What to consider when acknowledging you are on stolen indigenous lands

Indigenous panel on Land Acknowledgement Statements held at Metro State on Indigenous Peoples Day. From left to right: Mary Lyons, Rhiana Yazzie, Kate Beane, Rose Whipple, Cantemaza.

Kate Beane, Director of Native American Initiatives for the Minnesota Historical Society, recalled sitting in her apartment a year ago, wishing she owned her own home with her husband and two little girls.

“I was so frustrated,” said Beane (Flandreau Santee Dakota and Creek). “I wanted a big garden and a dog. … I worked so hard for a doctorate. I wanted a home. We couldn’t have that.”

She recalled getting an email one day that summer from a man who owned a new condo development in Bloomington. He wanted Beane to come and give a land acknowledgement to welcome all the new condo owners.

It was a deeply hurtful email.

Land acknowledgement statements honor the land’s original indigenous inhabitants. Such statements are common practice in Australia and Canada, and have made their way to the United States. If done well, they can serve an important educational purpose. They also can do harm. In Beane’s case, she was being asked to welcome new homeowners on her family’s ancestral lands, lands where she couldn’t afford to own a home herself.

This past Indigenous Peoples Day, Beane and other Native American leaders participated in a panel discussion on the value of Land Acknowledgement Statements and what makes a good one.The Native Governance Center and the Lower Phalen Creek Project hosted the Oct. 14 event at Metro State. In addition to Beane, panelists were Mary Lyons, an elder from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe; Rhiana Yazzie, Dine, a playwright, filmmaker, director, performer and producer; Rose Whipple, Isanti Dakota and Ho Chunk, a youth activist and student; and Cantemaza (Neil Mckay) Spirit Lake Dakota, a Dakota language instructor at the University of Minnesota.

Key takeaways

There are a sample statements and helpful resources online

Beane referred the condo owner to the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s website, which has a section on Land Acknowledgement Statements. During the panel discussion, she recommended the Land Acknowledgement Statement developed by Rick Smith for the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). It reads:

We collectively acknowledge that the University of Minnesota Duluth is located on the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. The University resides on land that was cared for and called home by the Ojibwe people, before them the Dakota and Northern Cheyenne people, and other Native peoples from time immemorial. Ceded by the Ojibwe in an 1854 treaty, this land holds great historical, spiritual, and personal significance for its original stewards, the Native nations and peoples of this region. We recognize and continually support and advocate for the sovereignty of the Native nations in this territory and beyond. By offering this land acknowledgment, we affirm tribal sovereignty and will work to hold the University of Minnesota Duluth accountable to American Indian peoples and nations.

Don’t sugar coat your language

Land acknowledgement statements can be one way for the colonizers and the colonized to come together, raise consciousness and tell the truth, Cantemaza said. He warned against using benign school textbook language that says the Dakota people “were removed” from Minnesota, or that they “moved westward.”

Land Acknowledgement Statements need to use words such as “genocide,” “forced removal,” and “ethnic cleansing,” he said, and the U.S. government should be named as the perpetrator.

Don’t talk about Native peoples in the past tense

Cantemaza recalled hearing short Land Acknowledgement Statements that go something like: “We just want to acknowledge the indigenous peoples on whose land we stand.”

“For Dakota people, we’re still here,” he said. “Please don’t talk about us in the past.”

Yazzie echoed that sentiment, saying the best land acknowledgements she’s heard acknowledge indigenous peoples past, present and future.

Look for teaching moments

Several panelists suggested adding context to Land Acknowledgement Statements or engaging the audience in some way.

Land Acknowledgement Statements could acknowledge contemporary indigenous leaders in the community. Yazzie, who has spent years in theater, recalled being asked to make a Land Acknowledgement Statement during a visit to Miami. “I knew a couple of Native playwrights from Miami, so I mentioned them and brought their names into the room,” she said.

That helps disrupt the power dynamic, where Native artists typically remain invisible. That disruption “is what a land acknowledgement is there to do,” Yazzie said.

Whipple suggested engaging people in Land Acknowledgement Statements by teaching them one word in the local indigenous language. In the Twin Cities, that would mean teaching people a word in Dakota. (Here is the online Dakota Dictionary she recommends.)

Whipple also has been active in efforts to stop the proposed Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. She suggested using the time for a Land Acknowledgement Statement as an opportunity to lift up concerns of local indigenous peoples, such as how Line 3 threatens treaty rights and how to engage with pipeline opponents.

Cantemaza said it is important to know and name your treaties. These can be included in the Land Acknowledgement  Statements, such as UMD did. (For those of us who live in the Twin Cities, here is background on the “treaty” which ceded the lands upon which we live: How a Spanish spy set in motion a fake treaty to acquire lands that would become Minneapolis and St. Paul.)

Other reflections by panelists

The way that white and colonized people think about acknowledging land different from how indigenous people think about it.

In the springtime, Dakota people will walk around Bde Maka Ska and put tobacco down, Cantemaza said. That’s how they acknowledge the land and the beings that are there.

Lyons said when people start talking about “land” it can get a very territorial feel, which is the wrong way to approach it.

“When we talk about land, land is part of who we are,” she said. “It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current and our future. We carry our ancestors in us and around us.”

“To me, when you talk about land and land acknowledgement, it is humanity. … You can’t separate it, you can’t put ownership on it. Because if you do, you prostitute it. That is not what it is meant to be.”

Acknowledgement of Country Statements are challenging for everyone in the room

It’s important for those who plan to do a Land Acknowledgement Statement to ask themselves why they are doing it, Beane said. Are you doing it to make yourself feel better and/or ease your guilt? Are you doing it because you agree that education is really important? Is there something that can come out of it?

The United States is behind other countries in telling the truth about what happened to indigenous peoples here, she said: “We are seeking acknowledgement and action at the same time, and that can be really hard,” she said.

Yazzie said Land Acknowledgment Statements can be uncomfortable for Native peoples, too. She described her first experiences with such statements as “grim” and “sad.” People would be in a theater, then someone would say something to the effect of: “Let’s take a moment and acknowledge the original peoples of this land.”

“As a Native person in the room, you feel like, ‘Oh my God, this feels terrible.’ It makes me feel like I’m at a memorial,” she said. “… It needs to be a celebration, not something that moves the nervous system into a depressed state.”

Said Beane: “I think truth telling is incredibly important. And I think that for a long time our truth and our experiences weren’t acknowledged and … sometimes still aren’t acknowledged. It’s really delicate to figure out: How do we talk about this stuff in a way that’s healthy and productive?”

The Native Governance Center created the following event summary and guide for Land Acknowledgement Statements.

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