Land acknowledgments — statements that note, in some way, an area’s Indigenous history and culture — have recently become somewhat commonplace, as a diverse set of people across the country, ranging from school board meetings to universities to unions (to name just a few scattered examples), have put out statements acknowledging local Indigenous people.
Often, a land acknowledgment is as simple as a statement, such as the words now found outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Manhattan building:
“The Metropolitan Museum of Art is situated in Lenapehoking, homeland of the Lenape diaspora and historically a gathering and trading place for many diverse Native peoples, who continue to live and work on this island. We respectfully acknowledge and honor all Indigenous communities—past, present, and future—for their ongoing and fundamental relationships to the region.”
It can also be a more substantive document, like the land acknowledgment from the On Being Project, which comes with links to more information on Indigenous history and stories. Either way, these acknowledgments are a way for people to call attention to Indigenous connections to the land. And while that’s great, without further action and more intentional connections with Indigenous communities, land acknowledgments can also risk becoming performative, and even potentially harmful, says Pearl Walker-Swaney, a program manager at the Native Governance Center. The Native Governance is a nonprofit dedicated to helping Native nations strengthen their governance systems, their capacity to exercise sovereignty, help cultivate a Native nation rebuilding movement, and imagine “a future where all Indigenous people can thrive on their own terms.” They provide Native nations with resources and tools to help them in this goal and are “always planning for the next seven generations.”
On a societal level, more substantive action could be anything from supporting tribal sovereignty to restoring land to Indigenous people. But can parents and kids take action on their own, too? Does acknowledging the land at, say, the dinner table, do enough to teach the next generation about the history and culture of Indigenous people in North America? Or are there ways families can do more?
We came to our conversation with Walker-Swaney with this in mind. She is from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the White Earth Nation and in addition to her work with the Native Governance Center, she’s a yoga instructor, doula, and breastfeeding counselor – as well as a parent herself. Here’s how Walker-Swaney thinks about land acknowledgments, how parents can have honest conversations with their kids about Indigenous history and culture, and what we all can do to go beyond words to support Indigenous people in our own communities.
Let’s start here: What, exactly, is a land acknowledgment?
A land acknowledgment states the history of the people whose land you occupy today. It acknowledges their contributions to society — that [these people who were here before you] had systems of governing, leadership, their own cultural life. It’s a statement that acknowledges the Indigenous people who came before you that called these lands home and still call them home today.
Where did this practice come from? Why is it important?
In my communities, when we introduce ourselves, we’re taught to say our name, our clan, and also which region we are from, all in our native language. That’s a way for new community members to know who you are, where you come from, who your family is, and to start the process of developing a relationship with each other.
I think this land acknowledgment movement that we see going on today is an attempt to get back at that — with a larger amount of people thinking about it — not just Indigenous people. All people, all communities. Especially with the hard year we had, during the pandemic and uprisings around Black Lives Matter, I think it really shook people, and made them realize we have to change so many things about how we perceive different communities, especially communities of color. There is so much history within this country that we have to acknowledge. We have to start telling that narrative as part of the conversations around federal holidays, or all of these things that we normalized in the past few decades.
It’s truly time for us to change. Not just the way we think about systems, not just the way we talk about different people — but change, reverse, undo those things that come with these perspectives around Indigenous peoples such as racism, such as stereotypes, negative narratives, false narratives.
I think it is time, finally, for people to catch up and to change that. That includes them doing the work, which is all-inclusive of land acknowledgment — going beyond just those words and statements. Collectively, Indigenous people are happy to see that as the first step. But we definitely need more than just this statement.
Is there a wrong way to do a land acknowledgment?
You do have to educate yourself first. It takes time to learn about the land that you’re on, and the history of the people. Maybe they had a vast array of amazing weavers who can make all kinds of baskets and they use that for transporting goods. Whatever that was, it does take time to do your research.
[And then there’s the self-awareness piece], like [what are] your intentions? Why are you doing the land acknowledgments? Is it to jump on this wagon of doing land acknowledgments? Or is it to sit down and think about what impact that’s had on the community, this land you now occupy?
It does take some intention. And when you do it with good intention, and it doesn’t cause harm, you’re doing it in a good way. But if you’re doing it still from a good place, and maybe you don’t do all of your research, or you don’t even do the research or self-awareness of why you’re doing that, and you reach out to Indigenous folks and ask them to help you write a land acknowledgment without compensation or any type of reciprocity for their time and knowledge, I would say that’s probably harmful. Our guide kind of outlines ways that you can approach it, even if you’ve never done this before.
Where do we start, in terms of moving beyond the words, especially in a way that engages our children?
The voluntary land tax is one way of doing that. There are also things, I think, that are pretty easy that parents can do. Purchase books by Native authors, by Indigenous people, and [support] those bookstores led by Indigenous and Native entrepreneurs. That’s the easiest one, I think, to get books by Indigenous people in the hands of all sorts of parents, all walks of life, and reading them to their children. Because I think children are naturally curious and inquisitive, and that’s what conversations can really start.
There are great organizations doing education and research around representation in different mediums, [like] IllumiNative. They are really spearheading a lot of these issues that are tied to land acknowledgment, and imagery about our people that [is] often misaligned with who we are. We are not relics of the past. We are not cartoon characters. We are creative, we’re innovative, we’re leaders, we are artistic, we have so much talent, and gifts to share with the world.
When there are events going on, maybe at a museum, [those events] are [often] really for all of the community. Maybe it’s storytelling, or maybe it’s art, maybe it is having those hard conversations about some of the history. Those are events that you can take your children to usually, and they have activities and they can learn. There are also museums that are just there for education purposes only or preserving that beautiful culture and the beautiful history of the people.
How can parents engage themselves on this issue beyond what they teach their children?
When you become a parent, the way that you were parented as a child might come up when you are parenting your own children. Maybe some of those things were not healthy or helpful for building your knowledge, your self-esteem, what you value, how you see the world. And maybe your conditioning of responding to things in a certain way also wasn’t healthy. As a parent, un-doing some of that is a part of this. And that means you’re going to have to learn how to talk about hard things, how to deal with big emotions, being okay with not always knowing the answer. Be open to asking children what they think about a story or a narrative and what they know about it. Kids are so brilliant and bright if we leave space for them to be curious and ask questions.
Decolonize the way you think about systems. Decolonize the way you see people who are different from you. Decolonize your relationships to other people. Really, that includes a lot of deep work that can be really uncomfortable, especially if you as a child, maybe had really amazing parents, but some of the things and beliefs they had don’t really align with who you are today. You’re having to navigate: How do I do this with my child now?
It can be uncomfortable, but we need parents to go there. We need parents to advocate for narrative change in their homes. Appropriate, truthful stories and representation of Indigenous people is a part of that. It’s a part of land acknowledgment because it goes beyond saying some words about the people whose land you’re on. It is educating, it’s bringing to life those values, those practices that we have been doing for generations. I believe as a parent when you’re reading with your child, you’re developing a connection and relationship with them, you’re giving them information, you’re allowing them to be curious and learn and take in new information about something that they haven’t really learned about.
Why isn’t the statement of a land acknowledgment enough?
Because we have just heard words and words and words. And we need to see the action.
That action is in building relationships, reciprocity, giving back. That’s something that we have always practiced, since the beginning of time. As Indigenous people, we have this relationship with the land that we’re on, no matter where we’re at. As humans, we are part of this ecosystem around us. That includes the water, the trees, their roots, the soil. It includes plants and all of the furry four-legged creatures that call that place home as well, the ones that fly, the fish in the water, the other beings that use that water.
Humans also have a role in that ecosystem. If we do things that are not respectful to this ecosystem, or we don’t do things in reciprocity, we’re taking and taking and not giving back – eventually, that is going to hurt that ecosystem. And we’re a part of that.
What could people do that would be actionable?
Participate in a voluntary land tax program, so that we can have some reciprocity going back to the people whose land we occupy. Donate to organizations that preserve the culture, the natural ecosystems, and the history of the people whose land we occupy. Show up for these communities when they’re struggling and when they’re celebrating. Build relationships with them. Support Native and Indigenous artists and authors and writers and other creatives.
We want people to really take the time to continue doing the work, because our people have collectively done the work for many years and generations. And now it is really time for others to catch up to what we’ve been doing for so long.
You say that land acknowledgments without compensation or reciprocity could be harmful. How do you define this harm?
Like emotional labor. You go back five generations for myself, our families were literally torn apart. Parents were separated from their children, and the children were sent to schools far away and forced to cut their hair, which was a sign of health and wellness, and prosperity in our community. They were forced to change all of their clothing and wear clothes that were not suited for the weather that they were living in and forced to not speak their mother tongue. Beaten, if they did. Punished, severely punished, malnourished and starved, if they were to speak their mother tongue, if they were to sing songs in their own language, and not speak to a Christian God that they had no idea about. So that’s pretty painful, especially if you’re a parent, to think about: “Wow, five generations ago, there [were] people in my own family who were going through that.”
As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to think about a child or a baby being taken from their parents and put into the hands of people who did not love them, who did not care about their holistic well-being and did horrific, horrific things to these children. To think about these children who lived through that, who are survivors of abuse, who are now elders today, and they’re finally starting to talk about some of those things that happened — that is some of the suffering that can come up when doing land acknowledgment.
Not to mention other policies from our federal government that were implemented just to continue doing that to our people — not just one nation, one Native nation — but across the board, across Turtle Island, across this continent. There [are] political structures, leadership structures, governing structures, societal structures, family structures that were all negatively impacted by policies like the Dawes Act (Editor’s Note: The Dawes Act was an 1887 federal law that split up tribal lands into individual family properties, with many properties also sold to non-Indigenous settlers.).
That’s why we say at Native Governance Center, in our land acknowledgment guide, do the work yourself, too. Do the research, educate yourself, and take some time to be self-aware. Are you intentionally doing a land acknowledgment with the purpose of really giving back? Or is it just words you want to put onto your website or say in front of an audience of people? Is it performative? Or is it really something that’s going to further develop and continue developing, so that there is action, so that there are more steps than just words?
It seems that a lot of this trauma and emotional labor is also why it’s important to go beyond that performative aspect to it and put action behind the words.
Yes, absolutely. We’ve experienced it being performative, and that’s also harmful. When you’re doing these things, it does have to be over time and long-term. It’s not something one and done. It’s something over time that you’re building. Building relationships takes time, I think as we all know, especially when there are communities where there’s a lot of trauma and harm that’s been done to them. Building that relationship and building trust takes time and continuous engagement, it’s not just a one-time donation and you’re good. Or you apologize, and you’re best friends. No, it’s continuous.
The Native Governance Center offers a variety of resources on this and similar topics, such as their guide to Indigenous land acknowledgment and their guide “Beyond Land Acknowledgment,” which outlines some of the ways for people and organizations to take action.