So you want to acknowledge the land?
Some notes on a trend, and what real justice could look like.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the land. If you want to sincerely acknowledge the land, go to it. Put your hands in it. Put your feet in it. The soil is alive. The microscopic communities in it remember everyone who lived here; they shaped one another. Go to the forest, or to a prairie or a creek. We’re lucky to have little green places and public spaces. This is where you acknowledge the land — away from walls and doors and concrete and lawns.
But the purpose of a formal land acknowledgment is not only to acknowledge the land. These statements, increasingly shared as openings for events and on websites, are meant to communicate solidarity with the injustices experienced by Indigenous people. Land acknowledgments can range from perfunctory to profoundly moving, and when they are poorly worded or produced in certain contexts, they can cause uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for Indigenous people.
It is sad that the simple acknowledgment of stolen land and centuries of historical and cultural erasure feels like progress. For Indigenous students at the University of Arkansas, our institution’s recently adopted land acknowledgment doesn’t even begin to address the lack of representation of Native people in northwest Arkansas. Until action is taken to identify and empower Indigenous people, land-based justice is carried out, and inaccurate history is no longer taught in schools, a land acknowledgment statement feels mostly empty — even belittling and alienating.
Land acknowledgments rarely mention the fact that when Indigenous people were removed from their ancestral land, they were forced to abandon sacred ceremonial sites. These sites were, and still are, pillaged and ruined by colonial settlers. Personal collections of “artifacts” amassed from looting sacred sites in Arkansas and Oklahoma eventually wound up in the University of Arkansas Museum Collection. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required that some items be returned to the tribes’ descendants, but many remain stored in the museum’s collection.
Indigenous students can attend the university without ever even knowing about the beautiful art and cultural heritage created by their ancestors and currently shelved behind closed doors. Museum staff have started working to improve outreach to Native American students, and I’m hopeful that new and lasting partnerships can raise awareness about local Indigenous history and begin to heal the injustice done to First Peoples. However, as long as the narratives remain in the hands of academia, stripped of cultural significance and deprived of an accurate historical narrative, the collection simply contributes to the institution’s continued erasure of the original residents and their descendants, in a kind of cultural genocide.