Indigenous land acknowledgments as forms of appreciation, not appropriation.
This guest post is by Shannon Laing, MSW, Director of Native Health and Wellness at MPHI.
You may have noticed Indigenous land acknowledgements becoming more common in meetings, on organization websites, and in published materials. Maybe you’ve been working on your own DEI strategies and you have one already, or you’re thinking about developing one. Creating and using land acknowledgement statements can be a concrete step toward bringing historical and contemporary oppression of Indigenous people into present consciousness. They can communicate appreciation and honor those whose land you now stand on. They can help you move forward in both your communication and actions toward DEI goals. However, they can also show up as cultural appropriation or modern-day colonization.
Most people are familiar with the type of cultural appropriation that we see in souvenir shops throughout the country (e.g. you’ve seen the dreamcatchers made in China for sale in airports). While that is obviously cultural appropriation, there are more subtle ways in which it shows up. I prefer the definitions by Maisha Z. Johnson which say in the most simple terms that cultural appropriation is “when someone adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own;” and the deeper definition which is, “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” (https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/) In Johnson’s writing, we learn nine really helpful ways to check ourselves against cultural appropriation and it’s a great place to begin this work.
Many people think colonization in the US ended in the 1960s with the Indian Civil Rights Act. I challenge you to critically think about the ways in which cultural appropriation is a form of modern-day colonization. It further oppresses and directly harms Indigenous people and causes confusion for those seeking to learn about their culture, histories, and identities. It is also in complete opposition to the purpose of practicing Indigenous land acknowledgement. Northwestern University offers this description of land acknowledgements that is another great place to begin this work:
“It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” (https://www.northwestern.edu/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples/about/Land%20Acknowledgement.html)
After 15 years of working with and for Tribes and Tribal organizations, I sat down to help write our organization’s land acknowledgement statement. I quickly learned that, just like building relationships requires investing your time, energy, and authentic self, so does the commitment to practicing land acknowledgement. Here are two key lessons I offer you for creating an Indigenous land acknowledgment statement that is appreciation, not appropriation:
- It’s not all about the statement. Land acknowledgements are a process and a product. The process should be rooted in mindfulness, reflection and intentionality. The product cannot show up as appreciation if the process of getting there wasn’t an appreciative inquiry.
- It must be authentic. Self-reflection is an essential aspect of writing and giving land acknowledgements. Answer these questions: Why do you want or need to do land acknowledgement? What is the goal? How will it be used? Once you are clear on these points, do your research to know and use accurate language and information. Invest your time and energy into learning (the real) Indigenous history in your area and the profound significance of the land. When your statement is finally written, don’t stop there! Continue seeking ways to build authentic relationships with Indigenous people that are in service of them and their wellbeing.
Here are a few of my favorite resources to help you get started:
- A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment - Native Governance Center
- Territory Acknowledgement - Native Land Digital
- Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements - Chelsea Vowel
- Are you planning to do a land acknowledgement? - Dr. Debbie Reese
- Northwestern Land Acknowledgement - Northwestern University