Are Native Land Acknowledgments Empty Gestures?Breaking News
tags: colonialism, Native American history, Indigenous history
In David Mamet’s film State and Main, a Hollywood big shot tries to shortchange a set hand by offering him an “associate producer” credit on a movie. A screenwriter overhears the exchange and asks, “What’s an ‘associate producer credit’?” The big shot answers: “It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.”
The practice of “land acknowledgment”—preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served—is one of the greatest associate-producer credits of all time. A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim? Anyway, you are not getting your jewels back, but now you have documentation.
Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these —I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.
Thanksgiving relies on a cartoon version of the settlement of the Americas, focusing on a moment of concord between victim and génocidaire. Land acknowledgments are similarly confected to stroke the sentiments of mostly non-Indigenous audiences—this time by enabling their preening self-criticism.
Without time, work, or actual redress, the land acknowledgment that implies a moral debt amounts to the highwayman’s receipt. “To acknowledge Indigenous homelands and to return those lands are related, but the former alone allows for rhetoric without further action,” Dustin Tahmahkera, a professor of Native American cultural studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. If Microsoft truly felt bad about the location of its offices, it could move its operations to soil less blood-soaked. (There aren’t many such places, alas.) Not every Microsoft conference needs to be an announcement of a real-estate deal. But if Microsoft is going to acknowledge a debt, it should also pay it.