Bill Keveney, USA Today, October 2, 2021
Earlier this year, members of the San Jose City Council in California stood and recited the pledge of allegiance. Minutes later, Glorida Arellano-Gomez, councilwoman for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe in the San Francisco Bay Area, led the virtual council meeting in a land acknowledgment.
“I would like to begin by recognizing that while we gather in the city of San Jose, we are gathered on the ethnohistoric tribal territory of the Tamien Ohlone,” she said.
The San Jose City Council is among a growing number of government bodies, universities and companies recognizing Native Americans in the United States through land acknowledgments.
An acknowledgment, which recently could be heard at the start of a Texas Christian University convocation, a Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center webinar streaming from Alaska and a Microsoft corporate conference in Washington state, recognizes the tribes and people who long inhabited and cared for the land where those institutions now stand. Universities and museums have designated website pages for them.
The statement, which can start at a couple of paragraphs but also run significantly longer, requires research into the past but brings that history to the present in recognizing tribes and urban Natives who are part of these communities today. The language takes many forms, but experts said it is imperative, when possible, to name specific tribes that have served as stewards of the land.
“We really want people to know that we were the original inhabitants, the original stewards and that we are still here,” said Nipmuc Nation Chief Cheryll Holley, who emphasized the importance of knowing history without walling it off from the present.
A land acknowledgement can turn into a problem if it becomes boilerplate recitation, a way to shut off an uncomfortable examination of brutal colonial history or to avoid taking further steps to develop relationships with Native communities, some professors and tribal members warned.
The Native Governance Center, a Native-led non-profit that helps tribes exercise their sovereignty, supports land acknowledgments but is concerned the necessary follow-up “action step just isn’t happening,” said Lauren Kramer, the group’s external relations officer. To that end, the center has created an action-plan guide that includes such suggestions as donating to Indigenous organizations and participating in Native-led protest movements.
Land acknowledgments can vary in language, but they should mention the history of the place, name and correctly spell the tribes that first inhabited the land, note that they are sovereign governments, recognize tribal descendants who are part of the community today and commit to a relationship going forward, experts said.
The University of Minnesota Duluth, for example, follows that protocol with a statement saying it, “is located on the traditional, ancestral and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. The University resides on land that was cared for and called home by the Ojibwe people, before them the Dakota and Northern Cheyenne people, and other Native peoples from time immemorial. Ceded by the Ojibwe in an 1854 treaty, this land holds great historical, spiritual and personal significance for its original stewards, the Native nations and peoples of this region. We recognize and continually support and advocate for the sovereignty of the Native nations in this territory and beyond.”
Land acknowledgment has established a foothold in the United States in just the past few years, but it has been a regular practice in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, for a couple of decades, Orr said. (Millions got a brief glimpse of an acknowledgment during New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi‘s 2020 Oscars acceptance speech.)
The Native Governance Center created an advisory page after a recent surge in information requests, said executive director Wayne Ducheneaux II, an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
“We’ve really seen it explode in the last couple of years … everything from corporations and large foundations to a fifth-grade teacher in California,” said Ducheneaux, whose organization, along with the Association on American Indian Affairs, advocates use of such terms as genocide, stolen land and forced removal in acknowledgments.
Words acknowledging the Native presence in the United States have value in and of themselves, especially when they result from rigorous research into the history of the land and its people, supporters said.
Although there is some skepticism that land acknowledgments may be used as hollow lip service, advocates of the statements said they haven’t heard much criticism, save for a bit from those who contend it represents left-wing politics.
A growing number of outside requests for land-acknowledgment language inspired members of Washington state’s Snoqualmie Tribe to take action in a different way. They created the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement, which suggests ways for people to respect sacred outdoor spaces during recreation and asks them to urge their governments to consult with the tribe on matters affecting Snoqualmie lands.
“There’s a growing recognition that just reciting a land acknowledgment can become quite performative on its own. It’s not actually taking action. So, one of the reasons we are sharing information through the lands movement was to make sure that we’re providing ways in which people could translate that,” said Jaime Martin, a Snoqualmie Tribe member and executive director of governmental affairs and special projects. “A land acknowledgment can be done through practice and action, not just something that you’re stating.”