Home Community What Goes Unspoken in Land Acknowledgements – Part 1

What Goes Unspoken in Land Acknowledgements – Part 1

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In recent years, you may have started to hear land acknowledgments at your place of employment, school settings, or public events. Land acknowledgments are heartfelt, well-meaning statements drawing attention to the fact that the event or building is on land previously owned and, in many cases, unceded by Indigenous peoples. Organizations are even starting to call for employees to include such acknowledgments in their email signatures, presentations, and other media they may create while on the clock.

According to native-land.ca, perhaps the most comprehensive and commonly recommended resource of its kind at the time of this writing, the City of Burien sits on Duwamish, Suquamish, and Muckleshoot lands. The Burien City Council began developing its own land acknowledgment to be read at all public meetings with the stated goal to “celebrate our Indigenous communities in a way that empowers and commits us to future collaboration and action.” You can find the process the City of Burien went through to create the City’s land acknowledgment, as well as the one currently being used in Highline Public Schools and the City of Edmonds, in this slide deck.

The final text was adopted by Burien City Council on Monday, October 3rd, 2022 and reads as follows:

“We begin by honoring and acknowledging that this meeting is taking place on the ancestral lands and waters of the many Coast Salish tribal peoples who have—since time immemorial—protected and been in a relationship with the Salish Sea and these precious lands we know as Burien and our home.”

“As a government agency that is occupying Indigenous lands, it is important that we remember the history of our area, and to work towards fixing the injustices that persist. We acknowledge our region’s tribal citizens, their descendants, and their ancestors, and we honor their invaluable contributions to this region’s community’s identity, economy, history, culture, and future.” Read full Agenda Bill.

Communications Director Emily Inlow-Hood says that the Council is working on getting this text posted on the City’s website and in other materials. Native-land.ca is not yet a vetted academic resource. Some of the reasons for this are the same reasons that land acknowledgments can do and have done more harm than good. It is noble and right to recognize the real history of the lands we live, work, and play on, but that’s just it: the history of Native peoples in this country is complex and, in many cases, no longer 100% accessible. Thus, land acknowledgments can unintentionally convey untruths about the history of removal as well as the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples, thus causing harm to the people these acknowledgments are seeking to help.

One thing that land acknowledgments ignore is how the Indigenous tribes themselves feel about the use of these statements. While I have heard a few read by Native people, I had not heard until recently that some Native organizations are calling for pauses on land acknowledgments and related practices that may seek to honor but ultimately contribute to the history of erasure of Native tribes. As scholars of the Choctaw Nation involved in the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists say, “No data exists to demonstrate that land acknowledgments lead to measurable, concrete change. Instead, they often serve as little more than feel-good public gestures signaling ideological conformity to what historians Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder have called – in the context of higher education’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts — “a naïve, left-wing, paint-by-numbers approach” to social justice.”

The goal of Burien’s City Council was to celebrate the Indigenous peoples of the region Burien residents live in and to commit to collaboration and action. As you consider the text of Burien’s land acknowledgment, I invite you to ask yourself if it meets those standards, keeping in mind the concerns of Native peoples discussed above.

In the following article in this series about land acknowledgments, I will explore the introduction of land acknowledgments in Highline Schools.

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Megan Wildhood is a writer, editor and writing coach who thrives helping entrepreneurs and small business owners create authentic copy to reach the people they feel called to serve. She helps her readers feel seen in her poetry chapbook Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017), her upcoming full-length poetry collection Bowed as if Laden with Snow (Cornerstone Press, May 2023) as well as Yes! Magazine, Mad in America, and increasingly less captured outlets like Gem of the Sound. You can learn more about her writing and working with her at meganwildhood.com.

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