, and they couldn't take the brave, responsible, radical steps that are needed to halt climate change in its tracks. It's long been held by environmentalists, conservationists and scientists like David Suzuki that the solution to climate change is respecting Indigenous rights and governance over Indigenous territories.
We are the ones who literally put our lives on the line to defend those lands. We're trying to stop climate change. We're trying to stop pipelines and other extractive industries from polluting our water. Land Back is tied to sovereignty and self-determination and having a say over what happens. Imagine a Land Back movement where Indigenous peoples get to decide what happens on their territories, and we get to engage in green partnerships for green technology, green education, green energy, a sharing of traditional Indigenous knowledges and sciences around how to protect the planet, how to reeducate workers that were working in the extractive industry. It's an incredible opportunity.
What is the best way for people to help support the Land Back movement?
Well, I think first and foremost, if you don't know enough about the movement, engage in some self-education. Look for Indigenous peoples that are outspoken on lands and water issues, environmental issues, that would be First Nations here in Canada and Native American governments in the United States. What are they saying? What are they doing? What do the Inuit in Canada and Alaskan Natives in the US say about climate change?
Everybody can do something. Maybe it’s donating money or doing fundraising, maybe you’re a researcher or a communications person or an IT person. There's some way that you can contribute, either visibly or behind the scenes. And everyone can share what they see on social media. The more you like, comment, share, subscribe to things on social media that Indigenous peoples are doing, that triggers all the social media algorithms to send it out to more people that wouldn't have seen it or come across it. It's one of the easiest, simplest free things to do, in addition to emailing your senators, your house representatives, your members of parliament, your MPPs, political people, and the international community. You can use your voice.
Are there areas where other justice movements and the Land Back movement intersect and are able to support each other?
Yes. We're strongest when we're all working together for social justice and earth justice. Whether it’s Black Live Matter, Stop Asian Hate, or the Land Back movement, it all comes down to human rights and protecting the planet. And the momentum continues to build. And I find those alliances are building even more between Canada and the US right now. When we go to the international community, say to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or the United Nations human rights treaty bodies, and we bring forward claims, we're all working together in solidarity. And I think that's going to continue to spread all across the globe.
What are some projects you're working on right now that people should know about?
Well, I have the Warrior Life podcast, which is meant for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike, and it’s all about lifting up the voices of Indigenous warriors who are doing great work. They could be lawyers, they could be advocates, they could be educators, they could be actors, they could be contributing in many ways. But for the most part, I try to lift up the voices of grassroots warriors, land defenders and water protectors on the ground and human rights activists. Then I have the Warrior Kids podcast, which celebrates everything Indigenous so that kids learn about Indigenous contributions and cool things about Native people, with a goal to educate kids for action. It's about getting kids moving, inspired and acting - little warriors in training.
I also have my YouTube channel where I break down legal and political issues in short videos so that they’re accessible. Not everybody knows the law, history or political context of current issues. So it's important that people get the context, what's happening, and what they can do about it. The whole theme of all of this is education for action, always. Not for informational purposes, not for entertainment, but education for action, for social justice and earth justice.
You’re an activist, lawyer, educator, podcaster… Do you find that your different roles or your different skills complement each other in the process of getting the word out about Land Back?
Definitely. Sometimes I will do presentations to schools and some of the kids are in kindergarten and grades one and two. And the feedback that I've gotten from some of the teachers is that the way I explain it to the kids finally helped them understand what the issues were, because they were trying to do self-education and read all these court cases and getting bogged down in all the technicalities that really distracts from the core issues at play. And so if you can break it down in a way that kids can understand, then that also helps the adults engage with the material.
Also, people appreciate it when you simply answer the question. Nothing is more annoying than when you ask a politician a question—"Are you pro-pipeline or not?"—and for 10 minutes they talk about everything under the sun without ever actually answering the question. I try to be direct and forthright. I don't speak for everybody, no one speaks for everybody, but I've got a lot of experience. I've worked with a lot of Indigenous peoples, and I can confidently say that much of what I'm saying is echoed by many other people, and that I've learned from land defenders and elders about their concerns and what they want to see moving forward. Elders have always told me, "Just speak the truth simply and directly, answer the question, and people will really appreciate that." I can’t ever go wrong with the wise advice of our elders.