In progressive communities around the country and the world, Land Acknowledgements are recited before meetings and events. It often goes something like this: "We want to acknowledge that we are on land that originally belonged to the, and a specific tribe is named."
It might seem like a new practice, but it’s not. Territorial acknowledgments have existed for hundreds of years. It was customary for Indigenous People to show respect for the territory of others, to learn whose land they were on and whose waters they were around.
As with most things, Land Acknowledgements are viewed from varied perspectives depending upon the cultural lens. From empty words to too-little-too-late, grand attempts to make up for past wrongs can be weighed down by history and issues of mistrust.
"It feels like a box-checking activity, like people are doing it to signal their politics," said Len Necefer, an Indigenous studies scholar and member of the Navajo Nation. "That's often how it can come off."
The question is asked by Indigenous academics; how sincere is this relatively newfound respect and are the words being put into some form of action? If your mind immediately went to the thought that they are being, “ungrateful,” it is time to jump down from that high horse and consider the tremendous loss of land and lives experienced by Indigenous People. Every group has a right to remember the pain and victories of their ancestors. How many groups re-enact wars wearing uniforms from hundreds of years ago? How many families hold on to quilts, old coins, or tell you the name of their sixth great-grandfather? And how many groups exist to preserve a past they’ve never lived?
The Land and Respect Connection
Opinions about Land Acknowledgements may be connected to the interpretation of what land represents. Beliefs about land to Indigenous People were far different than the meaning and purpose of land to the Europeans. The Native Americans believed that no one owned land. Instead, they believed the land belonged to everybody within their tribe. The Europeans believed that people had a right to own land. They believed people could buy land, which would then belong to the individual.
Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore, we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit, and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us. You can count your money and burn it within the nod of a buffalo's head, but only the great Spirit can count the grains of sand and the blades of grass of these plains. As a present to you, we will give you anything we have that you can take with you, but the land, never.
--Chief Crowfoot of the Siksika First Nation, warrior, and peacemaker.
Respect for land and people was and remains the issue. A lack of respect for Indigenous People proved to be a bitter irony. Abuse of the land and the environment has come home to roost. It has come full circle.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Melissa K. Nelson, Indigenous scholar-activist and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians states, “The contemporary sustainability field has been largely led by white Americans and Europeans with minimal attention to the sustainable traditions. We’ve been doing it for centuries, but it’s been erased and invisible in the academy and Western science. But now, there’s a generation who can bring Indigenous sciences to the forefront, equal with Western sciences, and help solve our most pressing ecological issues of the day.”
Again, It’s About Respect. For the People and for the Land
I embrace the practice of Land Acknowledgements. Is it enough? Hell no, but it’s a small way to remind everyone in the meeting or event of the people who stood on the land first. And that land and people are worthy of respect.
I share this one from the Native American and Indigenous Studies, (NAIS), program at U.T. Austin, for Texas land:
"We would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what now is called North America.
“Moreover, we would like to acknowledge the Alabama-Coushatta, Caddo, Carrizo/Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Comanche, Kickapoo, Lipan Apache, Tonkawa and Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas.”