Getting Our Land Back 4: What to Do With Disenfranchised Land

In this series of posts I am exploring what might be required to set colonialism behind us and create a country for our future children’s children’s children, all of us, human, blackbird, beaver, lynx, water lily, bee fly, and everyone else. This is the Fourth post. Why not follow the opening of this meditation by reading the first three posts?

Becoming the Flow

The Local and the Universal

Rivers of Place

And now:

Returning the Land

Land. Here’s some of that stuff.

Wheat Field East of Waterville (Sinkiuse)

An agricultural country, The United States, discovered a shrub steppe …

Moses Coulee (Sinkiuse)

… and cleared everyone away in a process called Reclamation (I think because it reclaimed land from ‘weeds’ so that it could be returned to the Garden of Eden), so that it could be planted into wheat, on the following principle:

Massacio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (detail)

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall [f]bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:17-19

The whole process and the crop in particular had sacred overtones and spoke of deep conviction. That all took place over a century and a half ago. In the 20th Century, a further idea was to repopulate the de-populated steppe with poor black farmers from the South, no doubt for many complex reasons to do with local Southern racial politics yet also including the notion that by giving families title to their own farmland the act of farming their own land would turn them into productive citizens. The land, however, was eventually consolidated into huge industrial farms, which flourished on the water subsidy for poor Black sharecroppers, that had been used to lever Grand Coulee Dam across the Columbia. A similar skilful manipulation of political expectations and naiveté was exercised on the original people of the shrub steppe, including the Yakama…

Yakama Reservation Lands Turned to Wasteland Between a Highway and a Railroad near Satus (Yakama)

“Educating” a People Into Independence Through Agriculture?

… and including the Chelan, who were cleared out by a skilful manipulation of the infant Washington court system, at a time when government administration was very weak. Here are my notes:

In that context, have a look at the hill above downtown Chelan today.

Chelan (Chelan)
There’s no better way to eliminate a grassland slope that to ride a motorized vehicle straight up it.

There has been no reclamation, only degradation through invasive cheatgrass (the napalm of the grasslands), desertification and gross childishness. If we are to live together within this land as the energy field it represents (and just look at the energy of that amazing hill), responding to it with something other than an internal combustion dirt bike engine is going to be required, as that is just removing the hill and turning it into an image of unbridled freedom unrestrained by either nature or society. Fun it may be, but any future it posits is one of poverty, which is unsustainable over time. If we go up Lake Chelan and into the mountains, we can come to the old Wapato winter village site on Wapato Lake. It spent much of the 20th century as an orchard, which failed (largely due to competition with orchards planted on the water subsidy of the Columbia Basin), was cleared, and is now being turned into rural residential housing lots.

That’s two forms of failure. Here’s a third:

Scotch Basin (Sinlahekin/Smalqmx/Syilx)

In 1901, a man was murdered over water here. More in my post: 

The water was eventually alienated by another megaproject, financed by an out-maneuvered Federal US Government. For a moment, however, note that the land in the basin is scarcely farmed. Similarly, on the outskirts of the old Hudson Bay Company/Syilx gardens at Bridgeport. There are orchards on this land today, but even they are only using a fraction of the land.


There is a fourth failure to meet the spiritual call of alienating this land and its people from its own rich life. This is in the heart of the wetlands, near the mouth of the Walla Walla River itself.

Look more closely at the soil.

That’s hardly reclamation. It’s more like mining or depletion and is, ultimately, an erosion similar to this:

And to this starving horse in another abandoned orchard (some land doesn’t grow Red Delicious).

Kiona (Yakama)

Note the “reclamation” through fall rye on the government road bank, which doesn’t extend to the private property (or starving horse) behind the fence. The state is still weak here.

So, if we’re going to live here, in the land, we don’t want to be that horse or that soil in that Walla Walla wheat field, or the coming erosion down to a gully on that Chelan hill. A principle to aim towards would be to accept the well-meaning faith of many of the first U.S. settlers in our country and return any land that does not extend that faith to its first peoples, or at least to their principles of land maintenance, improvement and ownership through individual and community responsibility. It flies in the face of current land ownership rules, and is going to be met with violence. That, in itself, should be an ample demonstration of how far the bad actors of the settlement period bent government systems towards doing their will. Acquiescing in crimes against humanity, the land and the U.S. Government itself is not going to return the land, or its people, to health. Continued reliance on government and industrial subsidy, as it extends its domination of the land’s power by technological force…

Chief Joseph Dam (Syilx/Sinkiuse and many others)

Windbreak, Richland (Yakama)

… is also unsustainable.

Windbreak in Kiona (Yakama)

My father planted these trees in 1978. Short-lived idea.

If we’re going to live in this land over time, we’re going to have to think 500 years and 1000 years into the future, rather than concentrating on extracting value of the land as it is in the present and drawing it down. Those are the two sides of our legacy here, and they span native and settler cultures alike. Property ownership is not going to go away anytime soon, nor perhaps should it, but we can certainly re-embed it in an ethical conversation, which includes the land itself.

Moses Coulee (Sinkiuse)



Next: That image above will open into A Land of Stories

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