Whose Land Is It?

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Original Air Date: 
December 18, 2021

Ever want to quit your job, leave the rat race behind, and head back to the land? Buy an old farmhouse or build a solar-powered home and live self-sufficiently on a few acres of your very own? Generations before you have shared that dream. The reality is more complicated. Even owning your own land is an ethical minefield. 

Makenna Goodman on her homestead in Vermont
Photo Gallery

Makenna Goodman is a modern-day homesteader and novelist in rural Vermont. She was inspired by Scott and Helen Nearing, who were back-to-the-land pioneers. But she says their philosophy of "the good life" reeks of class privilege.

An old barn near Sandy Neck on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in December 2012

Simon Winchester is a British journalist and best-selling author who spent decades on the road before finally buying a small farm in the Berkshires. The experience led to his book “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World."

Demonstrators near the Standing Rock Reservation.

Land Back is a movement that demands the return of native lands to indigenous people. One of its leaders, Hayden King — executive director of the Yellowhead Institute — explains why the movement is gaining traction in Canada.


Show Details 📻
December 18, 2021
July 16, 2022
February 18, 2023
November 11, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Makenna Goodman (00:17):

That's potato had [inaudible 00:00:18]. I need to come in here and to help something. Very busy whereas [crosstalk 00:00:27]-

Anne Strainchamps (00:26):

Have you ever wanted to quit your job, leave the rat race behind and head back to the land? Maybe buy an old farmhouse or build a solar-powered, tiny home and live self sufficiently on a few acres of your very own. Generations before you have shared that dream.

Makenna Goodman (00:51):

Come on. [Paigey 00:00:52], come, come. Paigey.

Anne Strainchamps (00:51):


Makenna Goodman (00:51):

Paigey, come.

Anne Strainchamps (00:53):

The reality is a little more complicated.

Makenna Goodman (00:56):

We're leaving. [inaudible 00:00:59]. This is a great place to start. This is our barn. We're really pleased with our carrots this year. I have to pick a carrot, sorry, now that we're out, using through the winter, where it's like eating a lot of our [crosstalk 00:01:15]-

Anne Strainchamps (01:15):

This is Makenna Goodman. We're visiting her homestead in rural Vermont where she and her husband confront the daily, moral and ethical dilemmas of a sustainable lifestyle.

Makenna Goodman (01:30):

We did it right there, actually, right on that flat, shady spot by the children's play set. We just did enough for like two a month, two chickens a month to eat.

Makenna Goodman (01:53):

When we were killing the chickens, my husband and I, it was so gruesome because it's gruesome to kill an animal regardless of how used to it you get. Every time you do it, you think, "Is this right?" The ethics of what you're doing are always... At least for me, like, the horror of death is there. And yet it was so routine for us and so calm and so quiet. And I thought on the one hand, "We've gotten so good at this. This is so peaceful."

Steve Paulson (02:34):


Makenna Goodman (02:34):

And then on the other hand, I was like... chickens thrash a lot, because it's the nerve endings, but they're dead instantly. But the thrashing feels like they're suffering.

Makenna Goodman (02:54):

I don't establish a bond with a chicken, but I do establish a bond with sheep and cows. They're named and you scratch behind their ears. I don't know. The ethics of it still, I think if I can do it myself, at least I know that the animal that I'm eating did not die in anguish or live in anguish. And so it makes it better, but it's fraught. The whole thing's just fraught. I'm just, it's always fraught.

Anne Strainchamps (03:35):

Makenna Goodman moved to Vermont during the 2008 financial crash. She was a young, out-of-work publishing assistant sick of New York and looking for a fresh start today. She's a modern-day homesteader on 32 acres of rolling hills in central Vermont. The barn, a carpentry shop, chickens, occasional sheep, a vegetable garden, and an outdoor bathtub?

Makenna Goodman (04:00):

This is our hot tub. And so we fill it up with the hose and put a fire underneath.

Anne Strainchamps (04:10):

Wait seriously? You just light a fire under the...

Makenna Goodman (04:13):

Yeah. And then you have to... Sometimes, it gets too hot. These are the little seats that you have to sit on, so your butt doesn't burn. But the kids love to take baths out. All summer, we kind of take baths out here.

Anne Strainchamps (04:25):

That's so nice.

Makenna Goodman (04:28):

Yeah. Welcome. You know, it's Vermont, you got to do it.

Anne Strainchamps (04:31):

Steve and I first met Makenna and her husband Sam during the pandemic, a time when a lot of people were taking a renewed interest in the whole back to the land thing.

Steve Paulson (04:42):

It was a late September day and we just had our first frost, but the garden still looked pretty lush.

Makenna Goodman (04:48):

Anyway, [crosstalk 00:04:49]-

Anne Strainchamps (04:49):

Oh my gosh, your garden, look what, it's gorgeous.

Makenna Goodman (04:51):

Well, this is the time where things are starting to, you know...

Anne Strainchamps (04:56):


Makenna Goodman (04:57):

Charred kale, brussels sprouts, lots of carrots, celery, more kale, asparagus that's gone to seed. We grew abenaki flint corn for cornmeal. So that's cool. We've harvested most of our cabbage and made sauerkraut. Collards will last for a little while. You can see with the first frost, the tomatoes all died.

Steve Paulson (05:21):

This dream of being totally self-reliant on your own land has a long and complicated history, going back to Emerson and Thoreau in 19th century utopian farming communities, and then to the hippie communes and back to the landers of the '60s and '70s who believed the American way of life was corrupt, even broken.

Makenna Goodman (05:41):

I don't know if you guys are familiar with The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. They are kind of the pioneers of a certain type of back to the land movement in this country that began in 1932 when they moved to Vermont. I read their book for the first time I moved to Vermont. And then I worked at the publishing house that publishes a lot of their work and I've been to their homestead. And what they stood for on the one hand is like everything that I want to believe. And on the other hand, it's actually quite fraught. This is stable.

Steve Paulson (06:17):

Oh my God. This is beautiful. Wow.

Makenna Goodman (06:17):

Sam built this.

Anne Strainchamps (06:18):


Makenna Goodman (06:19):


Anne Strainchamps (06:21):

[inaudible 00:06:21].

Steve Paulson (06:24):

So a little history. Scott Nearing was a radical economist, and anti-war activist who got fired from a couple of teaching jobs during the First World War. Later, he joined the communist party and for years was a prominent figure on the left. But by his early fifties, he'd fallen out with the workers' party and was still blacklisted from universities.

Makenna Goodman (06:45):

And he kept getting booted out of... Basically just shut down by the establishment for being too radical. He met Helen who was this sort of aristocratic woman, a lot younger than him. They got together and they moved to Vermont and built up this really intentional, ethically-minded, hard work, rooted in politics experiment that they called The Vermont Project, basically where for 25 years, they lived with the season. They built their house in their barn of stone. They grew all their own food. They didn't butcher animals.

Steve Paulson (07:28):

It all sounds idyllic. But Makenna believes there's a deep contradiction in what the Nearings stood for. In many ways, they led exemplary lives, living simply and self-sufficiently. And they also thought anyone could do this, as long as they were debt free and healthy, or as Scott put it, had the necessary vigor. But Makenna says their gospel of the good life reeks of class privilege. The Nearings had money to buy their land and the means to leave the city and move to the country. She puts it to live without money, you had to have money.

Makenna Goodman (08:06):

Everything they did was about a binary, actually. They were against capitalism. And to them, capitalism was defined by the city, by what they called this grind, money, commerce, the ugliness of the factory, and how it oppressed the worker. That was city that was bad. And then country was good and country was space and air and freedom and liberation through work.

Steve Paulson (08:38):

As if there was capitalism, no property issues and all of that in the country.

Makenna Goodman (08:44):

Right. Standing here today... In fact, I woke up this morning and I was really just in awe of the beauty of where I live and the injustice of the fact that I get to live here, and it's not guilt. It's like, what is it in this society, and this capital system that says, "I can live here. I get to live here. And Black men are being shot in front of their children for no reason. And here I am in paradise." And I think to myself, "Well, I'm living the good life as far as what the Nearings would have said, and yet what good have I done lately? I'm building top soil. Sure. I'm not spreading pesticides. Great. I live so intentionally. It's such hard work to cut your own firewood, you know, et cetera. And so what does that mean, if it's hard for me? It's impossible. Like this land is not available for most of society."

Makenna Goodman (09:43):

Anyway, so I've been thinking about the whole idea of going back to nature and back to the land as this inherently classist, White-supremacist social system that perpetuates systems of dominance while sort of hiding behind an ethical virtuosity that says, "No, this is actually what it looks like to be closer to humanity."

Steve Paulson (10:05):

What I find so interesting about what you're saying is you're saying there's clear injustice there for all kinds of deep historical and political reasons, but you don't feel guilty about this?

Makenna Goodman (10:16):

Well, I don't think guilt is that useful unless it leads to action. I think that I see a lot of people feeling bad about the access and the privilege that they have. And I guess it's good to be aware of it, but if you stew in your own self-loathing for too long, it's just more stewing. It doesn't actually redistribute anything.

Steve Paulson (10:45):

This whole business of returning to the land is, once again, a hot issue because Vermont, like so many rural areas, is experiencing a COVID-19 land rush. The summer we were there, the local real estate market went bonkers, battered farmhouses and 10 acre plots were selling faster than realtors could list them. People were making cash offers for properties they hadn't even seen. These weren't local buyers. They were affluent city folk from New York and Boston and the Bay Area, people fleeing the city. That's a familiar story to Makenna.

Makenna Goodman (11:22):

Oh, well, yeah. Okay. So it was yesterday where I was thinking about the Nearings and how when they came to Vermont, it was 1932. And I have skipped over that fact so many times. I'm like, "Yeah, yeah. The '30s. Yeah. The great depression. Sure. Yeah. Whatever." And then I'm thinking 1932, the depression beginning, Hitler rising to power in Germany, a looming world war. And they said, "Let's get out of here." And they could. The decision that they made was a retreat.

Steve Paulson (12:00):

Do you need to do anything with the chickens here?

Makenna Goodman (12:02):


Steve Paulson (12:02):

Okay. I'm just, I'm curious. Are you going to write anything about the Nearings, because you should.

Makenna Goodman (12:07):

I know. I know. I mean, I also was thinking about it when I wrote The Shame too. Like it's all in there actually.

Steve Paulson (12:18):

So the other thing to know about Makenna is that she's a writer. Her debut novel called The Shame recently created quite a buzz and popped up on several end-of-year best of lists. It's the story of a young mother and aspiring writer living in rural Vermont who feels trapped. She fantasizes about running away and becomes fixated on a woman living in Brooklyn, who she imagines has the perfect life. Makenna says it's not autobiographical, but the story is clearly drawn from her own background. Here's the book's prologue.

Makenna Goodman (12:57):

Imagine you're in the middle of the state of Vermont, on a tiny island the size of a shoebox. Around you is a lake of boiling lava so hot that it burns up anything it touches. In one hand, you have an endlessly replenishing supply of undercooked egg whites and a straw. This will keep you alive for a long and unhappy life.

Makenna Goodman (13:22):

At the edge of the lava, miles and miles away, the heat ends, and there is a lush and beautiful forest, meadows with wild flowers, bubbling brooks with salmon and little icicles and wild mint. There, you can eat whatever you want. There, you can eat pasta with clams, pasta with cheese, pasta with toppings, unlike anything you could imagine. And there are salads with every possible ingredient and really good dressing, all of which will be available for the rest of your long and happy life.

Makenna Goodman (13:56):

But to get to this magical place, you have to cross the hot lava and you can't have a flying machine. Would you do it? How would you do it? Here's how I would do it. I'd take my gun, because you didn't say I couldn't have one. I'd take my gun, and I would look up in the sky and I would see a giant flock of migrating geese. I'd put my egg whites down on the shoebox island and aim my gun and shoot a goose, which would fall down into the lava beside me. Because of the size of the goose, only the bottom half would burn instantly. And I'd have two seconds to use the top half as a stepping stone.

Makenna Goodman (14:39):

By this time, I would've already shot down a second goose. As one foot lifted off the first bird, the other foot would be landing on the second. And by then, I'd have shot down a third. I'd be in a spree of shooting geese, one by one, rapid fire, and dead geese would be raining down on me, dropping into the lava in a line and I'd be hopping from one to the next while shooting down more.

Makenna Goodman (15:08):

And this would go on for hours and hours until finally, I would've shot down the very last goose, which would take me to the edge of the hot lava. And I would jump safely onto the shore of the bountiful pasta and salad forest and live happily ever after.

Steve Paulson (15:35):

I heard somewhere that you actually wrote the first draft totally in secret?

Makenna Goodman (15:39):

Yeah. It was not on purpose. It was just private. I was on maternity leave. I was at home with my second baby. The first baby was at daycare. My husband was at work, and I was completely insulated in this space. And I would write when I wasn't taking care of the baby. I felt like motherhood and early childhood, like having little children and home setting, it was like being in this dark, dark room. And I knew that there was a door, but I couldn't see the door, but I knew it was there. And it was through writing where I realized that these things that I had been obsessed with or interested in actually were all related.

Steve Paulson (16:26):

So I have to ask you about the title of the book, The Shame, what is the shame then?

Makenna Goodman (16:32):

I think it's many thing. I think it's the shame of feeling like a bad mother. It's the shame of being a part of a system that you cannot extricate yourself from, or to know what you should do and to not do it anyway. And the shame of rage, the shame of being human, actually.

Steve Paulson (16:53):

Can I just say, this is a very high ethical standard that you are setting for yourself?

Makenna Goodman (16:59):

Well, I don't know. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (17:02):

So what do we do then?

Makenna Goodman (17:05):

Well, I think that I'm also not a complete pessimist in the sense that when I get to that place, I think about the soil and rootedness and what happens in the soil and the kind of vibrations and cellular microrisal bacterial networks that are happening. And I think that there is actually solace in nature.

Makenna Goodman (17:32):

I mean, I don't leave this land very much. And so it is very much rooted in repetition of being here. You know, like in the spring, garlic is such an important crop for me because it's the first thing that pokes up in the spring. You plant the bulb right around October and it comes up and you're like, "I've never seen green before. And there it is." And then every different bit of green that comes up, you're like amazed that life exists, that life can persist. And I just am always so grateful for being alive in the spring. Anyway, I think as much as I say nature is fraught or like living close to nature is fraught, it's actually very spiritually important for me. And I feel like the wall of my skin is very porous. So being here is very important for me.

Makenna Goodman (18:23):

I have to. Carrots are really fussy.

Anne Strainchamps (18:37):

Makenna Goodman lives on 32 acres of rolling hills in Vershire, Vermont. She is a writer and a high school English teacher. Her debut novel is called The Shame and she did wind up writing about Helen and Scott Nearing. If you're interested, check out her New York Review of Books, Essay. The link's on our website at ttbook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (19:00):

Coming up, Simon Winchester traces the history of owning property back to its origins. How far back could you trace it?

Simon Winchester (19:09):

A long, long way back.

Anne Strainchamps (19:11):

You're talking about the original people who lived here?

Simon Winchester (19:13):

That's the point. These were the Mohicans.

Anne Strainchamps (19:16):

I'm Ann Strainchamps. And this is To The Best Of Our Knowledge. From Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (19:29):

As a journalist, Simon Winchester spent decades on the road reporting from Belfast to Bangladesh, to all over Southern China. When he was 55, he decided it was time to settle somewhere permanently. He bought a little house in Wassaic, a village north of New York city. And he started writing what would become a string of best-selling books. And then when a neighbor offered him a good price on a hundred acres of forest land, he said, "Sure, why not?"

Simon Winchester (20:06):

It was interesting, but not very useful land in so far as it was mostly on the north slope of a mountain. And so you couldn't really grow very much, but it had a lot of... It had little streams. It had a lot of wonderful trees, a variety of animals. So I had the land, but didn't really think a great deal about it.

Anne Strainchamps (20:29):

Until some years later, when he went through the formal process of becoming an American citizen, his feelings about that chunk of land changed.

Simon Winchester (20:40):

Then I became very much more emotionally connected with the realization that I now was fully invested in this country. I had a part of it. I mean, a tiny, tiny part, a hundred and odd acres in a country, which has billions of acres. But nonetheless, it gave me a feeling that I was truly part of this country.

Anne Strainchamps (20:59):

And that's when Simon Winchester began to wonder where that mystique came from.

Simon Winchester (21:04):

And certainly, one can fall to one's knees and sift the earth through one's fingers and say, "This is mine. This tree and that stream and that rock, they belong to me." But then I began to think, what on earth does that actually mean? And what did it mean to the people that had owned it before me? So I started looking in the archives, the various title exchanges and previous transactions.

Anne Strainchamps (21:31):

How far back could you trace it?

Simon Winchester (21:33):

A long, long way back. Back to when it ceased to be written in English. And those who were selling it, and I use that in the looses possible manner, could not write and so they had a little X or a little picture of a deer or some kind of animal.

Anne Strainchamps (21:51):

You're talking about the original people who lived here?

Simon Winchester (21:53):

That's the point. These were the Mahicans. And so I began to think, well, what was the Mahicans' attitude? Did they fall to their knees and sift the earth through their fingers and say, "This is mine." And the answer is, of course, no, they didn't because individual land ownership was incomprehensible to Native Americans, in the way that it is to this day to Australian aboriginals and New Zealand maori's. The community owns the land, the tribe, the band, the family, no individual. "You can no more own the land," said, I think it was Chief Seattle, that you can no more own the land, than you can own the breeze or the ocean.

Anne Strainchamps (22:35):

The depressing part is that people who believed land can be shared but never owned, it seems like they always get wiped out, and usually brutally over and over again. In India and Africa, wherever the British empire went, and of course, most notably to this country's everlasting shame on this continent. And on a scale, that's kind of hard to comprehend. The government seizure of land in this country is overwhelming.

Simon Winchester (23:04):

It's completely monstrous. I mean, I mentioned that the people who initially signed the deeds over to the Dutch where the Mahicans. There are no Mahicans here to this day. Where are they? They're in Wisconsin, living in relative poverty. They have a representative who comes every year, 1300 miles east, to essentially mourn over the lands that they lost, for no good reason other than that white people wanted to settle them. These are the original inhabitants. It's their country. We white people, we're their guests.

Anne Strainchamps (23:42):

Yeah. I think there can be a lot of different ways to define ownership. But what does it mean legally to own land, fundamentally?

Simon Winchester (23:53):

Well, going to the actual fundamentals in Western countries, the ultimate owner of land is God. In Britain, where I come from, the Queen is the legal representative of God on earth. And so she owns, technically speaking, all of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, every acre.

Anne Strainchamps (24:19):

Wait, really? In the US, does President Biden own the land?

Simon Winchester (24:24):

No, because this is a secular country and the President isn't the representative of God. I mean, I pay taxes on my land. And if I don't pay taxes, the land ultimately is taken away from me by the town, the community, the county, the state, whoever. So do I own it or do I actually lease it? It's a confusing situation. But once you've got it, you have what's called the bundle of rights. And the bundle of rights, you can sell the land, you can do with it what you wish. You can mine, cut down trees and crucially, in this context, ban other people from it.

Anne Strainchamps (24:59):

It seems like every battle we've had about land flows from that concept.

Simon Winchester (25:04):

Yes. But then if you're a diehard communist and you believe that all ownership is theft, the land that I own is theoretically should belong... If belonging is the term to the Mahicans, I've stolen it and been a long chain of people in between me and their first people. But nonetheless, I shouldn't own it.

Speaker 6 (25:23):

Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. The prosperity of early Virginia derived from her soil.

Anne Strainchamps (25:41):

I hadn't realized until reading your book, how baked into the foundation of this country the lust for land was. You portrayed George Washington in a way that's very different than the way we tend to. He often gets portrayed as, of the founding fathers, the good guy, the one who freed his slaves, you know, after his death.

Simon Winchester (26:06):


Anne Strainchamps (26:08):

Yeah. But you tell a different story about him as being motivated primarily by lust for land.

Simon Winchester (26:15):

He had tremendous lust for land. I mean, he was a surveyor, so he knew how to stake out tracts of land. And when he fought in the French and Indian wars, he was given or saw to it that he won large tracts of land in the Ohio Valley.

Anne Strainchamps (26:31):

And this land he had, it was what, like 32,000 acres or something huge. Did he kick the people who had been living there off his land?

Simon Winchester (26:41):

No. To be fair, he didn't, as far as we know, anyway. And then King George, bless his soul, largely as a result of the land grabbing which people like Washington were doing west of the Appalachians, the King said no further white settlement. He didn't use the word white, but no further colonial settlement west. It didn't last for very long. It's not going to stop a country impelled by manifest destiny. So the land grabbing went on and on and on.

Anne Strainchamps (27:11):

One of the worst moments, and just surreal, you described as the Oklahoma land grab.

Simon Winchester (27:17):

Yes. It's oddly familiar to me. It was when I was 17, I actually lived in Oklahoma and so this was very much driven into the character and knowledge of all Oklahomans, but it's very little known beyond that. And so it was in April, I think, 1893 on the Northern border and on the Eastern border, where the native Americans were settled, thousands upon thousands of people, Europeans mainly, new settlers in this country, lined up, mostly in horses, some with [inaudible 00:27:46] wagons.

Simon Winchester (27:47):

And then at noon on that particular, I think it was a Monday, of 22nd of April, they blew their bugles and they raised their flags and everyone rushed off like the beginning of the Kentucky Derby, thundering down across the planes. And then when they saw somewhere that they thought was attractive, leapt off, plunged their stake into the ground, said, "This is mine," raced to the tent, which was the US government land office, paid their $5 registration fee, which is all they needed, and then they owned the land.

Simon Winchester (28:21):

The place that I'm particularly interested in is a place called Guthrie. At 6:00 in the morning of that day, the population of Guthrie, zero. At 6:00 that night, 15,000. It was the fastest growing town in American history. By three days later, the telegraph had been persuaded to-

Anne Strainchamps (28:44):

Oh my gosh.

Simon Winchester (28:44):

... have a link there. There was a [inaudible 00:28:46] road about nine days later. Electricity, primitive electricity, was brought very shortly thereafter and it became briefly the capital of the territory. The person that planned it all, after he had done the urban planning for Guthrie, moved west to California and founded another place, which is endured rather longer, Hollywood.

Archive Tape (29:17):

Yes, this is Hollywood, the city of the stars, the famous, the fabulous, the glamorous Hollywood.

Anne Strainchamps (29:29):

So we were talking about how land ownership is, in many ways, fundamentally the right to kick somebody else off of what you say is your property. And there's been a movement in England and Scotland, and I think before that, in Scandinavia, that pushes back against this notion of trespass. There's actually new legislation in the UK, isn't there, that gives everybody the right to access the land?

Simon Winchester (29:53):

In the UK, up to a point in Scotland, yes. I mean, but the history of this goes back some hundreds of years to Sweden, Norway, Finland to an extent, and Denmark. The concept in the Swedish language is allemansrätten, all men's right to the land, the law says, providing you behave yourselves.

Simon Winchester (30:21):

And there is a sort of codified code of conduct, which is all entirely reasonable. I mean, you don't let off tactical weapons on the land, you don't pop into someone's garden and demand a cup of coffee. But providing you behave yourself, you can camp, you can fish, you can walk, you can run, you can do more or less what a civilized person would wish to do on land no matter who owns it.

Anne Strainchamps (30:46):

You can just go camp anywhere?

Simon Winchester (30:48):

Anywhere, you have an absolute right to do so. Not in a person's...

Anne Strainchamps (30:52):


Simon Winchester (30:52):

You can't, as I say, go into a backyard. But if they own as I did in Duchess county, a hundred knot acres, and someone says, "Well, this looks pretty. I'll go and put up my tent, and take water from the stream, and fish for trout in the stream and cook them," I have no recourse.

Anne Strainchamps (31:10):

What if they decide they just want to live in their little camp there forever, and then they invite some of their relatives? And soon, you have 12 people living on your land in little camps.

Simon Winchester (31:21):

That's a good question. I think, if push came to shove, you could go to law. But they didn't do that sort of thing in Sweden.

Anne Strainchamps (31:29):

It's so un-American. I mean, I'm trying to imagine what it would take for that to happen in the US.

Simon Winchester (31:36):

Well, if I can get on my hobby horse for a moment there's, in America, the big, big landowners, traditionally, particularly the Western ones and Ted Turner is, I suppose... well, not suppose, he is the biggest, large tracts of Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming. He owns it, but he doesn't enforce any trespass laws. But there's this couple of brothers called the Wilks brothers who have risen to a position of some notoriety in recent years. They come from far west Texas. They are super conservative Evangelical Christians. And they developed a formula for fracking chemicals, which sold incredibly well and made them millionaires.

Simon Winchester (32:24):

So these two young men went on a shopping spree for land like no other. And they've thus far accumulated about 750,000 acres.

Anne Strainchamps (32:34):


Simon Winchester (32:34):

But the crucial difference is, that they don't allow people to access. They put up gates, they put up security cameras, they've hired guards. And one might say, they're being dog in [inaudible 00:32:46] about it. There's no particular plan they have, other than to say, "You can't go on it because I own it." And Westerners think this is going against the spirit of the west.

Archive Tape (33:04):

I think it's time for the Idaho legislature to protect public property rights. That road has been built by the public, maintained by the public, it belongs to the public and the Wilks brothers are stealing from the public.

Anne Strainchamps (33:22):

I mean, this is how people created countries, originally. You grab some land, and you put up some guards or bring in your knights or whatever, and prepare to defend it.

Simon Winchester (33:32):

Indeed, and there's a great deal in this book about the international scene and the story of the partition of India and Pakistan, or the partition of Palestine, or the creation of Northern Ireland.

Simon Winchester (33:45):

When you think about it, the Indian-Pakistan border, 1,700 miles long, astonishingly carefully guarded, is merely the linear descendant of a man with a plow, creating farrows in a field in Wiltshire in, let's say, the Bronze Age. And his neighbor creating furrows, which go in a slightly different direction. And where the two sets of furrows meet, they put a line of stones or a line of wattle or a little trench or something to mark the border, the boundary between two pieces of land or that idea of a boundary. Then it becomes between two fields, and then between two communities, and then two counties, and then two countries, and then between civilizations and they become frontiers. And thus, is the world divided.

Anne Strainchamps (34:35):

Yeah. Last question. Has researching this book changed anything about your own personal relationship to land? Do you still own any?

Simon Winchester (34:49):

Well, I do. I'm sitting here in a farm in Western Massachusetts. It's about five acres, which I... In fact, I was cutting the rhubarb and gathering the eggs this morning. But I think, when I pass on, it's going to be deeded to a local conservation group so that my heirs and successors, such as they are, will no longer own it. And the town, everyone who lives here, will be able to access it. It will be owned communally as indeed it was 200 years ago.

Anne Strainchamps (35:23):

Do your heirs object?

Simon Winchester (35:27):

No, they don't. I think they accept the argument. I mean, they'll get a bit of spending money. So no, they don't care too much.

Anne Strainchamps (35:36):

Right. So they can go out and buy their own land?

Simon Winchester (35:41):

I hope they don't.

Anne Strainchamps (35:49):

Simon Winchester has written more than a dozen books, including The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed The World. And we were talking about his most recent called, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.

Anne Strainchamps (36:16):

Coming up, the question we're asking this hour, whose land is it?

Hayden King (36:37):

Canada and the United States exist because of the theft of indigenous land and the partial destruction of indigenous communities. I think that there's this stereotype, and it's really not a stereotype, it's a narrative for both Canada and the United States that, first, this was empty land. When settlers came here, there was no one really here using the land productively. The people that were here using the land productively were really just savages that deserved to be kicked out of the way to make way for civilization.

Archive Tape (37:08):

The treaty of 1851 covers North Dakota. This is treaty land.

Hayden King (37:20):

I think that that is a bedrock foundational narrative. When you read the news stories about Standing Rock, there's still these narratives that these are troublemakers, that these are angry Indians.

Archive Tape (37:34):

Clearly, they're acting outside the law. They are trespassing on private property, they're booting cars, they're throwing rocks and bottles at law enforcement officers.

Hayden King (37:42):

Ultimately, that's a stereotype to mask this theft.

Anne Strainchamps (37:51):

Inside the Land Back movement, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To The Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (38:17):

When white Europeans first came to this continent, they began seizing land and forcing native inhabitants out. Maybe they didn't think of it as theft. But if the same thing happened today, we would not hesitate to call it stealing, and we would want whatever was taken returned.

Anne Strainchamps (38:36):

Land Back is a movement that demands exactly that, the return of native lands to native people. That could mean handing over property rights, or it could mean restoring stewardship of ancestral territories, or redistributing wealth back to indigenous communities, or all of the above. Land Back is a growing movement in the US and even more so in Canada. Charles Monroe-Kane reached out to one of its leaders, Hayden King. He's the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute and Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation in Ontario.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:10):

You know, land has a legal meaning, it's about ownership. It also has cultural and historic meanings. What does land mean to you?

Hayden King (39:19):

I try to refer back to Anishinabek thought and philosophy, and importantly language, when I'm thinking about land. And the English language sort of trains you to think about land as this static concept, and almost as a commodity, something that you own, or something that you buy or sell, or something that you extract resources from. But in our language, Anishinabekmowin, the word for land is commonly referred to as aki or aki, but the root of that is actually akina.

Hayden King (39:47):

And you talk to elders and they do the translation work, and they say that the closest literal translation to that is everything in unity. And so when you think about land on those terms, as this unifying force, as the thing that binds us all and connects us all, then you start thinking in land in different terms. In a lot of indigenous languages and philosophies and indigenous law, certainly in Anishinabek law, land is something that is alive and has agency and certainly must be respected. And that includes respecting maybe even the sovereignty and self-determination of land. So that's how I like to think about land, but I would be lying if I didn't say that that takes work, right? This is sort of part of the decolonizing that we all need to do in our relationship to land.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:38):

You know, when you read about the Land Back movement, you find a bunch of word associations. You just brought one up, decolonization. There's also reparations, reconciliation. It seems like Land Back is a lot more than just giving land back.

Hayden King (40:52):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I mean, probably the single loudest demand among indigenous people since the relationship to settlers emerged was this demand for land back from land theft and from dispossession. And I think that that's entirely valid. We want to get land back almost universally. That's what indigenous people will say. But Land Back is also a lot more than that. It's also about revitalizing indigenous life, because if we're thinking about land as everything in unity, and we're thinking about our languages connected to the land, and our culture connected to the land, and our family and social organizations connected to the land, then Land Back is this broader movement towards revitalizing indigenous life.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:39):

I want to ask you a question, and I don't mean it to be so elementary, you're going to scoff at it, or to be even painful for you. But I think we need to remind people like, this was your land, how did you lose it?

Hayden King (41:51):

The language that I might use is, how was it taken away as opposed to how it was lost.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:58):

Sorry. You're right. Yeah. That's better.

Hayden King (41:59):

[Crosstalk 00:41:59]. It's clear that the discussion is a lot about words that we use. And I think that this is an important one because, the sort of principle institution between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada, the United States, is the treaty. And in the Canadian context, treaties were made around the time of Confederation. So there were very much these nation building tools that allowed for the settlement of the country.

Hayden King (42:24):

And I think that it's not that dissimilar in the United States, though I think in Canada, sort of treaties were made prior to settlement. In the United States, treaties were made sort of out after settlement. But as these nation-building tools, really in retrospect, they were vehicles of dispossession, in many ways.

Hayden King (42:43):

And as states and provinces and territories sort of legitimized their rule, indigenous perspectives were marginalized. And that sort of hope for a collaborative relationship disappeared and States started working towards eliminating the political threat that indigenous peoples presented to those States, and provinces, and entire countries. And so that meant things like assimilation policies, and Indian wars, and residential schools, industrial schools, boarding schools, and then this very long period of suppression of indigenous political difference.

Hayden King (43:21):

So in a lot of ways, what you're seeing now with the revitalization of the Land Back movement, this is a century coming. It's not necessarily that we're asking the Canadian government for the land back and the Canadian government is, "Sure, we'll give you the land back." It's more of confronting State power, police, resource, companies, corporations, putting our bodies in the path of bulldozers. I mean, you saw it at Standing Rock. In a lot of ways, that forces confrontation, but it also forces negotiation.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:53):

I read your report and a bunch of stuff online as I go got really into it, there's been a lot of success. I was reading about the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the other one I cannot pronounce, but it's the Tsilhqot'in Nation versus British Columbia in 2014?

Hayden King (44:09):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:10):

Correct me if I'm wrong, didn't those claims give sovereignty to the land?

Hayden King (44:15):

Yeah, those are two really different examples. So, in the Nunavut case, the Inuit in the far north of Canada approached the government and said, "Listen, we've never created a treaty with you. You're illegally squatting on our land. So let's create a treaty and figure out what our relationship is to one another." And in that case, the federal government had been compelled by a court decision to make treaties where there were no treaties, because as the courts effectively agreed with indigenous people in Canada that, where there are no treaties, people are illegally squatting. They didn't say it in those terms, but effectively they agreed with that perspective. And so Canada was forced to make new treaties.

Hayden King (44:55):

Now, one of the core elements of the modern treaty process in the example like Nunavut, is that the indigenous community has to do what's called extinguishing title or surrendering their rights and title to land in exchange for the treaty. So they have to give up 90% of the land to keep 10% of the land. Or in the Nunavut case, they got to keep 18% of the land, but they had to surrender 82% of the land. So it's not exactly an equal distribution of land in these new treaties.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:24):

Yeah. It doesn't sound equal. Right.

Hayden King (45:25):

So in the Tsilhqot'in case, the other case that you're referencing, this community in the province of British Columbia decided they weren't interested in surrendering their title. So they decided instead, we want to keep that title and we're going to fight Canada all the way to the Supreme Court so that we get our title recognized, our land. And that's what they did, and they were by and large successful. And so the Tsilhqot'in, they chartered a completely different path than the Inuit in Nunavut. I think there's positive and negatives, I suppose you could say, with each of those approaches, but that's an ongoing debate.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:01):

It's fascinating. You know, when I was a kid... My family lived in Alaska. I had a brief stay over a week, two weeks in Wood Buffalo National Park. There was an activist, young, young activist, he was in an interview. And just as an aside, he said, "The least they could do was give us the national parks."

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:21):

Let's talk about the parks, what about having them being turned over?

Hayden King (46:25):

You know, the history of the park system in the United States and Canada is a pretty violent one. Some of the first parks in the United States, Yosemite and Yellowstone, were created under this belief that people were separate from nature, and were separate from wildlife. So the indigenous people that lived in these places where parks were proposed to be created, they had to be relocated, right? They had to be removed.

Hayden King (46:51):

So in Canada, the first provincial park in the province that I live, Ontario, is called Quetico Provincial Park. And the government forced indigenous people in those parks to leave. And in fact, one of the communities that they forced to leave was declared extinct 20 years later.

Hayden King (47:07):

And so now, there is, I think, a latent movement towards talking about co-managing some of those lands. There's a park in Labrador, a park in Northwest territories where indigenous people have significant involvement in how those parks are managed.

Hayden King (47:25):

But if you're asking me, if I think handing over these parks to indigenous peoples exclusively and having the management of those spaces is a good idea, I think that yes, absolutely it is. And I think, practically, if you're interested in the Land Back movement from like a policy or legal perspective, are you going to go to private landowners and tell them they have to give their land back to indigenous people, or maybe are you going to look at some of these vast areas of federal lands that could be transferred to indigenous people and have those folks manage them? I think that that's a wonderful idea, and I support it wholeheartedly.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:00):

Okay. There's a lot of things in the courts, there's a lot of things spinning around. If I'm looking at the map of Canada, what would change if the Land Back movement was successful?

Hayden King (48:11):

You know, the vision of indigenous people or at least the Anishinabek people has always been looking at the land as this sort of basket or a bowl. And we all live in that bowl and we share the spoon, and we pass it to one another, and we eat from it together.

Hayden King (48:26):

And so there's nothing in Anishinabek perspective about living on the land with other people that has to be exclusive. And sometimes, we can get stuck in that when we look at maps. This is one jurisdiction's territory, and this is another jurisdiction's territory. But moving towards an indigenous approach to our relationship to the land might mean that the map has many layers. It has those layers of provinces and territories, but it also has those layers of Anishinabek governance of the Great Lakes and that exists... There's lines on lines on lines, basically.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:58):

And maps can be three dimensional?

Hayden King (49:00):

Yeah, I think through time and space, absolutely. And it's less about who owns the land and it's more about how you relate to the land.

Charles Monroe-Kane (49:08):

I have a final question for you. And this is an uncomfortable question I think for someone in your position, do you have hope? Are you going to get your land back? Is it going to work out?

Hayden King (49:20):

Yeah. I mean, I will always have hope in indigenous youth who are leading this movement and indigenous communities that are really paving the way. And I feel light when I talk about language revitalization with my ancestors where I go hunting. So absolutely, that gives me hope. And you get drawn into the fights that we have with resource companies and state governments. And it can certainly take you into a dark place, and question your neighbors and your friends. But, nonetheless, at the end of the day, I think indigenous people are leading and showing the way. And for me, that's hopeful.

Anne Strainchamps (50:03):

Hayden King is an Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation in Gchi'mnissing in Ontario. He's the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute and co-author of the seminal Yellowhead Red Paper Land Back.

Anne Strainchamps (50:25):

And if you'd like to know whose land you're on, check out the online map created by the folks at Native Land Digital. You can search it by zip code or address. So it's a really great place to begin. To find out more, visit our website at ttbook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (50:44):

To the Best Of Our Knowledge is made each week by a tiny team of audio producers, Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening. And come back often.

Speaker 13 (51:02):


Last modified: 
November 18, 2023