Indigenous leaders want land acknowledgments to really benefit their communities Statements recognizing Indigenous rights to territories seized by colonial powers may be well-meaning. But some Indigenous leaders fear these acknowledgments may become routine and performative.

So you began your event with an Indigenous land acknowledgment. Now what?

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If you've attended a public event in person or online lately - say, a theatrical performance, academic lecture or even a corporate meeting - you've probably heard this sort of statement at the start.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We want to acknowledge that the land where the Microsoft campus is situated was traditionally occupied by the Sammamish, the Duwamish, the Snoqualmie...

SUMMERS: Land acknowledgments are meant to recognize Indigenous communities' rights to territories seized by colonial powers. But as NPR's Chloe Veltman reports, some tribal leaders and activists wish the well-meaning, but often empty, speeches would go away, while others are now working to make them more useful.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: The debate around land acknowledgments is more than a niche issue. The pros and cons of these statements are the subject of many articles and social media tirades. They have even been parodied on TV in series like "Reservation Dogs," about the exploits of a group of Indigenous teens.


AMBER MIDTHUNDER: (As Miss M8triarch) I want to take a moment to acknowledge the traditional caretakers of this land - the cattle, the Osage and the Muskogee, of course. But before them were our Neanderthal relatives, so acknowledge them. And before that, even, the dinosaur nation - dinosaur oyate. You know, before that, the star people...

VELTMAN: Kevin Gover is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and undersecretary for museums and culture at the Smithsonian Institution. Like many of the Indigenous people NPR spoke with for this story, Gover has misgivings about land acknowledgments.

KEVIN GOVER: If it becomes routine or, worse yet, is strictly performative, then it has no meaning at all. It goes in one ear and out the other.

VELTMAN: Gover says the statements can also feel disempowering to the very people they're supposed to uplift.

GOVER: If I hear a land acknowledgement, 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.

VELTMAN: But other Indigenous experts say the statements do have value. Cutcha Risling Baldy is a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and an associate professor of Native American studies at California State Polytechnic University Humboldt. She says if people are thoughtful about how they go about crafting and using land acknowledgments, they can provide a first step towards action.

CUTCHA RISLING BALDY: The land acknowledgements gets you to that start. Now, it's time to think about what that actually means for you or your institution. What are the concrete actions you're going to take? What are the ways you're going to assist Indigenous peoples in uplifting and upholding their sovereignty and self-determination?

VELTMAN: Baldy demonstrates how land acknowledgments can be put to use in talks she gives around the country. For example, she used the land acknowledgement at the start of a lecture she gave at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., last November to ask audience members to support an Indigenous community garden in nearby Chicago. Fawn Pochel was in the audience that day.

FAWN POCHEL: She put up a QR Code for people to donate directly to the First Nations Garden - literally paused so people could take pictures and create donations.

VELTMAN: Pochel, who identifies as First Nations Ojibwe and is part of the community organization effort around the First Nations Garden, says her group received a couple of hundred dollars in unexpected donations as a result of Baldy's call-out during the land acknowledgement. And sometimes land acknowledgements lead to more than one-off donations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In the spirit of humility and respect, we request that you join us in 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.

VELTMAN: This is part of the land acknowledgement that can be heard before every performance given by Shotgun Players. The Berkeley, Calif.-based theater company's artistic director, Patrick Dooley, who's not Native American, says having a land acknowledgement helps remind his company and audience of the privileges they enjoy.

PATRICK DOOLEY: We're just here for a brief time, and a way we can really honor our opportunity to live wherever we live is to acknowledge and honor the people that came before us.

VELTMAN: The company developed its land acknowledgement three years ago in collaboration with the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit focused on Indigenous land return. Corrina Gould is the co-director of the trust and tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan-Ohlone.

CORRINA GOULD: When we work with people around creating land acknowledgments, it really has to be a reciprocal relationship.

VELTMAN: Shotgun Players takes the reciprocity seriously. The company pays a voluntary land tax of several thousand dollars a year to the land trust and has offered the trust tickets to performances and invitations to use its space. Gould says she'd like to see Shotgun Players do even more, including hiring Indigenous theater artists.

GOULD: We're hoping that, you know, that it will 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.

VELTMAN: Shotgun's Artistic director, Patrick Dooley, says he's of the same mind, but he admits he's done little to seek out Indigenous talent for his shows as yet. Chloe Veltman, NPR News.


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