Land Acknowledgements

Note: No blog post next week. I will be taking the week off. See you in December.

Photo of coastal beach rocks, sand, and a tiny plant popping up. Photo copyright Erin Okuno

Next week is US Thanksgiving holiday. This is a holiday that is problematic for many since it celebrates the colonist mindset and many of the Thanksgiving stories, legends, and beliefs are myths. Many consider it a National Day of Mourning, and fast on the day.

November is also Native American History month. I need to learn more about Native American and Indigenous history, customs, and ways of being. I am fortunate to have many friends who share their cultures and customs. It is always best to learn directly from people of a culture, so whatever I write next please know I am writing as a third party to share what I have learned through research and listening, and I am sharing it as a way to document my own learning not as a substitute for learning from Indigenous people. Please do not expect Indigenous people to teach you. It isn’t their job to teach just because they are Native or Indigenous. If they do share knowledge of their culture, it is a gift for us to receive.

One of the practices I’ve witnessed and participated in over the past few years is making land acknowledgements before meetings or events. This has become a more common practice over the years, especially before the start of large public events. I’ve started to do more learning on land acknowledgments, including their history, how they are put together, and how as a non-Native person I can work to be in more just relations with my Native and Indigenous colleagues when I make a land acknowledgment.

History of Land Acknowledgments

From what I learned land acknowledgments are a modern invention brought to the US via Canada. In Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process, based on the process South Africa used to heal after apartheid, there were 94 recommendations. Many see land acknowledgments and acknowledging the Indigenous people who were forcibly removed, their land stolen, and their rights stripped away as the start of implementing many of these recommendations.

Hailey Tayathy (they/them), a member of the Quileute Nation, shared at a Town Hall presentation they traced the practice back to canoe landings and the protocols used to ask permission to land a canoe on someone else’s territory. This includes asking permission, naming who’s clan and family you are from, and an acknowledgment as a guest on someone else’s land you will act with respect. They note the practice of land acknowledgements may be different in other parts of the country/world since Indigenous people have very different practices in other places.

Earlier today a colleague, Rosemary, stayed online for a few minutes after a meeting to say how she appreciated hearing us make a land acknowledgment and as a Native person she often ties the acknowledgment with how she introduces herself. Her introduction includes sharing her tribe’s name, her clan’s name, naming her parents and elders. She shared how she sees the two intertwined – land and self – and as such acknowledging the land is a way of acknowledging her people.

How to Make a Land Acknowledgement, Especially for Non-Native People

There are many guides online on how to make a land acknowledgment. If you are like me, a non-native person, it is best you read up and really understand the practice before you read a pre-written statement someone hands you. Making a land acknowledgement shouldn’t be made to gain wokeness points or to be performative. Hailey Tayathy reminds us land acknowledgements are meant to be disruptive and to remind non-Native people we are on stolen lands. As an act of disruption a land acknowledgement should not be cheered – sit and contemplate how you have benefited from the land and Native people, give thanks to the land itself, and thank the Native people who have stewarded the land and continue to fight for the sovereignty and health of the land.

Land acknowledgements can also help to center Native and Indigenous people in a gathering. A friend recently told me that after we made a land acknowledgment at a meeting she felt more seen and understood our intentions more. As an organization centered on people of color, that is one of our goals, to put our POC relations first and working to build relationships.

My colleague Heather Miller formerly of Chicago’s American Indian Center talked about how land acknowledgments shouldn’t be pre-scripted statements your organization uses again and again. Heather and her colleagues talked about how they personalize statements and put a lot of thought into each statement they write. Felicia Garcia shared: “The statements are not just statements they are commitments to being in relationships with Native communities.”

Land acknowledgments should educate and share commitments of being in just relationship with the original people of the land, to pay respect to their history and ways of being. My friend James said when he is asked to give land acknowledgments, especially as a Native person, but guest on other Indigenous people’s land, he does so carefully. He ask that a donation be made to the Duwamish tribe (in Seattle where we are) and he ask the organization inviting him to give the land acknowledgement to provide copies of the treaties between Native tribes and the US Government. He reminds people that these treaties are our treaties and we need to work to honor the treaties.

As a non-Native person who sometimes makes land acknowledgments I try to share and model what I am learning about Native American and Indigenous culture. For me this keeps my land acknowledgments a living statement and hopefully I am reaching forward to my non-Native colleagues to be better allies as well.

Other learnings I’ve gathered about this topic:

  • Be specific about who’s land you’re on. Do your research and use the name of the tribe, even the Indigenous place name if you can learn it. To make it even easier text this number, (907) 312-5085 with the zip code or city, state (use the format city comma state) and it will text you back with who’s land you’re on (your cellphone carrier may charge for text sent and received). I’ve used it while traveling to deepen my commitment to learning and to encourage my kid’s to learn with me.
  • Land acknowledgments need to be done with respect and be respectful.
  • Do not rush through the acknowledgment.
  • Do not clap or cheer, it is about reflection and learning.
  • Customs and practices may change depending on local traditions. I am writing from the Pacific Northwest and West Coast. A land acknowledgement may look different in the Plains, or in different countries. Please research your local practices. I was raised in Hawaii, and have witnessed acknowledgments in the form of a blessing, chant, or song.
  • Give to Native organizations and people. An acknowledgement cannot just be a statement. Return land to Native communities, share your resources with others – if you something to share (e.g. space, relationships, information, monetary resources, etc.) share it with the Native communities in your neighborhood.

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