Published on :
April 15, 2021
Rebecca Maldonado Moore, PhD, LMSW
November 11, 2020
Updated April 3, 2021
A land acknowledgment is a “formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories” (Stewart, 2020).
Land acknowledgment statements are part of the truth and reconciliation movement to address mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples across the globe. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada have been using this recognition and awareness strategy for many years. More recently, U.S. higher education institutions began developing and applying these statements in various venues. Some are on the institutions’ websites, department pages, or signature lines.
These statements are intentional and personal. Land acknowledgments name the historical treatment of Indigenous Peoples in the loss of their lands. Western expansion minimized or neglected to name the structural and historical inequities of the Indigenous populations who were in the way of progress. Land acknowledgment statements also provide non-Indigenous people opportunities for critical self-reflection and for learning about alternative perspectives on the history of this country.
Moreover, these statements recognize the resilience of our peoples. We have survived in spite of systematic efforts to eradicate the original peoples of this continent.
These statements are an opportunity to consider that Indigenous Peoples were in their respective spaces long before colonizers or settlers began appropriating land.
These cultural spaces are where the original inhabitants lived, loved, planted, hunted, and honored their relatives when they passed into the Spirit World.
These cultural spaces were gifts from the Creator to tribes and nations with unique sacred histories, origin stories, and ties to the land.
These cultural spaces nourished and nurtured generations of peoples for time in perpetuity.
I think of my own people, who were on the Central Plains from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains before their forced migration and displacement to central Wyoming.
I think of the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864, where 675 volunteer soldiers under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington attacked a village of 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in southeast Colorado territory—killing 230 mostly women, children, and elders followed by atrocities on the dead.
And I am reminded of the battle of Little Big Horn in June 1876, where my people were with the Lakota and Cheyenne in the south-central Montana area. The people were camped in the Greasy Grass area along the Little Bighorn River while participating in a resistance movement to not be forced onto reservations. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led 200 of his troops into the camp of more than 2,000 Indigenous warriors, women, children, and elders.
There was a cost for this land. The cost was born by my ancestors, by their blood and tears and the shrinking land base to support all tribal members.
I think of my great-great-grandparents, my great-grandparents, my grandparents living their lives on the land, farming, ranching, raising gaggles of children and grandchildren in lodges and later a two-bedroom home. I think of the love of my grandmother as we walked down the main street of one of the most racist areas of central Wyoming as she tried to shield me from a local’s rant about “sq…s.”
My memories of weeding gardens, swimming in rivers, attending ceremonies, Sun Dances, feasts, giveaways, and outdoor pow wows tied me to the land. My memories of driving up Wind River Canyon to the top of Rim Rock slopes to collect sweet sage in bundles are still alive. My relatives were born, lived, and are buried on the land I call home. My son knows my history and ties to the Wind River Range and Owl Creek Mountains.
These are not just my memories. These are the memories of generations, the past, the present, and the future.
Specifically, higher education systems have been complicit in negating these histories, these cultural spaces. Higher education systems appropriated these cultural spaces framed by Western perspectives of superiority. Old world educational systems were replicated on this continent to continue the idea of classism, elitism, and structural oppression. Education as an institution has only recently accepted revisionist history. U.S. history is about Western history and colonization, not about Indigenous history or counternarratives.
My story is different. Indigenous histories tell the stories of attempted genocide through germ and military warfare, broken treaties, residential schools, stolen land, forced removals, lost and stolen children through welfare systems, and now missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Today, higher education systems, as intellectual spaces, have the opportunity to acknowledge their role in minimizing and marginalizing Indigenous knowledges. They have the chance to respectfully speak the truth about this role, to acknowledge Indigenous ties to the land, and to recognize that injustices were directed at Indigenous peoples over centuries, not just decades.
There is a trend in organizations and institutions as well to promote equity and inclusion in their infrastructures, policies, and curricula. How can organizations or institutions truly support alternative paradigms about Indigenous Peoples? This begins by “making relations” with those who have not seen us or learned to appreciate us yet. The land acknowledgment statement of your organization or institution opens the door for all of us to recognize we are all related.
Stewart, M. (2020). Acknowledging Native land is a step against Indigenous erasure. Insight Into Diversity, 94(3), 24–27. https://www.insightintodiversity.com/acknowledging-native-land-is-a-step-against-indigenous-erasure/