How some Northeast organizations are trying to return land, decision-making power to people of color
On a windy but warm day earlier this year, Judy Dow walked between rows of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers at Shelburne Farms. A sign explained how the different plants nourish one another.
The purpose of this plot is both to educate visitors, and to produce seeds to share with Indigenous gardens across New England.
“So eat the vegetable, and then save the seed, 'cause what we want is the seed,” Judy said.
Judy specializes in teaching traditional ecological knowledge, and she is the executive director of Gedakina, a network focused on Native American women and their families.
For the past two decades, Judy has worked on educational programs with Megan Camp, Shelburne Farms’ program director and vice president. The garden is the pair’s latest joint project. They came up with the idea together.
“To take these walks and talks in the middle of the winter as we slip and slide down the road,” Judy said, “we get a lot planned.”
“Two old ladies, “Megan said as she and Judy laughed. “We call each other ‘the grandmothers.’”
Shelburne Farms started as an agricultural estate in the 1880s, and it’s on unceded homelands of the Winooskik band of the Abenaki.
Megan has been there for 38 years. She says while the nonprofit has partnered with Indigenous educators like Judy over time, George Floyd’s murder in 2020 — and the national discourse it sparked around systemic injustice — has made Shelburne Farms prioritize creating more authentic and reciprocal relationships.
And they’re not alone. Increasingly, land-based nonprofits are attempting to return land management to people of color who, for centuries, have been stripped of and denied that access.
Prior to European colonization, Abenaki and Mohican people stewarded the land in what we know today as Vermont. But now Indigenous people, together with other people of color, manage just 1% of the state’s farmland.
Doing this work, however, is not without challenges.
Earlier this fall, leaders of several Vermont nonprofits announced a $6 million dollar gift to the Vermont Land Trust to help farmers buy land and grow their businesses. A third of the money was set aside specifically for BIPOC, in a “land sovereignty fund.”
But Amber Arnold, co-executive director of SUSU CommUNITY Farm, an Afro Indigenous stewarded farm in Brattleboro, wanted to know why the money wasn’t going directly to organizations like hers.
“This is stolen money, these are resources that have been stolen from our murdered ancestors,” she said. “And so when I'm seeing that there is a $6 million gift going to an all-white organization, based out of a partnership with three white-led organizations, and I see no Black and Brown organizations as part of this powerful decision-making and development structure, I feel a lot of deep concern and sadness.”
Vermont Land Trust President and CEO Nick Richardson agreed.
“I mean, on some level, I think the real honest answer is that it's just inexcusable, that this is the situation that we're in,” he said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I just, I feel that this gift is both full of promise and also shows just how far we have to go as a society.”
“Because the Northeast was settled before 1776 … it's primarily unceded territory, stolen from Indigenous people and settled without consent. Our aim as a land trust is to repair that harm, and not replicate it.”
One approach for moving forward is to center marginalized communities. That’s what some newer groups are doing, like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, also known as the NEFOC Land Trust. It started in 2019, and it wants to acquire land for BIPOC communities to grow healthy food and medicines.
Executive director Stephanie Morningstar, who is Mohawk Turtle Clan, says it’s essential that these efforts begin by consulting Indigenous communities.
“Because the Northeast was settled before 1776 … it's primarily unceded territory, stolen from Indigenous people and settled without consent,” she said. “Our aim as a land trust is to repair that harm, and not replicate it.”
Morningstar notes that entire ecosystems have been damaged by extractive, settler colonial practices. In order for the land — and the people on it — to heal, she says Indigenous knowledge must be reclaimed and restored.
To that end, the NEFOC Land Trust is creating an Indigenous consultation process, which Morningstar says will get going in Vermont in 2022.
As for who to reach out to, that too can get a little complicated. There are no federally recognized Indigenous communities in Vermont, though there are currently four state-recognized tribes. There are also Indigenous individuals who do not belong to those tribes.
“We're doing our due diligence, and building the foundation and framework of how to actually ethically and respectfully consult before we reach out to the Indigenous nations who were, who are in these territories,” Morningstar said.
She says success might look one of several ways. It could be returning land to Indigenous communities. Or it could be using cultural respect agreements to give those communities access to land.
Ultimately, she says, it’s about building and maintaining relationships that last.
For her part, Indigenous educator Judy Dow says time is what it takes to build the necessary trust. Especially, she says, after her family was targeted by the Vermont Eugenics Survey, a state-sanctioned movement that sterilized, institutionalized and segregated certain demographics, including Indigenous people.
“It takes a long time for me to trust people, and rightfully so,” Judy said. “I just think that, that there has to be understanding about that. And it makes the job of people working together a little bit harder. But that doesn't mean it's ... impossible. It can happen.”
And it is happening, at least, between Judy and Shelburne Farms program director Megan Camp. Both say they’re not sure what will happen next, but that they’ll figure it out together.