Land Acknowledgement: A Trend in Higher Education and Nonprofit Organizations

An emerging trend among institutions and organizations is the formal recognition of the traditional custodial relationship between native people and the land. According to Friedler (2018), land acknowledgment can also raise awareness about histories that are often suppressed or forgotten.” Formal land acknowledgment may be as limited as recognition of a historical presence on the land or a more a clear rejection terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery. All land acknowledgment statements, however, share an expression of respect for indigenous peoples, recognize their enduring relationship to the land, and raise awareness about marginalized aspects of histories.

The land acknowledgment movement is particularly strong in several former British colonies. In his piece in the New Yorker on September 7, 2017, Stephen Marche said, “you know a phenomenon has really arrived in Canada when it involves hockey.” Marche continues, “both the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers began acknowledging traditional lands in their announcements before all home games last season.” According to the New York Times (Burke, 2018), the movement has spread across Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and is moving across the United States. In fact, Dr. Amy Farrell-Morneau of Lakehead University in Ontario pointed out “nearly every university in Canada has a land acknowledgment statement (Farrell-Morneau, 2018). The movement is not limited to higher education but is also trending in nonprofits throughout Canada and beyond.

In the United States, the movement has spread throughout the art community (Burke, 2018). The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Abrons Art Center, Performance Space (PS122), Danspace Project, and Gibney of Tribeca all have a land acknowledgment policy. Some forms of land acknowledgment may be signage in lobbies or a written statement in organizational brochures or event programs. Theatrical performances may begin with a brief verbal land acknowledgment. For example, the standard preshow curtain speech at PS122 in New York City states the theater “is situated on the Lenape island of Manhahtaan (Mannahatta) and more broadly in Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland” (Burke, 2018).

The movement has spread to colleges and universities across the United States. Small colleges like Emerson College[1] in Boston, Goshen College in Indiana,[2] Washington University in St. Louis,[3] and Seattle Central College[4] have all adopted land acknowledgment statements. Larger institutions have departmental or institutional land acknowledgment statements as well including Columbia University,[5] Harvard University,[6] Michigan State University,[7] New York University,[8] Northwestern University,[9] Stanford University,[10] Syracuse University,[11] University of Illinois,[12] and the University of Virginia.[13] In Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College issued a joint statement regarding land acknowledgment.[14] The land acknowledgment movement is spreading coast to coast, to institutions and organizations, big and small, public and private.

In Colorado, there are four institutions leading the way in land acknowledgment. In December 2018, Colorado State University issued an institutional land acknowledgment statement.[15] At the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education Higher Education Department, every academic convocation begins, “by first acknowledging that the University of Denver sits on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, who are the original Stewards of this land.” DU goes further and states, “We also wish to acknowledge all other Indigenous Tribes and Nations who call Colorado home. It is because of their sacrifices and hardships that we are able to be here to learn and share knowledge to advance educational equity” (DU, 2018). The University of Colorado Department of Ethnic Studies has a land acknowledgment statement embedded on the department webpages[16] and the recent graduation ceremonies at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design included a brief land acknowledgment that RMCAD sits on land that the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne once roamed.

In addition to CSU, CU, DU, and RMCAD, there are 15 other four-year institutions of high learning in Colorado. All fifteen were contacted in December 2018 and asked if the institution had a land acknowledgment statement and, if not, if the institution was considering a statement (institutions who did not respond were also re-contacted in January 2019).

Peter Han of the Office of the President at the Colorado School of Mines responded that, at this time, Mines does not have a land acknowledgment policy. Carol Osborn, Executive Assistant to the President of Adams State University similarly responded that ASU does not have a current policy. Ronald Shape, President of National American University personally responded and, after emailing further with Dr. Shape’s staff, it was determined that there was not a current policy, but that the institution was interested gathering more information regarding the land acknowledgment trend in higher education. Western University’s Bryan Boyle indicated that Western does not have a land acknowledgment policy. The University of Northern Colorado also recently responded, stating that the question would be forwarded to the appropriate office and to expect a response in the near future.

Two state institutions did not respond to the media request for this article were Mesa University and Metro State University who were all contacted on December 21, 2018. In addition, eight private colleges and universities were also contacted but did not respond: Lance Oversole of Colorado Christian University (12/11/18), Colorado Technical University (12/22/18), Sam Fleury of Columbia College (12/21/18), Ms. Shaults of DeVry University (12/22/18), Ms. Kochel and Ms. Shively of Johnson & Wales University (12/21/18), Naropa University (12/21/18), Nazarene Bible College (12/21/18), and Jennifer Forker of Regis University (12/11/18).

Nonetheless, Marche (2007) concludes, “acknowledgment is spreading. No level of government has mandated the practice; it is spreading of its own accord. There is no single acknowledgment. There are many acknowledgments, depending on where you are in the country…The acknowledgment forces individuals and institutions to ask a basic, nightmarish question: Whose land are we on?”

Crafting a land acknowledgment statement is not difficult. Amnesty International (2017) has a simple three-step guide to land acknowledgment: (1) Name which Indigenous territories you are currently on; (2) Explain why you are acknowledging the land; (3) Address the relevance of Indigenous rights to the subject matter of your event or meeting or to your activist work in general. The nongovernmental USDAC (2018) has a similar three-step process of Identify-Articulate-Deliver.

Melissa Jacob, Ohio State University’s Office of Student Life Multicultural Center, pointed out that the practice of a formal welcome and territory acknowledgment is an old tradition Native American culture, particularly when hosting guests and when traveling to neighboring tribal communities. Jacob (2018) also stated that land acknowledgment is not an expensive or intrusive policy. While land acknowledgments might seem like lip-service or national back-patting to critics, Flournoy (2016) pointed out that the effort is worth it considering the legacy of marginalized history and rise of the rhetoric of exclusion. We all ought to acknowledge our history, as we live in the present and look forward to the future.

Bibliography

Amnesty International. (2017). “Activism Skills: Land and Territory Acknowledgement.” Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.ca/blog/activism-skills-land-and-territory-acknowledgement

Burke, S. (2018). “On This Land: Dance Presenters Honor Manhattan’s First Inhabitants.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/arts/dance/indigenous-land-performing-arts-theaters.html

Farrell-Morneau, A. (2018). “Land Acknowledgment.” Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.lakeheadu.ca/land-acknowledgement

Flounay, A. (2016).  “What Does It Mean to Acknowledge the Past?” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/what-does-it-mean-to-acknowledge-the-past.html

Friedler, D. (2018). “Indigenous Land Acknowledgement, Explained.” Teen Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indigenous-land-acknowledgement-explained

Jacob, M.B. (2018). “Centering the Land: The Importance of Acknowledging Indigenous Land and Lifeways.” The 2018 ACPA Convention. Retrieved from http://convention.myacpa.org/houston2018/centering-land-importance/

Marche, S. (2017). “Canada’s Impossible Acknowledgment.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/canadas-impossible-acknowledgment

United States Department of Arts and Culture. (2018). “Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment.” Retrieved from https://usdac.us/nativeland/

University of Denver Morgridge College of Education. (2018). “Land Acknowledgment.” Retrieved from http://morgridge.du.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Land-Acknowledgement.pdf

[1] https://www.emerson.edu/intercultural-student-affairs/cultural-holidays-heritage-celebrations/honoring-native-land-massachusett-indigenous-peoples

[2] https://www.goshen.edu/about/diversity/land-acknowledgement/

[3] https://brownschool.wustl.edu/News/Pages/Brown-School-Authors-Encourage-Native-Land-Acknowledgment.aspx

[4] https://newscenter.seattlecentral.edu/2018/11/02/college-institutes-land-acknowledgement-statement

[5] https://universitylife.columbia.edu/blog/office-university-life-blog/2016/10/NAC-on-Lenape

[6] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/social-and-behavioral-sciences/2018/05/24/acknowledgment-of-native-land-and-peoples/

[7] http://aisp.msu.edu/about/land/

[8] https://as.nyu.edu/museumstudies/people/full-time-faculty/faculty-projects.html

[9] https://www.northwestern.edu/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples/about/Land%20Acknowledgement.html

[10] https://nacc.stanford.edu/about-us

[11] http://religion.syr.edu/about-us/land-acknowledgement.html

[12] https://chancellor.illinois.edu/land_acknowledgement.html

[13] https://kluge-ruhe.org/about/acknowledging-indigenous-owners/

[14] https://www.fivecolleges.edu/natam/about-kwintekw

[15] https://president.colostate.edu/speeches-and-writing/land-acknowledgment-at-csu-december-11-2018/

[16] https://www.colorado.edu/ethnicstudies/

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