Land Acknowledgment! (…and Building on Best Practices)

When it comes to acknowledging Native land before a performance, artists and administrators sure have room for thought and growth.

land acknowledgement
Land acknowledgement signage at the Chicago Architecture Biennale, Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Shawn Lent.

For the current edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, steps inside the entrances on either side of the Chicago Cultural Center, a prominent, exemplary land acknowledgment is the first thing visitors encounter. Heather Miller (Wyandotte), executive director at American Indian Center of Chicago, made the official statement on Sept. 19, and then facilitated a brilliant discussion of the practice. On Sept. 27, Miller again leads the way as the Art Institute of Chicago holds its own land acknowledgment ceremony.

“Sovereign,” created by Santiago X, now at the Chicago Architecture Biennale, in collaboration with Chi-Nations Youth Council. Photo: Santiago X.

Further south on the lakefront, the Field Museum is now redrafting its own land acknowledgment and renovating its Native North America Hall, to open in 2021. The D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies Programs at the Newberry Library continues to offer important, informative exhibitions and events. Nearly every university in the area, including Northwestern University, maintains an official and public land acknowledgment statement. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a complex case because their land acknowledgment efforts — inclusive of expansive usage and pronunciation guides — are negated by a rightly contested, problematic mascot that should go the way of the Confederate statues.

I think that America needs a land acknowledgment before commencement ceremonies, morning announcements in schools, football games, and wherever a national anthem can be found. But what I’m thinking of today, specifically, is of a land acknowledgment before dance, music and theater performances. While well-intentioned, this practice now feels like a requirement for being a “good liberal.” It leaves me feeling conflicted, and a bit empty. So I decided to dive further into the subject.

Rulan Tangen. Photo: Jeremy Ferris.

Next month, I head to San Francisco to meet Rulan Tangen in person after years of correspondence and knowing of and about one another. Tangen is founding artistic director of Dancing Earth; I’ll have the honor of witnessing and writing about their latest work, BTW US — Between Underground and Skyworld. I am honored to learn much from Rulan and welcomed her to contribute to this article. This is what she shared with me: “I think land acknowledgment is a fundamental preliminary step that has been left out for a long time.”

Rulan then spoke to something that I’ve been feeling: “Land acknowledgment becomes a gesture for non-Indigenous only if it is not part of a focused effort to listen, collaborate and learn — more than inclusion but, rather, true relationship building.” Earlier this year, Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) shared an informative and wonderfully snarky tweet thread on similar issues, which included this:

If you do one because you think you should, but that’s as far as you go with it in your own thinking or what you impart to others, you’re just doing it as a box-checked sort of thing…

Fawn Pochel (First Nations Oji-Cree), education coordinator at Chicago’s American Indian Center, put it this way during the Chicago Architecture Biennale panel:

Land acknowledgments can be tokenized very easily without a connection to an indigenous entity.

Rulan pointed out to me that a land acknowledgment must go further than the land itself. She said that, ultimately, “In the case of wealthy land-owning entities and individuals, land acknowledgment and relationship building [could lead to the] return of land — even a symbolic portion would be a meaningful move towards reparations. Land theft is often cited as the first crime of the birth of the US, followed soon after by slavery, but embedded in the land theft are massacres, germ warfare, kidnapping and abuse of children in boarding school systems, attacks on food sources as well as religion and languages and hairstyles and dances, blood quantum to erode treaty obligations within four generations, breaking treaties regardless, and enforced assimilation.”

Which got me thinking about the right of return. There’s a connection between the Native Northern American stories and stories I’ve heard from my Bosnian Muslim friends and Palestinian friends. Colonization and cultural violence are not crimes of the past. Here’s Rulan once more:

These are elements to be considered alongside land acknowledgment which is a preliminary pre step before the healing, restoring, and re-story-ing together.

In thinking about what I’ve learned from Rulan and others, I want to share a experience I had recently, working on a collaborative performance project. The following was our thought process.

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Question: Should we have a pre-show land acknowledgment?
Answer: Yes, but only with certain conditions, enumerated below.

  1. It must be personal offering, remembering that acknowledgment is connected to gratitude: “I offer this acknowledgment because…”
  2. It must be as accurate and specific as possible, as indicated in the 2016 post by Métis on their âpihtawikosisân site and the 2017 comprehensive guide by the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), which was created with insight and support from several individuals, including T. Lulani Arquette (Native Hawaiian), Shirley Sneve (Rosebud Sioux), Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida), and Rulan.
  3. It must be done in tandem with advocacy, activism or partnership efforts towards justice and equity for Native peoples, while also nodding to the vibrancy and diversity of Native communities today. Jaclyn Roessel (Navajo) is joining USDAC’s core team this month as Director of Decolonized Futures & Radical Dreams, a role which their Quarterly Dispatch describes as “leading the next stage of the #HonorNativeLand campaign and supporting communities and institutions in moving from acknowledgment to action.”
  4. It must speak truth to power. As SumofUs’ comprehensive Progressive’s Style Guide states, “[L]anguage that recognizes a history of pillage and violence by centering the experiences and stories of those whose families have been most affected by colonization for generations and supports all Indigenous peoples in building power is vital.” A land acknowledgment should state acts of settler colonialism.
  5. We must try to be aware of local historical atrocities that show up today, such as the beautiful Indian Boundary Park in Chicago — home to many contemporary artists including Khecari — which still carries the name of the boundary line determined in the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis between the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi tribes and the US government, a line where Indigenous peoples were shot upon crossing. Credit goes to Santiago X (Chiushatta) for bringing that particular history to my attention.

If we cannot do these things, we should probably skip the pre-show land acknowledgment statement and begin strengthening our advocacy, activism and partnerships. We can ask these questions:

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Question: Who should do the land acknowledgment?
Answer: Any one of us can, if we make a personal connection. At the same time, we must ensure that the emotional and performative labor isn’t placed solely on the shoulders of Native peoples and partners. As Feather Marsh (Ojibway) stated during a Chicago Architecture Biennale panel:

It’s not our place to acknowledge the land. We know where we came from. It’s your responsibility.

It is also good to reach out in partnership. Debra Yepa-Pappan (Korean and a tribally enrolled member of the Pueblo of Jemez) is community engagement coordinator for the Field Museum’s Native American Exhibit Hall renovation project; she warned that many resources are not reliable and graciously provided feedback on a personalized land acknowledgment for a performance in a place called Indian Ridge Marsh that has been undergoing land remediation.

Question: Should African American performers whose descendants were brought here by force, refugees and asylum seekers who are here for sanctuary, or immigrant artists who chose to come here for opportunity, family or freedom, be the ones to acknowledge the land?
Answer: After some beautiful and hearty discussion, I realize the answer to that question is yes. The issues of forced displacement, the notion of being borderless, the right to mobility — they all interweave. America was a thriving land long before we paved over paradise and put up a parking lot. As stated in a great resource by Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Bourque:

Settlers do not all benefit equally from settler colonialism. Many people were brought to settler states as slaves, indentured servants, refugees, etc. But…it is all of our responsibilities…to challenge the systems of domination from which we benefit.

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As we fight for refugees and asylum seekers during the Trump administration, we should remember that many of the 600-plus sovereign Indigenous tribes in America have been refugees for centuries — internally displaced persons in their own land.

As we move forward towards Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October (Oct. 14), I hope we keep all this in mind. One way to work toward decolonization is by bringing our artistry and land stewardship into the work. This performance earlier this month by Ayako Kato and Nejla Yatkin, with dancers Alexis Birts, Ysaÿe McKeever, and Ji Hae Yepa-Pappan, is one example of dance activism as land acknowledgment in itself.