Over the past several years, higher education institutions in the United States have begun to adopt land acknowledgements. Doing so is consistent with a university’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Moreover, doing so is not merely symbolic and rhetorical but rather constitutes action by which higher education honors the history of the land, linking Indigenous peoples to the land upon which the institution sits, and recognizing the institution’s own role in fostering inequities.
Most, if not all, higher education institutions reside on land that was often unscrupulously obtained from Native Americans. Universities are and should be at the forefront of acknowledging and confronting, painful truths and finding reconciliation and insight through that process. In many cases, universities are wrestling with past and continuing injustices of African Americans. While the jury is out as to whether this will create meaningful and lasting change, fewer are making progress in this journey with Native Americans.
All universities occupy land that was once and probably still is home to Indigenous peoples. Many universities occupy land that was dispossessed from Indigenous peoples through unethical and often violent practices. Of all American cultural institutions, universities should be at the vanguard of facing these historical (and contemporary) realities.
As both an Indigenous person and a university system administrator, thinking about equity as it applies to Native Americans comes naturally. In addition to being an enrolled citizen of the Miami Nation of Oklahoma, I am also the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas System. The University of Texas System consists of eight academic and six health sciences institutions and serves over 240,000 students annually.
My job is focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion as it relates to student success throughout the educational continuum from Pre-K through graduate school and on into the workforce. There is not a day that goes by that I am not looking at disaggregated data about our student populations. Unfortunately, that daily dose of data rarely includes Native Americans. In fact, in most data sets Native Americans are usually lumped into the “other” category (or, most recently during the presidential election, we were referred to as “Something Else”), thus leading some to refer to Native peoples as the “Asterisk Nation.” The National Congress of American Indians explains it this way: “American Indians and Alaska Natives may be described as the “Asterisk Nation” because an asterisk, instead of a data point, is often used in data displays when reporting racial and ethnic data due to various data collection and reporting issues, such as small sample size, large margins of error, or other issues related to the validity and statistical significance of data on American Indians and Alaska Natives.” When Natives are rendered invisible in the data, then resources are not specifically allocated to their support and success, and their needs are not truly investigated or addressed. This invisibility or relegating of Indigenous peoples to the status of an asterisk, a stand-in for an omission of some sort, is indicative of the absence of Indigenous people—our history, our challenges, our successes, our future—in the national narrative itself.
In the past few months, renewed calls for racial and social justice have rippled across our land and through every university in the nation due to increased and sustained racial violence. To address issues of systemic racism and inequity, university administrators, faculty, staff, and students are working together. Admittedly, this is a scene universities have played out numerous times with uneven results. Real, lasting change within universities often remains elusive. Even so, within the most advanced discussions of equity in higher education, Native Americans are again absent. Invisible. Usually, not even an asterisk. Land Acknowledgements catalyze collaborations with Indigenous faculty, staff, and community, raising awareness and helping to make visible those communities whose ancestors figure among the very first to inhabit this continent.
What is land acknowledgement?
An Indigenous land acknowledgement (sometimes called a territorial acknowledgement) is a formal public statement recognizing and honoring Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of the land and acknowledging that an enduring relationship between Native peoples and the land continues to exist. Land acknowledgements are a story of the land and its people. For Indigenous peoples, land inextricably binds with identity, culture, and spirituality. Forced removals—not to mention extermination of people—drove the process of Native assimilation into Euro-American culture, furthering the erasure of Native Americans from the national historical and cultural narrative,
inhibiting social and economic mobility, and deepening inequities impacting health, community-building, political capital, and educational access and attainment. All of this has had a direct impact on the invisibility Native Americans face today in higher education.
Land acknowledgements are often expressed verbally before presentations, sporting events, and other programming, but they can also be presented through text on a website, syllabi, or other internal- and external-facing documents, as well as through a plaque or other commemorative display on a building or communal site on campus.
The University of Texas at Austin recently formally adopted this land acknowledgement:
(I) We would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what now is called North America.
Moreover, (I) We would like to acknowledge the Alabama-Coushatta, Caddo, Carrizo/Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Comanche, Kickapoo, Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, and Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas.
Land acknowledgements are not a silver bullet to fix this erasure or the anti-Native racism and systemic inequities that go with it, but they are a good first step in shining a light on historical and contemporary issues and success of Native Americans. Further, these acknowledgements are a key to reconciliation efforts, to helping to improve the campus culture and to better support Indigenous students, faculty, and staff.
The Committee on Land Acknowledgement at UT Austin states that adoption of land acknowledgments are an “important step against Indigenous erasure within academic spaces.” That, in so doing, the University was making “a substantial step in supporting and valuing Native American and Indigenous members of our academic community as well as recognizing the rich Indigenous history of the very land on which we work, study, and learn.”
Other universities have come to similar conclusions. Miami University (named after my tribe) also stated that the history and relationship with the Miami Nation was part of the fabric of the institution yet that story was not completely told nor was it fully understood within the university-tribal context. Thus, the land acknowledgement was one of several actions toward addressing that gap in understanding. Northwestern University formally adopted a land acknowledgement after the university investigated the role of one of its founders in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, which resulted in hundreds of deaths of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Their land acknowledgement was part of their attempt to reckon with this past and their role in the history and contemporary reality of Indigenous peoples.
Who should be involved and how to begin
The short answer to the question of who should be involved is Indigenous leaders from the community and Indigenous leaders from the university, as well as others within the university who support Indigenous issues. Now, here comes the more complex answer as this is sensitive work, requiring Native-centered approaches and bringing up questions of authenticity and appropriation for those who are non-Native.
Start with the Native American and/or Indigenous Studies program if your university has one. If not, reach out to Indigenous faculty and staff. More often than not, the aforementioned folks are the ones who are leading the development of land acknowledgements already.
I’m frequently asked: Can I be involved or lead a land acknowledgement development process if I am not Native American? My answer is: Every group needs allies, so yes. I do think that, where possible—and I believe it is possible everywhere—Indigenous stakeholders should take lead, even if that is in partnership with a non-Native ally.
Once you get a core group of stakeholders from the university on board, consult local Indigenous communities to inquire about cultural protocols regarding land acknowledgements and to invite local Indigenous leaders to be part of the creation process of your institution’s acknowledgement. Be prepared to offer a gift to those who participate, a customary cultural protocol among most tribal communities. Those who create the land acknowledgement must do so with Indigenous stakeholders both from the faculty/staff/students but also with the community.
After the land acknowledgement is drafted, invite other stakeholder groups from the university (faculty and student governance groups, Student Affairs administrators, Student Success Committee, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, community engagement offices, etc.) to the table. Building a coalition of diverse and engaged supporters throughout the campus builds political capital and widespread buy-in which improves the chances of formal adoption by the university and increases the possibility that the additional goals/commitments are acted upon and achieved.
Princeton’s land acknowledgement resource page provides some good questions to start the process. After you have assembled the appropriate stakeholders, ask:
- What is the history of this territory?
- What are the impacts of colonialism here?
- What is the institutional relationship to this territory?
- How did it come to be here?
To deepen understanding, encourage individuals participating in the creation of land acknowledgements to critically reflect on their own relationship to the land. Ultimately, land acknowledgements are about relationships—to the land, to each other, to the past and the present and the future.
- Begin with the end in mind. Why are you doing this? How will a land acknowledgement be used?
- Do your research! Your institution may occupy lands that more than one tribe considers homeland. One must recognize the complex history of forced relocations (Indian Removal Act of 1830) that compelled diverse Indian tribes to cohabitate on others’ traditional homelands. Learn the history. Incorporate that history into the land acknowledgement. Learn the implications of that history for tribal peoples then and for tribal peoples now. Use it to teach others of this history and present-day realities of Indigenous peoples. This should be a learning experience such that once one has this knowledge, one is compelled to act. There is an obligation to act that comes with these acknowledgements.
- Be concise. You can contextualize the land acknowledgement, but remember this should not be a lengthy exposition.
- Be specific. Include specific tribal and community names, prioritizing their preferred name. Be sure to check with the community as to correct pronunciation.
- Balance the narrative. When creating land acknowledgements, remember to balance the hard realities with a celebration of resilience and accomplishment. Indigenous people are incredibly resilient and have accomplished a great deal.
- Infuse life into the telling. Land acknowledgements can become very superficial with rote retelling. Do NOT just use it to check the box. Do not tokenize it. If you do, it becomes an empty gesture to reify the historical oppression and land dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the United States (and beyond). Do not make it perfunctory!
- Use all of the tenses. Ensure that your land acknowledgement is written not only in the past tense, but instead reflects the continuing presence of Indigenous peoples now and into the future.
Are land acknowledgements enough?
No. Land acknowledgement alone is not enough to achieve equity. It should be a catalyst for specific and continued action toward equity for Indigenous peoples.
The Committee on Land Acknowledgment at the UT Austin, for example, included three land engagements and/or commitments to their land acknowledgement proposal to the university.
“In recognition of the ongoing and cumulative challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Central Texas and globally, we call upon the University of Texas at Austin:
- To repatriate the ancestral remains held by the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory to their Indigenous descendant communities and Native lands.
- To commit to the active recruitment and material support of Native American and Indigenous students, who currently comprise fewer than 0.2% of UT Austin’s student body.
- To support the transition of the Program in Native American and Indigenous Studies into a Center. “
A land acknowledgement is a starting point on that journey to equity and reconciliation for Native Americans. Some ideas for next steps might include:
- Creating goals around Indigenous faculty and student recruitment and retention.
- Drafting an action plan to raise the visibility of Indigenous issues on campus through the engagement and commitment of the diverse campus-wide stakeholders (mentioned above).
- Doing more to recognize the work of Indigenous scholars and community leaders.
Really, you must work with Indigenous and university stakeholders to make a plan of action in support of Indigenous communities both inside and outside of the university. How that plays out will depend on community needs and priorities.
Land acknowledgements are just one way that a university can publicly support Indigenous communities, faculty, staff, and students. Universities can choose to make the use of land acknowledgements formal policy to be included on syllabi, on their official website, and read before any official university event or gathering. Or, universities can choose a more decentralized approach and encourage university offices, departments, and individual faculty and staff to use a carefully and inclusively crafted land acknowledgement and also include resources and the process by which the land acknowledgement was created on a public site.
Land acknowledgements should not be the end goal. They are the first step in a journey of engagement that advocates with and for Native peoples, supports Indigenous academic, social, and political pursuits, and deepens understanding of historical and contemporary realities for Indigenous peoples. Higher education has a responsibility to confront systemic inequity. Land acknowledgements are one way to drive diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on your campus in a truly inclusive manner. Every university should create a culture of inclusion for all of its students and in so doing better support our general mission of ensuring the highest quality education for the broadest segment of the population. Equity on our campuses drives student success, which in turn, drives institutional success.
* Mihšineewe (big thanks) to the Native American Indigenous Studies department and the Committee on Land Acknowledgement at the University of Texas at Austin and to the Indigenous Texas Steering Committee for their thought leadership and continued work on behalf of all
Indigenous faculty, students, and peoples throughout the University of Texas System. And, to Dr. Rebecca Karoff, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas System who has greatly influenced my understanding of how to “do” equity at the system level.
* This article would not exist without the trailblazing work of UT Austin’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program and their Land Acknowledgement Committee. Similar work at other institutions in the UT System is also underway.