Land Acknowledgments Are Not Enough

<span class="copyright">grandriver via Getty Images</span>
grandriver via Getty Images

Thefirsttime I walked through the doors of Columbia University as the first Native American student to be admitted into the creative nonfiction graduate program, I felt a wave of ambivalence wash over me. I remember glancing around at all my cohort’s mostly white, eager faces — they appeared confident that they belonged there. Many of them had been prepared for this moment through the years of Ivy League degrees and decades of expectations of legacy families.

On the stage of Low Library, a faculty member began the orientation address: “Columbia University School of the Arts recognizes Manhattan as part of the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Lenni-Lenape and Wappinger people.” 

I was glad to hear a land acknowledgment on that stage, especially because the school is named after Christopher Columbus, who is still celebrated despite colonizing, killing and enacting cultural genocide against the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. Awareness is always the first step toward bringing necessary institutional changes to combat systemic racism and barriers that prevent BIPOC students from thriving.

But what exactly does a land acknowledgment do to rectify the hundreds of years of oppression? Even in the short address, the verbiage relegated the local Indigenous people to that of the past. It was as if our land was not taken from us in blood — and as if we still don’t walk among these grounds, affected.

Land acknowledgments are becoming popularized in so many different spaces now, but are they simply hollow efforts from people hopping on progressive bandwagons?

On the one hand, it’s absolutely necessary to vocalize the truth about the stolen land that our society and institutions are built on. But the undeniable reality is that our history still very much affects the present. So, what actions can institutions take in order to mitigate the systemic harm against Indigenous communities? Because talk is cheap unless it’s backed up by action.

Some of the biggest offenders of performative land acknowledgments have been museums that house stolen Native artifacts. Earlier this year, new revisions to a federal law were implemented to require that museums have consent from lineal descendants and Native Tribes to display certain artifacts.

The Museum of Natural History in New York City was one of these institutions with a land acknowledgment on its website while housing these stolen artifacts, and it has since closed two of its halls because it did not comply with the new regulations. According to the president of the museum, these exhibitions “did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples.”

New regulations such as these have forced important conversations between museums and Native Tribes that have been extremely beneficial. What a radical thought: that non-Native people could actually learn more about a people from members of their community directly. Real action (that would ideally come alongside every land acknowledgment) gives rights back to the communities that were stolen from and taken advantage of.

Other actionable change comes from seeking knowledge about Native American history directly from the source. Almost all Native reservations have their own cultural centers and museums that can be visited, including school tours and group rates. Supporting these centers directly supports the Indigenous people and their communities. You can learn about these histories while supporting the very real communitiesand people that are still here.

Also, Indigenous art is often exploited and appropriated — and it’s rarely supported in a meaningful way outside of the community. Take the effort to seek out projects, books and other forms of contemporary art created by Native people versus by outsiders imagining what our lives are and were like. There are Native artists and playwrights producing insightful work every day that examines the condition, struggles and joys of our lives.

Another way to back up land acknowledgments is to approach inclusion in an intentional and equitable way. Since I’m often the only Indigenous person in a room, I’ll be asked to give presentations on our histories for Indigenous Peoples Month — without any kind of honorarium offered. As racial minorities, we want representation, but we also deserve to be compensated for our labor. 

Though land acknowledgments are a first step toward accountability for the injustices committed against the original inhabitants of this land, the next time you hear one, ask yourself: What actions are they employing to accompany these words?