What Should Historians Know about Indigenous Land Acknowledgments?Roundup
tags: Native American history, Settler Colonialism, Land Acknowledgements
Elizabeth Ellis (Peoria) is assistant professor of history at Princeton University. Rose Stremlau is associate professor of history at Davidson College; she tweets @RoseStremlau.
Each year, as we approach Native American Heritage Month in November, the flood of email inquiries begins: How do I do a land acknowledgment? Do you know which Native people lived here? We’d like to post/tweet/read a land acknowledgment at our event; can you please provide us with the language? These are seemingly straightforward questions, but treating the practice of land acknowledgment seriously requires more than just getting the names, phrasing, and pronunciation right; rarely are there simple answers.
As the practice of writing, speaking, and displaying land acknowledgments in institutional settings becomes more common, we embrace this opportunity to reevaluate their use, purpose, and limitations, particularly among historians and our professional organizations. This is especially true as many Indigenous communities and scholars have become more critical of the use and performance of these statements by colleges and universities that lack ongoing relationships with and commitments to Native nations in their region or scholars, students, and staff on their campuses. What is the utility of these statements? How and when can they be helpful components of anticolonial pedagogical practice? And what are the pitfalls or outright harms that can be done by them?
For many scholars of settler descent, land acknowledgments are something new, and they experience them as nonintrusive, brief components of events and conferences. This is insufficient. The academy has long appropriated knowledge and practice from Indigenous communities, and it is important to understand the cultural and historical origins of these rituals in Indigenous societies around the globe. In customs common across North America, Native people have engaged in oratorical practices providing listeners with genealogies of relationships interconnecting humans, other-than-human beings, and homelands since long before settlers arrived. These addresses became routine components of international diplomacy around warfare, trade, and land cessions. It is worth emphasizing that these narratives framed possibilities for interrelationship and solutions for current crises in stories about shared experiences, mutual obligations, and common interests. Land acknowledgments have traditionally emphasized practice and process.
More recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in Canada prompted the widespread formalization and use of land acknowledgments by academic institutions engaged in the complicated work of recognition, reflection, and atonement. As flawed and contested as the process has been (and is), the United States has engaged in nothing comparable. This difference is important, and many academic institutions here have created statements without understanding historical context, Indigenous cultural protocols, or the current political and economic experiences of the peoples to whom they refer. Likewise, many individual scholars and students in institutions lacking formal acknowledgments have crafted their own by appropriating language used elsewhere and created with other Native peoples.