Growing Number of Cities Weigh Tribal ‘Land Acknowledgements’

By: - March 17, 2021 12:00 am

A tribal land acknowledgement adopted in Tempe, Arizona, recognizes that the “landscape” in and around the city—including Papago Park in Phoenix, pictured—are “sacred to the O’Odham and Piipaash,” two tribes with long histories in the region. In Arizona and other states, some local governments are formally recognizing Native American connections to lands. Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via The Associated Press

Doreen Garlid, a first-term city councilmember in Tempe, Arizona, pinched her leg under the table to keep from weeping as she read a Jan. 14 resolution into the record. The unusual resolution, popularly known as a land acknowledgement, declared that Tempe sits on traditional O’Odham and Piipaash lands—and celebrates the contributions the two tribes made to the region.

“We wish to acknowledge that Tempe is the homeland of the Native people who have inhabited this landscape since time immemorial,” the resolution begins.

Garlid, who is Navajo, grew up hearing her grandmother’s stories of being kidnapped into an American Indian boarding school in the 1930s. Staff beat the children for speaking the Navajo language, part of what is now recognized as a national project to erase Indigenous cultures.

But today, the growing movement to adopt land acknowledgements, Garlid said, represents a historic correction. Tempe is one of an increasing number of city and state governments that have published formal statements recognizing Indigenous people and, in some cases, the violence they’ve endured. Such statements often are read before government meetings and at public events, much like the Pledge of Allegiance, and surface in official signage, government websites and email signatures.

The practice, which draws from Indigenous traditions and has become common in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, both recognizes Indigenous communities and encourages listeners to acknowledge the painful reality of colonization.

“It’s a beautiful way to honor people,” Garlid said. “It’s a big turn in just a couple generations.”

In the past seven months alone, at least 10 cities have adopted land acknowledgements or are currently drafting them, including Denver; Portland, Oregon; Eden Prairie, Minnesota; and Phoenix and Flagstaff in Arizona.

Last year, California considered a state-level bill—thought to be the first in the nation—that would encourage public schools, parks, libraries and museums to publish statements acknowledging they were “founded upon [the] exclusions and erasures of many Indigenous peoples.” The bill passed the Assembly but died in a Senate committee.

Dozens of public universities, museums and government agencies also have adopted land acknowledgements or used them to open official events, including branches of the National Park Service and NASA, the Oregon Department of Energy and the Arizona Department of Education. The Academy Awards for the first time included a land acknowledgement last year, as did the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Democratic National Convention.

In many cases, said Martha Saenz, the program manager for the State-Tribal Institute at the ‎National Conference of State Legislatures, these efforts have surfaced as part of larger national reckonings with social equity, white supremacy and racial justice.

“It’s an up-and-coming issue, for sure, as state legislators and others grapple with how we can continue to acknowledge tribes and tribal history and address the issues that come out of that,” said Saenz, whose organization tracks state-level legislation and advises lawmakers.

At their simplest, acknowledgements seek to recognize the Native American communities who live or lived in a specific geographic region. Some versions also detail Indigenous peoples’ historic and present-day contributions and connections to the land. Other statements may recognize the sovereignty of local tribes, the violent history of colonization or the contemporary inequities between Native and non-Native Americans.

Events at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, for instance, include a general 27-word statement, “gratefully acknowledg[ing] the Native Peoples” past and present who make their home near Washington, D.C.

Across the country, the Arizona Commission on the Arts goes further: “We recognize the systemic inequities created by the negative impacts of colonization, past and present,” its acknowledgement reads.

Catching Up to Canada

American cities and states are just catching up with their northern neighbors. Land acknowledgements began surfacing in Canada roughly a decade ago as a result of Indigenous activism, and became de rigueur in Canadian universities, public schools and sports venues following the publication of a 2015 report on the brutal legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. A 2019 poll by the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit public research group, found that Canadians generally support land acknowledgements in public settings, though the resolutions are far less popular among conservatives.

Land acknowledgements are not likely to take off on the state level in the United States, said NCSL’s Saenz, where recent Indigenous culture legislation more often has involved issues such as the renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day and the banning of derogatory sports mascots. In many places, state and tribal governments still don’t share the type of close relationship that would lend itself to work on a statewide acknowledgement.

While not explicitly partisan, land acknowledgements in the U.S. also have been championed in large part by progressive Democrats, who control few state legislatures. California is an exception, but a spokesperson for Democratic Assemblymember James Ramos, a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe who proposed the California bill, said he does not plan to reintroduce it and will instead “consider other options.”

“We still celebrate Columbus Day in Arizona,” said Tempe Councilmember Lauren Kuby, who championed her city’s land acknowledgement with Garlid. “The states just aren’t there yet.”

In midsized blue cities such as Tempe, however, land acknowledgements have seen little opposition. Garlid and Kuby—a trained public historian who first heard acknowledgements read at academic conferences—began advocating for the measure last summer, just as the city began a “process of self-examination” following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.

With the support of Tempe’s mayor, the city’s historic preservation office partnered with colleagues from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to develop a draft. Shane Anton, the tribal historic preservation officer for the community, said his office first pulled together a sample acknowledgement for local governments to adapt last fall, following requests from Tempe, the Phoenix parks and recreation department and several school districts.

Present Tense

Writing acknowledgements can be a “delicate” process, Anton said. Guidance from the Native Governance Center, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that hosted an influential 2019 roundtable on tribal acknowledgements, advises that interested organizations both collaborate with Indigenous people and undertake their own research on Indigenous history, treaties and languages.

For example, advocates discourage the exclusive use of the past tense: “We’re not extinct,” said Kristina Maldonado Bad Hand, who is Sicangu Lakota and Cherokee, and helped review the new land acknowledgement in Denver. Most Indigenous traditions also don’t refer to land “ownership.” Some communities may not wish to appear in acknowledgements at all.

In Tempe, where the City Council voted unanimously to adopt an acknowledgement in January, the statement not only recognizes two local tribes, but also details some aspects of their culture and their historic connection to the lands around the city. It now will be read at public events and—according to the text of the accompanying resolution—used to inform future land use decisions. Garlid points to the city’s 2019 removal of a 30-foot radio tower from Tempe Butte, an area sacred to several local tribes, as an example of a place where policymakers might look to the resolution for guidance.

“If you’re just acknowledging the land and who it originally belonged to, that’s easy,” Anton said. “But we wanted to put our issues, our concerns and our history and how we feel about the land into our acknowledgement. … I think it’s good in the sense there’s now a little bit more awareness.”

That type of recognition does make it easier to advocate and fundraise for Indian Country, said Wayne Ducheneaux, the executive director of the Native Governance Center, a group that works primarily with Native nations in the upper Midwest and has also consulted nationally on land acknowledgement issues. In his work, Ducheneaux is often surprised by how little non-Native Americans know about their contemporary, Indigenous neighbors—a product in part, he said, of incomplete history curricula in public schools.

But awareness is not the end goal for either Native American advocates or their allies in local government. Acknowledgements should also come with concrete policy goals, Ducheneaux said, such as hiring more Native contractors and artists or deepening ties with tribal governments and Native American organizations.

In both the United States and Canada, the land acknowledgement movement already has faced blowback from Indigenous scholars and activists who see it as little more than an empty gesture, what’s often called “optical allyship.”

“We have a lot more work to do,” said Megan Yerks, the community services coordinator for Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb that adopted a land acknowledgement in December. “We laid a necessary foundation. Now we’re building the next steps.”

Those efforts could include actions as simple as guaranteeing Native American representation on relevant city boards and committees or establishing formal land use or conservation partnerships.

Land acknowledgements surface most often in states with strong relationships between state and tribal governments.

In Washington state, for instance, where at least nine cities and counties and the state health authority use acknowledgements, state legislators learn about tribal policy as part of their orientation, and K-12 students study an Indigenous history curriculum developed by tribes themselves.

Some progressive activists would like to see local governments go further and use acknowledgements as a basis to return land to Native American communities, a movement sometimes known as “landback” or repatriation. While such actions have been rare in the past, the momentum behind them may be building.

Landback protesters in South Dakota earned national media coverage last summer after they disrupted a rally held by then-President Donald Trump. Both public and private landowners in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon have also, since 2018, returned hundreds of acres of land to local Native American communities.

Questions in Denver

Such reparations aren’t always feasible for local governments, said Denver Councilmember Jamie Torres, who championed the city’s October land acknowledgement and identifies as Chicana—“a mix of Mexican and Indigenous identity.” But she and other progressive politicians say they hope the statements will serve as a repeat reminder, within city government, of a community that policymakers have long ignored or erased.

City councilmembers now read Denver’s land acknowledgement, which promises to “dismantle ongoing legacies of oppression,” at the start of meetings after the Pledge of Allegiance.

“We can still be very blind to how we continue to oppress communities, especially if it’s systemic and we’re part of government,” Torres said. “It’s our responsibility, as government, to be more reflective.”

What that pledge might yield in Denver, or any other city, is not clear yet. Maldonado Bad Hand and Danielle SeeWalker, who together chair the Denver American Indian Commission, a city advisory board, said they’re waiting to see whether the measure yields deeper engagement or conversation.

Maldonado Bad Hand and SeeWalker, who is Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta and an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, would both like to see Denver’s government consult their organization more regularly, the way they say it does other city boards. They also are advocating for a state-level bill that would ban the use of derogatory American Indian names and symbols in school sports, and they have long fought for greater access to ceremonial lands and new names for places with colonial associations.

“I think acknowledgements are ultimately about encouraging people to continuously and consciously reflect on the history and legacy of colonialism,” SeeWalker said. “Start building those relationships with Native Americans. Hire Indigenous people. Make them a part of your boards and organizations.”

“It’s important to engage with the community,” she added. “And not simply acknowledge it.”

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Caitlin Dewey
Caitlin Dewey

Caitlin Dewey is a Buffalo, New York-based correspondent for Stateline and has reported for outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Elle and Cosmopolitan.