Preparing for Land Back With the Native American Land Conservancy

A long-ago photo of desert naturalist Elizabeth Paige as a young girl with her grandmother, who taught her about her Native lands.

When Elizabeth Paige was a child, her “tutu” (grandmother) took her out on the land and spoke about plants and what their people harvested at different times during the year. Growing up navigating the Native and non-Native worlds made it challenging for Paige to fully appreciate her grandmother’s bids to get her to enjoy eating cactus while the non-Native majority enjoyed Lunchables. Yet, these walks formed the foundation of her cultural understanding that would prepare her to become a land steward.

Paige is a desert naturalist and a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, dedicated to cultural preservation and the advancement of Indigenous people working in science and conservation. She is the education and stewardship program manager for the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC).

With the support of First Nations Development Institute’s California Tribal Fund, NALC protects and restores sacred sites and areas, provides educational programming, and conducts scientific studies on cultural, biological, and historical resources on sacred lands.

Founded in 1998 with an intertribal group of leaders, NALC focuses on off-reservation sacred areas in California, where reservations represent less than 5% of the lands that Native people historically stewarded. NALC works in recognition that, despite land dispossession, the memory of the land has not been removed from the people. Today, Native land stewards, like Paige, build upon NALC’s work in the face of expanding development that threatens our sacred lands.

A scenic look at Devil’s Garden near Mission Creek. This conserved land is the last remnant of an area where different cacti species grow, which were once a food source.

The organization succeeds in its mission to protect and acquire sacred lands across Southeastern California. This work precedes and is enmeshed in the Land Back Movement ― a decentralized movement to return land to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples.

First Nations spoke to Paige about what it means to have the land back and to take on this ancestral responsibility amid the perils of climate change and development.

Why She Became an Educator

Paige knew that she wanted to get reacquainted with the desert in a good way and support herself doing the work she loves. So, she worked multiple jobs and volunteer positions with local conservation organizations to gain land management skills.

Paige is a member of the Torres Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians and the education and stewardship program manager for the Native American Land Conservancy.

The work was difficult, often uncomfortable, and hazardous, but she says, “Working on the land is what we’re supposed to do. I found purpose and a happiness that comes with being out there, and the wheel-spinning, going-nowhere feeling I would get in some office jobs, where you’re doing the same thing repeatedly? It died down. It was a wonderful breakthrough, even with the drawbacks, like seeing the restoration needed, or navigating existing conservation spaces.”

As Paige tells us: “I didn’t set out to be an educator, I just wanted to translate what’s going on in the environment and make people are aware of the issues because it is so important for our people to understand what we will grapple with when we get the land back. It’s a very passionate rally cry, ‘Land Back’; it evokes such strength, frustration, and hope; but we must understand the full breadth of the statement, the ecological problems, and what we, as caretakers, will be left with. We must be prepared for it,” she reflects. “Land Back is not just a deed or a title, it’s a state of mind. An understanding of everything around you.”

Being a Native person in the conservation space is not simply a job, it is resistance and infiltration. While Western science has come a long way, Western culture has historically regarded nature as existing to serve humans. Whereas Native people understand themselves to be in reciprocal relationship with nature, seeing the land as inseparable from their identity.

Western ideals of protecting pristine “wilderness” as an antidote to human impact are in direct opposition with Indigenous practices of active land management, such as prescribed fire. While the gap seems to be closing on some of these different views as the conservation world takes an interest in traditional ecological knowledge, more Native people must be present in conservation spaces to champion Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and communicating.

Shifting the Narrative

Through her journey, Paige found herself translating to classmates and co-workers who saw the environment as “wild,” not understanding that Native people cultivated the land over thousands of years.

“Nature is not an accident,” says Elizabeth Paige, education and stewardship program manager for the Native American Land Conservancy.

“It is scary sometimes, speaking up and telling people that nature is not an accident,” she says, “When I entered this field, there was a resistance to hearing about how we shaped the ecosystems. People don’t like to be corrected or to learn how their heroes weren’t the first to discover conservation or sustainable practice, or that these guys were led by largely racist ideals. Then the pandemic hit and so many racial injustices were recognized in the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. Everything shifted. Ears have opened.”

First Nations Development Institute is familiar with the uptick in interest in social justice issues among mainstream institutions, including funders. There is still work to do to ensure that this shift is maintained and informed by the people it intends to serve.

In the case of Native land back, it’s important to recognize that re-stewarding the land must go hand-in-hand with cultural revitalization. Through the California Tribal Fund, the Stewarding Native Lands program, and other programs at First Nations, we mobilize financial and technical assistance to support NALC and many other tribal organizations to this end.

Volunteers at a cleanup day at Coyote Hole Preserve near Joshua Tree took time out from their important work for the Native American Land Conservancy for a quick pose.

NALC supports cultural reconnection for tribal families through their Learning Landscapes Program, where families can participate in Indigenous ecosystem management. Last spring, the Learning Landscapes Program brought families to visit cultural areas throughout the Mojave and meet rescued reptiles. Before camping under the stars at Joshua Tree National Park, families heard the Painiktem Bird Singers offer ancestral bird songs, describing the marvels of the natural world and waking up the land to the presence of the new and future land stewards.

Paige proudly coordinates these programs, “I want to help people understand their place in the environment. Outside forces attempted to remove our relationship with the land, slowly chipping away at the knowledge. But we still have it. I feel it in my bones, that sense of the desert. We are of the environment. We come from these places holding generations worth of learning within us. We know how to be on the land. When I see it click, it brings me hope. It starts with the slightest change. Make the youth think about actions they take that have effects on the environment, and trust that they will carry on the fight to be at all the tables, making the decisions about what happens to it.”

Bringing People Back to the Land

Until we see ourselves as part of the ecosystem, as our ancestors did, we will not be able to properly address the problems that we wish to fix. Recently, conservationists have brought attention to the impact of raven overpopulation on the desert tortoise, whose hatchlings and juveniles are being eaten by the ravens.

The raven population in the California desert has increased 700% between 1969 and 2004, due to land development that ravens thrive on, including trash and powerlines. Without an Indigenous lens, this issue is framed as a problem of raven behavior, rather than a consequence of human behavior that is seen as separate from the ecosystem.

A Native student in the Learning Landscapes Program at Joshua Tree National Park cradles a baby desert tortoise. Photo credit: C Pino

NALC brings the people back to the ecosystem. They are in the process of restoring an area on public conservation lands so that Native people can gather mesquite, a traditional food rich in carbohydrates, fiber, and protein. Unfortunately, the land has been neglected, many trash clean-ups will be required, and it will take years to eradicate invasive mustard.

Although the land is public, it is not frequently accessed by the public. “My priority is tribal community. I want to show everybody that we are present on the land. We don’t care if the signs say ‘public,’ we know it’s our place. So, we need to be present on it, and not just the pretty parts,” Paige laughs.

For Native people who are working toward becoming land stewards, but may be overwhelmed, Paige suggests changing what is right in front of you. “Go outside and pull weeds. Create a small pollinator garden, so the native bees know they can come to your yard and that they can depend on you. Make those little changes, every day, in your sphere.”

Re-centering culture is a big part of stewarding land. Paige adds: “Be curious. Challenge yourself to learn about a native species that you’ve never thought to. Ask your elder what a plant’s first name is, or about their memories of the land when they were children. After doing dune vegetation surveys, I asked my mom what they looked like when she was a young girl, and through her I learned how vibrantly violet they were in the 50s and 60s. Healthy sweeping patches of colorful annuals, verbena, and milkvetch, spread widely over the sands, where we now only see tiny patches.”

She continues, “Speak to the land in your language. It will always wake up and hold you. When I go out there and say, ‘Míyaxwen, míyaxwen!’ I always find something amazing and ‘né sunčiqal’ or, ‘my heart is happy.’”

Paige strolls through Painted Canyon, a Cahuilla creation space within the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument boundary. Photo credit: S. Thomas


This story was co-written by Elizabeth Paige and Sabine Talaugon, a program officer with First Nations’ California Tribal Fund.