Our Personal Responsibility in Land Acknowledgement

Posted on October 15, 2020

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Today’s Buzz is by Stephanie Chase — connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter

What I’m Reading: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

What I’m Watching: The Great on Hulu, Tony McNamara (of The Favourite)’s “occasionally true story” of Catherine the Great

When I’m Not Reading: trying to get out to enjoy the fall weather before the Oregon rains begin


Is the Land acknowledgement offered at the beginning of each session during #ELGL20 the first time you have heard of or participated in the process? Indigenous people have acknowledged one another’s land for centuries, and the practice of government or other bodies or individuals in acknowledging Land has been in place in New Zealand, Canada, and Australia for some time. It is, however, still a fairly unusual practice for us in the United States. 

The Native Governance Center, a Native American-led nonprofit organization based in Minnesota, offers a guide to making and understanding Land acknowledgement. The first, critical step is self-reflection. As a participant, we should be asking what a Land acknowledgment is asking us to do — what action we should take. In the introductions for ELGL20, we are asked to commit to learn more about our own local Indigenous peoples: we may be at the very first step of learning on whose unceded Land we reside. It may be to learn more about the history of our local Indigenous peoples. Critically, it is asking us to take steps to learn more about the stories, thriving culture, and challenges facing our Indigenous communities and community members in the moment. As the Native Governance Center states: “starting somewhere is better than not trying at all. We need to share in Indigenous peoples’ discomfort. They’ve been uncomfortable for a long time.”

It is our individual responsibility to ensure Land acknowledgements are not just a nod to equity. This view, of a Land acknowledgement as an empty statement, might be summed up by Cal State Professor Alex Small in his January 2020 opinion piece on hearing a Land acknowledgment: “It’s hardly news that the United States was built on land violently taken from Indigenous people… [m]aybe there are situations in the United States where it is still dangerous to say who the land belongs to.” In a nation where the majority of us cannot name the Indigenous peoples of the Lands on which we reside — could not name the peoples from whom the Land was violently taken — the statement that we acknowledge this is so is a powerful one to make. It is a deliberate step in shedding the colonial history we learned in school, where the violence against Indigenous peoples was instead framed as the “manifest destiny” of white people moving west into “open land.” The connection of Land is so essential to Indigenous cultures that Canadian style guides, developed by Opaskwayak Cree Nation member and Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Gregory Younging, request it be capitalized in recognition. White culture cannot dismiss the importance of Land simply because we do not hold the same relationship to it.

In acknowledging the traditional stewards or caretakers of the Land on which we live and gather, we acknowledge the inferiority of that taught history, and that there is a rich cultural heritage we are responsible to learn. We must also acknowledge that the stories, culture, and lives of Indigenous peoples are not simply history: the stories, culture, and lives are part of our present, and our knowledge of the present may be even more sorely lacking than our knowledge of the past. In their Land acknowledgement work, Northwestern University states: “It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.”

A statement of Land acknowledgement is a starting point. Each of us who have attended ELGL20 sessions must commit to taking action inspired by the statement we have heard; while reading more about critical issues is important, white people in particular must do more. Research your local Indigenous organizations and personally donate time or money, or seek to develop meaningful organizational partnership and support. Support your local Indigenous businesses. Make yourself aware of contemporary Indigenous-led movements and campaigns and offer personal or organizational support. Consider what privileges and benefits you personally have due to your presence on unceded land. Ensure your organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion work includes Indigenous history, viewpoints, and engagement. Commit to having a Land acknowledgement at the start of each public meeting, and do the research to ensure you have accurately represented your Indigenous communities. 


If you are interested in learning more about Land acknowledgement, native-land.ca, which developed and maintains the database ELGL 20’s Land acknowledgement texting service draws its information from, has a guide: https://native-land.ca/territory-acknowledgement/.

American writer Angela Flournoy offers a much different take than Alex Small’s on first hearing Land acknowledgments in a New York Times opinion piece from 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/what-does-it-mean-to-acknowledge-the-past.html


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