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A land acknowledgement is a statement that recognizes the history of colonization and the original occupation of land by Indigenous peoples in a geographic location. Usually given at the start of an event, it describes and acknowledges the historical ownership of the land where the event is taking place. Sometimes they also acknowledge the genocide and/or displacement suffered by Indigenous people in that area. This practice is becoming a common way to open gatherings such as conferences, sporting events, and concerts, but land acknowledgments in one form or another have been in existence for centuries. The practice of formal land acknowledgments is more common in Canada but US institutions have increasingly begun to include them as part of their official events or in online statements.
There are many reasons for doing land acknowledgements, from combatting the erasure of Indigenous/Native people through the raising of public consciousness, to encouraging the audience to think critically about place and colonization. Although the basic idea behind them is generally well-intentioned (we should be honest and open about historical truths), land acknowledgements are not universally accepted as a positive thing. There are those who dismiss them as just another “woke” initiative. And on the other hand, there are concerns from the living descendants of the people these statements purportedly acknowledge. For example, a land acknowledgement can be harmful or offensive if done poorly.
[…] particularly when they perpetuate misunderstandings of Indigenous identities, land acknowledgments done wrong are heard by Indigenous peoples as the final blow: a definitive apocalyptic vision of a world in which Indigenous sovereignty and land rights will not be recognized and will be claimed never to have really existed.
We have hit upon the problem of intent vs. impact, a common topic in equity, diversity, and inclusion thinking. This problem raises a basic question that is often overlooked in everyday life: what if you intend no harm (in your actions or speech) but do harm despite your intentions? With a land acknowledgment, the importance of its impact outweighs the importance of one’s intent. If a land acknowledgment isn’t carefully considered and accurate, it may do more harm than good.
After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?
Another concern is that land acknowledgements can be too general or simply inaccurate. The internet abounds with resources, but not all of them are created equal. Instead of doing a quick search and copying and pasting from the first result, Ta7talíya Michelle Nahanee suggests making your land acknowledgement meaningful by genuinely engaging with the subject – and knowing what you’re talking about:
‘I don’t tell people which word to use, but I ask them to consider each word critically […] I want people to be able to back up what you’re saying, truly believe in it, and be ready to answer the question when someone criticizes you.’
Another issue is the performative nature of these statements. Institutions and individuals wish to give the impression of acknowledging past harms without mentioning the legacy of those harms or the current marginalization that Indigenous people face, while not committing to any restorative measures. If a land acknowledgement focuses purely on the past, it can ring hollow or disingenuous:
“A tool of colonialism is to keep us in the past tense,” said Nahanee.
“To speak about your territorial acknowledgment in the past continues that dominant narrative.”
Those are some of the negatives, but these negatives are not about land acknowledgements per se, but the people and institutions using them to “check a box” and avoid any real work or commitment. A land acknowledgement is just one way of honoring the traditional inhabitants of a region, but it’s not the only way. It’s important to emphasize that every well thought out acknowledgement will be (should be) different from place to place, as Indigenous people consist of many different tribes and nations, all with their own specific histories and identities.
When people ask for guidance in making land acknowledgments, we suggest reaching out directly to local Indigenous communities and to Native Nations forcibly removed from the area in the past to ask how they want to be recognized. […] Making a land acknowledgment should be motivated by genuine respect and support for Native Peoples. Speaking and hearing words of recognition is an important step in creating collaborative, accountable, continuous, and respectful relationships with Indigenous nations and communities.
Although going direct to the local Indigenous communities is better than not including them at all, better still is doing your own homework. But where to begin? The Native Governance Center offers a Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement and it is packed with good advice.
Build real, authentic relationships with Indigenous people. In addition to normal employment and family obligations, Indigenous people are working to heal their traumas, learn their languages, and support their nations. If you reach out for help, lead the conversation by asking an Indigenous person what you can do for them. Chances are, they’re likely overworked and could use your help.
Compensate Indigenous people for their emotional labor. If you do plan to reach out to an Indigenous person or community for help, compensate them fairly. Too often, Indigenous people are asked to perform emotional labor for free.
Finally, consider land acknowledgements as a starting point, and not an end in themselves:
Land acknowledgment alone is not enough. It’s merely a starting point. Ask yourself: how do I plan to take action to support Indigenous communities?
- HONOR NATIVE LAND: A GUIDE AND CALL TO ACKNOWLEDGMENT https://usdac.us/nativeland/
- BEYOND LAND ACKNOWLEDGMENT: A GUIDE https://nativegov.org/news/beyond-land-acknowledgment-guide/
- CSU Land Acknowledgement https://landacknowledgment.colostate.edu/
- Northwestern Land Acknowledgement https://www.northwestern.edu/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples/about/Land%20Acknowledgement.html
- Colorado College Land Acknowledgment https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/indigenous-community/land-acknowledgement.html
- Read about the history of Indigenous peoples in Colorado https://www.uncovercolorado.com/native-american-tribes-in-colorado/