And it is true that most or perhaps all Native Americans see the entire universe as being alive—that is, as having movement and an ability to act. But more than that, indigenous Americans tend to see this living world as a fantastic and beautiful creation engendering extremely powerful feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, obliging us to behave as if we are related to one another.
—Jack D. Forbes, scholar, poet, and activist
For thousands of years in North America—Turtle Island, as many Indigenous nations call the continent—Indigenous peoples lived in symbiosis with the land, the sea, the waterways, and the lifeforms therein. What they built was much more than the “uninhabited wilderness” myth advertised by European “explorers” of the time and in history books today.
“By the time of European invasions,” wrote Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, “Indigenous peoples had occupied and shaped every part of the Americas, established extensive trade networks and roads, and were sustaining their populations by adapting to specific natural environments, but they also adapted nature to suit human ends.”
With the Europeans arrived the capitalist perspective of land as a personal possession or private property, a new concept of land occupation and management. The United States government, then, systematically used the theft of land (in the name of capitalism) and the destruction of crops and livestock as a weapon to exterminate Indigenous people and cultures.
That history of land theft and violence is present everywhere on North American soil today. Yet, because of the national narratives that have erased Native people and cultures, most non-Native people (settler-colonizers) don’t know or acknowledge where they are and whose land they occupy and play on.
Fortunately, that is slowly changing in North America through movements like Honor Native Land and through activism and work from Indigenous groups all over the continent.
What is Indigenous Land Acknowledgement
Indigenous or Native land acknowledgements are, simply, recognizing and honoring whose land you’re on.
The U.S Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) notes that “acknowledgment is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth” in their Honor Native Land guide.
Land acknowledgement by itself is not enough, though. It’s a starting point for real learning and action. Read on to learn about how to integrate land acknowledgements into your travel and everyday life while also putting actions behind the words.
Where to Acknowledge Indigenous Land
Acknowledging the land you’re on could be as simple as taking a moment of pause to honor and remember the Indigenous people who stewarded that place when taking in a beautiful landscape. But bringing acknowledgements into formal gatherings, meetings, your everyday life and travels, creates an even broader space for respect and honor.
It’s important to note that research should go into every land acknowledgement. If you plan to integrate these into your travels, your work, and everyday lives, please also keep the tips in the next section in mind.
Events and Meetings
Delivering a meaningful land acknowledgement at the opening of an event or meeting creates a space for respect and inclusivity. The USDAC Honor Native Land guide offers a beautiful vision of what this can look like if the practice is adopted widely:
“Imagine cultural venues, classrooms, conference settings, places of worship, sports stadiums, and town halls, acknowledging traditional lands. Millions would be exposed—many for the first time—to the names of the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of the lands they are on, inspiring them to ongoing awareness and action.”
In addition to a formal land acknowledgement, invite attendees while introducing themselves, to also acknowledge the land they are on especially during video conferences where attendees are dispersed. You can utilize the Native Land app* as a resource and watch the Honor Native Land video to understand the importance of such acknowledgements.
Those beautiful North American landscapes on your Instagram feed also happen to be the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples. By acknowledging this fact in your caption, you create a habit for yourself to learn about Indigenous people wherever you go and you plant a seed for your followers to do the same. Download the Native Land app* on your phone which uses GPS or text 907-312-5085 with the City and State to identify whose land you’re on.
Here you’ll find an example of a land acknowledgement for an Instagram post from this summer’s travels around my home region of the Pacific Northwest. I also often look to Melanin Base Camp’s Instagram page as a model and guide on land acknowledgement via social media.
Websites, Email Signatures, and Bios
For your organization, include a webpage with an acknowledgement that includes laying out ways you are investing in and working with Indigenous organizations (check out the Native Governance Center’s land acknowledgement page). Additionally, location is often a part of your email signature and biography. Normalize land acknowledgements by including information about the land on which you work and live by including the information in any of your biographical information.
*Note that while the Native Land app can give some insight into whose land you’re visiting/on, it’s not a complete picture of official ancestral territories, but it can be a starting point to learning more.
How to Effectively Acknowledge Indigenous Lands
Here are some tips to ensure your land acknowledgement is genuine and action-oriented. While some of these tips won’t apply to some contexts (e.g., social media posts won’t be as involved), they are useful to keep in mind generally.
- Ensure there are actions behind your words to avoid token acknowledgements. This is not a task to check off the list, it should be part of a larger mission of acknowledgement and connection with and investment in Indigenous people and groups in your community.
- Do the research to learn about Indigenous people, their land, cultural history, and the history of their displacement and extermination. The history of displacement and broken treaties can make it challenging to understand how some Native groups live where they do now. Take the example from the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog post: “If you are in Oklahoma, you might want to acknowledge one of the 39 tribal nations there today, but you know (right?) that many of them are there because of the Indian Removal Act.”
- Provide context about what a land acknowledgement is, what it means, and what the acknowledgement compels you/your organization/your institution to take. Your audience might be unfamiliar with what an acknowledgement is and in order to use it as a foundation for education, give them that context.
- Acknowledge the past, present, and future. Indigenous people have always existed on this land and continue to live, thrive, and resist. Use language that recognizes this.
- Connect with local Indigenous organizations to understand the deeper history, cultural heritage, and the modern day Indigenous community living, thriving and working in the community. To understand the current culture and community as well as ancestral history of Native groups in your community, create relationships with the organizations and groups that can provide that context and, importantly, invest in their work.
- Use direct language about how the land was taken. Acknowledge stolen land with the appropriate language such as “stolen,” “unceded,” “genocide,” and “forced removal.”
- Weave these lessons gained through acknowledgement into your institution or organization’s mission and activities. Create educational opportunities for staff, students, etc. at your organization and/or invest in Indigenous organizations or tribes in your community.
- Deliver your acknowledgement with energy, respect, and deliberation. This should not just be an obligatory statement, it should be delivered with emphasis, but not necessarily solemnity.
Supporting Indigenous Groups
Reframing our perspective of history and land acknowledgement are important personal areas of growth. But for these personal shifts to mean anything, they must translate into some sort of action. Here are a few first steps towards taking action. They all involve listening to Native voices and following their lead.
Donating/Paying Rent to Indigenous Groups
One way settler colonizers like myself can do is to pay rent to the Indigenous peoples whose land we live on. The Duwamish Tribe has formalized this beautifully through Real Rent Duwamish where Chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, Cecile Hanson, quotes, “We sacrificed our land to make the City of Seattle a beautiful reality. We are still waiting for our justice.”
If you don’t live on Duwamish land, seek out the Indigenous organizations and tribes in your area and “pay your rent” by setting up a recurring monthly donation.
Supporting Small Indigenous Businesses
Seek out companies and small businesses that are Native American or Indigneous owned. Find the businesses and artists local to you. Beyond Buckskin continues to update this incredible list of Native American businesses.
Additionally, for textiles and patterns that are rooted in traditional practices by the tribes or nations of the artists, learn about the significance beyond cherishing the art for its beauty. If you want to bring souvenirs home, seek out the traditional artisan crafts over cheap, throwaway items and be careful not to buy products that are appropriating traditional textiles, patterns, and other crafts. The practice of falsely selling Native-made products is not only unethical, in the United States, it’s also illegal under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
Learn about Indigenous Movements
There are many vibrant Indigenous movements across the region and world that are rooted in returning the land back to the original stewards. Learn about and support those efforts to go beyond mere symbolic acknowledgements.
- Land Back: The Land Back movement involves both the literal return of Indigenous land such as through honoring broken treaties, and the spiritual return of tradition and culture to Native people. Briarpatch Magazine recently published a full issue on the movement and follow the NDN Collective, Land Rights Now, The Lakota People’s Law Project, and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust as a starting point.
- Indigenous Fire Management: With the recent apocalyptic fires in the United States West Coast (as well as across Australia and the Amazon Rainforest), Indigenous fire management practices are being highlighted as the key to environmental survival. Read about Indigenous fire management practices and partnerships in California with the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council, Aboriginal fire management in Australia, and prescribed fire treatment practices on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.
- Indigenous Food Sovereignty: The Indigenous Food Systems Network describes Indigenous food sovereignty as “a specific policy approach to addressing the underlying issues impacting Indigenous peoples and our ability to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods.” Learn more about the movement with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance and the book Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health edited by Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover.
My hope is that if we all start to think more holistically about the history of the land we’re on, we can bring discussions of Indigenous history, resistance, and culture into the everyday. These are but small things those of us settler-colonizers or travelers visiting Indigenous lands can do.
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