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The rise of land acknowledgments — and their limitations

More institutions are making note of indigenous rights to land. Does it make a difference?

Richard Langdeaux carried a Rosebud Sioux Tribe flag as he crossed the finish line Boston Marathon in 2021. Several indigenous runners took part in the race, which was held on on Indigenous Peoples Day and preceded by a land acknowledgement ceremony — the first for the marathon.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Part of the July 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

If you listen to a lot of podcasts, visit a lot of museums, attend a lot of academic conferences, or just exist somewhere in the Americas or Oceania, you may have noticed the growing prevalence of land acknowledgements.

These statements acknowledge the Indigenous people who lived on the land before European colonizers arrived and can take the form of anything from a full ceremony to a quiet, written nod tucked away in a cobwebbed corner of a website.

Many allow for a more thorough reckoning with America’s past. The October 2021 Boston Marathon opened with a land acknowledgement ceremony, prompted by criticisms of marathon organizers who had scheduled the race on Indigenous Peoples Day; its extensiveness drew praise from several Indigenous people in attendance. Similarly, many universities have long and thoughtful land acknowledgement pages on their websites, like this one from Northwestern University. And land acknowledgements are turning up in other spaces too, as seen in a ceremony held with the Ho-Chunk Nation by the Madison, Wisconsin, school district in April.

Land acknowledgements seem to have first been embraced by non-Indigenous people in New Zealand, then Canada, Mishuana Goeman, a professor of gender studies and American Indian studies at UCLA, wrote in a Western Humanities Review essay, “The Land Introduction: Beyond the Grammar of Settler Landscapes and Apologies.” In the US, their prevalence grew after the Standing Rock protests of 2016 and 2017.

Yet too often, critics say, these land acknowledgements take the form of a simplistic, “This establishment exists on the land of this tribe.” That doesn’t make them bad, necessarily, but can make them seem like hollow gestures. As Graeme Wood wrote in the Atlantic, “The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.”

Goeman, too, wrote that minimal land acknowledgement places the focus on the act of colonization, not the possibility of building more concrete futures for Indigenous people. “You can study settler colonial structures without ever talking to Indigenous communities or peoples,” she wrote.

Sometimes, the acknowledgements are awful. They can be completely ridiculous or even gross, as the many examples compiled by writer Michelle Cyca and her followers in this Twitter thread show. The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team’s land acknowledgement, for instance, recognizes “that our team’s namesake, Sauk War Leader Black Hawk, serves as a continuous reminder of our responsibility to the Native American communities we live amongst and draw inspiration from.” The acknowledgement underscores that the team’s mascot is, in fact, a real historical Indigenous person without committing the team to any plans to change it, as other teams have done.

So is there a better way? I asked Joanelle Romero that question. She’s the founder and CEO of Red Nation Celebration Institute, which hosts the Red Nation International Film Festival in Los Angeles. The festival, which focuses on films by Indigenous people, has been performing land acknowledgement ceremonies annually since its inception in 1995, and Romero had plenty of ideas for making land acknowledgements accomplish something beyond reiterating past colonization. She suggests, for instance, that these acknowledgements might take the form of ceremonies like the ones at her festival, rather than quick invocations.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The film festival has been doing an acknowledgement that it takes place on land that originally belonged to the Tongva people since it started in 1995, and you’ve made that more of a public ceremony in the last 10 years. Can you tell me how you came up with that land acknowledgement?

One of our former board members, Julia Bogany, who passed away last year, was a very respected Tongva elder, and she wrote the land acknowledgement. It’s not very long.

Originally, we would do that land acknowledgement in a traditional ceremony and not publicly. But now there are more public land acknowledgements, which is a good thing.

But it’s important that Julia wrote it, because it can’t be me. I’m Mescalero Apache. I can’t write the land acknowledgement for the people who lived here. I wouldn’t even think of doing that.

You mentioned how important it is that these statements be written in some capacity by someone who is part of the original people who lived on the land. What makes that important to these acknowledgements?

So say you’re in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, up on the top floor of the building, looking out at the view, and you’re an executive. Maybe you’re thinking, “God, Indian is in right now. I wonder how I can make some money! Get someone to write a land acknowledgement. I don’t care who it is. It’s the ‘in’ thing to do right now.”

No. There’s protocol, and there’s ceremony, and there’s a traditional way of life. We have instructions as native Indigenous people, and there’s a way in which we do things. When it comes to land acknowledgements, there are over 500 nations, and each nation has its own protocol and instruction. So if you’re in South Dakota, you would go to their elders and holy people and ask them what to do. I couldn’t tell you.

So imagine that I’m going to open a boutique, where maybe just my wife and I work there. And I want to acknowledge the land. The right protocol would be to go and find someone from the people who lived here originally and ask for their input? What would be a good process for that?

Well, you just answered your own question. I mean, are we speaking hypothetically here?

Oh God, yes. I’m never going to open a boutique.

[Laughs.] Wherever you’re at, whoever you are, if you want to do a good thing, the right thing, the correct thing, then go to whatever nation is there on that land, and offer some tobacco, and ask to speak with an elder.

I don’t know if you’ve been to the Academy Museum here in Los Angeles, but I was surprised to see that before every movie they screen there, they do a land acknowledgement, recognizing the Tongva people.

One thing about land acknowledgement is that, yeah, they raise awareness. But the reality is: Is that just a blanket statement, and then it stops there? It doesn’t need to stop there.

And we should ask who wrote that land acknowledgement! I don’t know who wrote that. I’m a member of the Academy, and I should ask them who wrote that, because it really should be from the original people here, the Tongva, and it really should be Julia’s land acknowledgement.

Land acknowledgements are often well-intentioned, but we have to ask, where do we go from here? When we talk about land acknowledgement, we have to talk about healing. We have to talk about reconciliation or Landback. But what does that mean? We know realistically that we’re not going to get all of our land back. So what would reconciliation mean?

It does feel to me like the arts community is more attuned to these sorts of land acknowledgements, if maybe not the film industry as a whole. Would you say that’s true?

Maybe. To be sure, that sort of recognition from the entertainment industry or media has taken a long journey from when we first launched the institute to where we are today. But the words that work for us at our institute, and that mean something, are words that have action attached to them. The industry needs to go beyond land acknowledgement. It needs to seriously start looking at the skilled [Indigenous] professionals and organizations that have been in the industry for many, many years, and start breaking that glass ceiling within the entertainment industry.

Recently, after Standing Rock, there’s been a lot of startup Native organizations and festivals, with industry support, that really don’t have content yet. All I see of this conversation is land acknowledgements, even as the industry needs to start looking at the professionals that have been doing this a long time and financially supporting those organizations that have been doing the work.

You mentioned the Standing Rock protests that happened in 2016 and 2017, centered on North Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation. Looking at the timeline of widespread adoption of land acknowledgements, it does seem like more of them start happening after those protests.

I think it’s an important part of the story.

In November of 2015, our film festival partnered with a nonprofit in South Dakota and brought in a handful of Native students from North and South Dakota, and we asked them to lead a Native climate march, from the Santa Monica pier to Santa Monica City Hall. These kids had never seen the ocean or anything like it, so they were empowered and energized. And then these youth are the ones that woke the world to Standing Rock. Not the adults. And their actions definitely shook up and woke up a lot of people. In my tradition, children are sacred, so don’t underestimate the youth.

So after Standing Rock, the industry definitely started to take more seriously our stories and our content. They got more interested in land acknowledgements and healing but also acknowledgements of what the industry could do and what needs to continue to happen. Now we have [Native-created and starring TV shows] Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls and Dark Winds.

You see so many of these statements now, though, you know? My editor told me she was at a bar and it said, “This bar sits on the land of this nation” on the menu.

Oh my God. That struck me as very weird. Wow.

I’ve seen these sorts of statements in restaurants or stores or on podcasts. It always feels like the bare minimum to me. But also how can any individual business go beyond that bare minimum, especially on what might be very limited resources?

That’s a big question. Like I said earlier: it’s all about healing and reconciliation. So maybe a restaurant has a statement like that on their menu. How are they giving back to the community whose land the restaurant is on? How could they give back to that nation? Maybe there’s a youth program that part of the proceeds of one of their meals could go to. That idea is just off the top of my head.

Let’s take that idea to the entertainment industry then. What’s a way the industry you’re in could immediately move beyond those bare minimum statements?

Hire us!

There’s not representation of our Native actresses on broadcast, episodic television. There is on cable networks [in the shows mentioned earlier], but there’s not representation on mainstream, broadcast, episodic television, on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox. There’s a direct link between that and the many murdered and missing Indigenous women. If we’re not seen and heard in the media, then we don’t matter. The industry is telling us we don’t matter.

When we launched the Why We Wear Red initiative [to draw attention to violence against Indigenous women], I asked network heads, “Why did you stop including Native actresses in guest star roles, leading roles, featured roles?” and they had no answer. I was like, “Wow, this conversation is over, because you’re not getting it.”

But it goes beyond that. Our Native men don’t matter. Our Native children don’t matter. Do we want to talk about land acknowledgements? Or do we want to talk about what the industry can actually do, which is hire us?

When I was researching this, I realized that when we say “land rights,” it can mean two different things, broadly. The first is what we’re talking about here: acknowledging the people who were on this land before colonizers arrived. But the second is the argument that, at base, the land itself, which existed before humans, period, has rights in and of itself. How do you see those two ideas as being connected?

Our Native people have always been stewards of the land, and we have instructions to care for it. The Earth is our mother. She’s our resource. That’s where our food comes from, where our medicine comes from, where our water comes from.

And now they’re putting pipelines in our water? It’s just ignorance, to be honest. I don’t even know what English word you can put on these people. Water is sacred. Water is life. We’re made up of water. We can’t live on polluted water, and we can’t live on oil. We all of us, as human beings, living here together on Earth, we really need to look at this. There’s only one water, and all of us as human beings need to teach our children to protect that water.

To wrap up, I want to return to that idea of the restaurant putting a little land acknowledgement at the bottom of its menu. Do you think it has a benefit at all, if only in shifting the story of whose land this is and who lives here?

From that point of view, sure, it’s a good thing. It’s that little baby step. Maybe a person at that restaurant opens the menu and goes, “Oh, wow. What’s this?” Maybe it gets them thinking and inspires them to investigate or even create something that will be life-changing for the human condition. So on that level, it’s good.

It just can’t stop there.

Emily St. James is a senior correspondent for Vox covering shifting American identity.

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