Indigenous Land Acknowledgements
“If you don’t know the Native history of where you are located, think about why that is. Native history is U.S. history. It’s the story of us. It is our collective story.” ~ Carly Bad Heart Bull
Carly Bad Heart Bull, a WKKF Community Leadership Network fellow and executive director of Native Ways Federation, shared reflections and practices for Indigenous land acknowledgements at the November virtual gathering of fellows. Carly is Bdewakantunwan Dakota and Muskogee Creek, and a proud citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
What are Indigenous land acknowledgements?
First and foremost, it is not just the responsibility of Native people to give land acknowledgments. The non-Native inhabitants of this land should recognize and honor the Indigenous peoples and stories of this place we collectively call home. Indigenous land acknowledgements honor the land we are on, and show respect for the Native people and communities – past and present – who inhabit it. They can take the form of statements at the beginning of meetings, on websites, event descriptions, in signature lines or they can be placed permanently in centrally located public spaces. As the practice of Indigenous land acknowledgements becomes more common, so do critiques of the practice. Taking the time to properly prepare and execute a Native land acknowledgement allows relationships with Native peoples and communities to mature and grow.
Why do Indigenous land acknowledgements matter?
Everywhere you go in this country was – and likely still is – occupied and cared for by Native people. A violent history of broken treaties and colonization has attempted to separate Native peoples from our lands. Yet, Native peoples persist, and continue to be connected to our homelands. Our ancestors survived insurmountable odds so that we could be here, and we continue to fight the harmful effects of colonization.
We live in a society with incredible divides, where historic efforts to disconnect communities from one another and from the land has resulted in massive social and economic disparities and environmental turmoil. Indigenous land acknowledgements allow space for truth telling and accountability. They visibilize Native peoples. Native history is U.S. history. It’s the story of us. It is our collective story. Knowing the Indigenous history of a place reveals the inequities that persist among us, making broader healing possible.
Tips on appropriate Indigenous land acknowledgements
Ask why you are doing a land acknowledgment.
Begin with a conversation within your organization. Discuss your desired impact and your commitment to honor Native peoples. Avoid the temptation to hold Indigenous land acknowledgements because they are trendy or out of a sense of obligation. The transformative power is in the self-reflective internal work, the conversations that take place when we ask, “Why are we doing this and what is the impact we want to see?” If giving the acknowledgement feels uncomfortable or disingenuous, why is this so?
Do your homework.
Research both local Native history and current context. Find out who the Indigenous people are in your community. Who are the original occupants? Who lives there now and what brought them here? It’s fine to start with Google, but don’t stop there. Consult and connect with Native sources: people, books, organizations. Make sure to learn and use proper words and pronunciation.
Include Native people and communities in your work.
If you’re planning a land acknowledgement, and there are no Native people in the room, who are you trying to serve? Include Native perspectives and voices in the content programming and elsewhere in your work. Otherwise, you should question why you are attempting to do a land acknowledgment in the first place. The practice of land acknowledgments is a start to greater understanding and relationship building, but it is not in and of itself enough.
Use, past, present, and future tenses.
Many people remain ignorant about Native history and Native people. Reclaiming Native Truth, a study conducted by First Nations Development Institute and EchoHawk Consulting, and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, found that 40 percent of people surveyed across the country didn’t know that Native peoples still exist. Native peoples are living, thriving and leading all across the United States. We are still here.
Don’t stop there – keep learning, building and taking action.
Continue to learn and discuss what you are learning with colleagues, family and friends. Build relationships with Native communities and organizations. It’s critical everyone plays a role in eradicating harmful narratives about Native peoples by recognizing and lifting up the vital contributions of Indigenous people – past, present and future.