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Systemic modes of inequality have become so blatantly apparent in recent times that many social, cultural, and historical institutions have almost simultaneously responded. One type of response is the creation of land acknowledgement statements, which are offered to recognize Indigenous peoples as the original inhabitants and stewards of the land. Responses emerging to combat the issues concerning diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are finding that the settler colonizer influence is stamped upon the unconscious and inadvertently captured within land acknowledgement statements. Some well-meaning land acknowledgements refer to Indigenous peoples in the past tense. This practice renders invisible 4.5 million Native Americans (U.S. Census Bureau 2021).
Land acknowledgements that are given orally by Indigenous people usually include a welcome to the land. When non-Native people draft a land acknowledgement, it should not only include the organization’s purpose but also seek to clearly express the Native voice. The document should honor both the ancestral component of Indigenous peoples and the continued presence of their descendants. Authors of these statements should acknowledge the Tribal Nations’ effort to remain connected to the land, reflecting the core tenet that “I am the land, and the land is me.” The land, waterways, and my people are sacred to me. I acknowledge and honor my interdependence with ecological systems. I have been instructed to walk gently upon the Earth Mother and to live in balance with creation. This includes listening to nature and respecting another’s voice.
Many proclamations have been written without the input of contemporary Native peoples. What follows is a recent instance in which the validity of the Native voice was initially disregarded. A Narragansett college student, who is astute in history, culture, and traditions, noted that the land acknowledgment being presented in a class was inaccurate. The student approached the author and was belittled, accused of holding onto traditional lore instead of relying upon documented research. As a Narragansett warrior, the student took the challenge seriously and conducted his own research, which proved his stance. The student also obtained validation from an accredited scholar (his relation) before going back to challenge the author’s claim. The land acknowledgement was updated, but not without much deliberation and contention. This incident could have resulted in a much different outcome if the student were of a timid nature. However, the matter could have been settled amicably had the Native student’s voice been acknowledged in the first place.
Creating a land acknowledgement statement should not be a perfunctory exercise undertaken in response to what is popular in the political or social climate. It is not a simple construction and can be fraught with complexities. Tribal sovereignty, land and water rights, and issues stemming from historical trauma are only some of the complications associated with settler colonized nations. Giving voice to Native issues may prove to be too raw for many. Although land acknowledgement work is difficult and mistakes have been made, the breach in diverse historical knowledge that is repaired is the foundation for building a truly great, inclusive America.
Wanda Hopkins has been offering her Native voice in classrooms, churches, and cultural events throughout Rhode Island for more than thirty years. She has served as a Narragansett tribal councilwoman and chair of Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. She is currently a member of the Native American Advisory Council at the University of Rhode Island where she is working on a master’s degree in English.
In offering our acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples as the traditional stewards of the lands now known as Historic New England properties, we want to ensure that we approach this topic with authenticity, respecting the enduring Native presence and relationship with the land. Our approach is one of communication, collaboration, and mindfulness and our efforts will be ongoing in developing best practices toward reconciliation in Indigenous homelands.
We seek public input. If you have any questions or comments regarding land acknowledgement, please email us at [email protected].