So you began your event with an Indigenous land acknowledgement. Now what?
Land acknowledgments have become increasingly common nationwide over the past few years. Many mainstream public events — from soccer games and performing arts productions to city council meetings and corporate conferences — begin with these formal statements recognizing Indigenous communities' rights to territories seized by colonial powers.
Indigenous leaders and activists have mixed feelings about land acknowledgments. While some say they are a waste of time, others are working to make the well-meaning but often empty speeches more useful. The debate is more than a niche issue; the pros and cons of land acknowledgments are the subject of myriad mainstream media articles, social media posts and online videos. And they've even been parodied on TV, in series like Reservation Dogs, about the exploits of a group of Oklahoma Indigenous teens.
In one ear and out the other
"If it becomes routine, or worse yet, is strictly performative, then it has no meaning at all," said Kevin Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and undersecretary for museums and culture at the Smithsonian Institution. "It goes in one ear and out the other." (Gover said only one or two Smithsonian museums have land acknowledgments; the National Museum of the American Indian is among those that do, and its acknowledgment is only one sentence long.)
Gover said the statements — which first appeared in Australia back in the 1970s in the push for Aboriginal peoples' rights and more recently blossomed in Canada with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, which brought to light how generations of Indigenous school children had been stripped of their native languages and cultural traditions — can also feel disempowering to the very people they're supposed to uplift.
"If I hear a land acknowledgment, part of what I'm hearing is, 'There used to be Indians here. But now they're gone. Isn't that a shame?' And I don't wish to be made to feel that way," Gover said.
A first step toward positive action
But other Indigenous experts say land acknowledgments do have value. If people are thinking about how they go about crafting and using these statements, they can provide a first step toward action.
"The land acknowledgment gets you to that start," said Cutcha Risling Baldy, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and an associate professor of Native American Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. "Now it's time to think about what that actually means for you or your institution. What are the concrete actions you're gonna take? What are the ways you're gonna assist Indigenous peoples in uplifting and upholding their sovereignty and self-determination?"
Baldy demonstrates how land acknowledgments can be used in talks she gives around the country. For example, she used the land acknowledgment at the start of a lecture at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., in November 2022 to ask audience members to support an Indigenous community garden nearby Chicago.
"She put up a QR code for people to donate directly to the First Nations Garden," said Fawn Pochel, who was in Baldy's audience that day. "She literally paused so people could take pictures and create donations."
Pochel, who identifies as First Nations Ojibwe and is part of the community organization effort around the First Nations Garden, said her group received more than $200 in unexpected donations within 24 hours due to Baldy's callout during the land acknowledgment.
"That was a direct result of her uplifting our space during her conversation," Pochel said.
Putting land acknowledgments to further use
Sometimes land acknowledgments can lead to more than one-off donations.
At Shotgun Players, a theater company in Berkeley, Calif., all performances and staff meetings begin with a 45-second-long statement acknowledging, "that the land beneath our theater and our studios and throughout East Bay is Huichin, the traditional unceded land of the Lisjan Ohlone people."
Artistic director Patrick Dooley, who's not Native American, said having a land acknowledgment helps remind his theater company and audience of their privileges.
"We're just here for a brief time," Dooley said. "And the way we can really honor our opportunity to live wherever we live is to acknowledge and honor the people that came before us."
The company developed its land acknowledgment three years ago in collaboration with the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit focused on Indigenous land return.
"When we work with people around creating land acknowledgments, it really has to be a reciprocal relationship," said Corrina Gould, co-director of the land trust and tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan-Ohlone.
The theater company takes the reciprocity seriously.
Artistic director Dooley said Shotgun Players pays a voluntary land tax — known as "Shuumi Land Tax," incorporating the Chochenyo word for "gift" — of between $3,000 and $6,000 a year to the trust. (Dooley said the amount depends on the company's annual income). The theater company has also offered the trust tickets to performances and invitations to use its space.
Sogorea Te' Land Trust co-director Gould said she'd like to see Shotgun Players do even more, including hiring Indigenous theater artists.
"We're hoping that it'll be a long-term relationship that our children will be able to say, 'Hey, this started a long time ago, but we're still in this together,' " said Gould, who added her organization has been developing deeper relationships with a variety of local organizations including Oakland Roots soccer team and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Shotgun's Dooley said he agrees. But he admits he still needs to do more to seek out Indigenous talent for his theater's productions.
"We have a seasoned selection committee," the artistic director said. "And one of the priorities that we have is to do that."
Audio and digital stories edited by Ciera Crawford. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento. Web copy edited by Beth Novey. Editorial consultant, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.