Are land acknowledgments working?

Land acknowledgments—that semi-ceremonial rite that precedes many public and academic gatherings, noting in some manner the Indigenous presence on the local landscape that preceded colonization—has been having a commentator moment in the United States. Writers in The Atlantic and the New York Post have weighed in lately, on the negative side: the New York Post‘s Kyle Smith dismissed them as “the latest in meaningless self-scourging progressive fashion statements,” now common “among institutions run by the wokest of the woke,” including museums. “Long common in Canada and Australia,” Graeme Wood wrote in an online item for The Atlantic on November 28, “land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these—I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint.”

There’s a lot that Wood gets right about land acknowledgments as performative rites without much actual consequence, other than making a colonizing people feel good about themselves: “The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.” I have been listening to land acknowledgments since they started to become commonplace while in graduate school (2010-15), especially as one of my fields was Indigenous history. With my other two fields being Canadian and American history, I was pretty much a continentalist, up to my neck in colonialism, which was also the crux of my dissertation, which became the book The Place of Stone. I have heard, inside and outside academia, a lot of fairly clumsy and unhelpful acknowledgments. The history of Southern Ontario in particular is pretty messy, and prefacing a meeting by having someone read out a long list of every Indigenous group to have had a presence on the local landscape, with the Métis thrown in for good measure, to my ears is an exercise shorn of any real meaning, unless the intent was to delegitimize the presence of every non-Indigenous person in the room. At the worst, they’re a kind of settler smudging ceremony. After the implicit wrongs of the past have been acknowledged, everyone can feel cleansed and move on to whatever is on the agenda, without fostering any actual change in circumstance for living Indigenous peoples. Complicating matters is the fact that the acknowledgments sometimes include Indigenous nations that in the past had displaced each other. There has also been push-back from Indigenous groups over reflexive inclusion of the Métis in Ontario acknowledgments, as doing so implicitly endorses some Métis claims to lands that other Indigenous peoples insist they have no right to.

John McWhorter, writing in The New York Times, defends land acknowledgments as a kind of mea culpa for past injustices which have no apparent solution. “I’ve always found it quietly dismaying that the land that America occupies was wrested from people who had lived on it for millenniums before, and that today Native Americans represent such as small percentage of our body politic, and so much has been built up on the land, that there’s no realistic way, given the magnitude of the injustice, to reverse it or even adequately redress it. I’ve often thought, ‘Under this parking lot, right where that subdivision is, whole lives and societies existed that are now utterly lost.’ The least we can do is to regularly — yes, ritually — mention this, especially if this least is the best we’re willing to do.”

That purpose may suit some Americans, but a ritualized acknowledgment of lost opportunities for justice doesn’t go very far, to my mind, in Canada, where opportunities are far from lost. The unfortunate thing about the current state of acknowledgments is that, when they are done badly, they delegitimize a useful and instructive exercise, and leave them open to the dismissive attacks of scribes like Smith. Something that Wood missed, in tracing the American inspiration to Canada and Australia, is that when they are done well, acknowledgments are anchored in the realities of treaties, in particular of treaties as ongoing relationships. This is especially true where I live, where the Robinson Treaties of 1850 encode living, breathing relationships that recently resulted in a significant victory for the Anishinaabe at the Ontario Court of Appeals, as I related over on my Wild Great Lakes blog. Where no treaties were ever signed, and where First Nations peoples are actively asserting sovereignty, or where treaties were signed but their terms in Indigenous eyes were not met in good faith by the Crown, a land acknowledgment can be a useful reminder of that contested sovereignty.

What makes a good land acknowledgment? In Canada at least, it’s one that demonstrates some basic knowledge of applicable, local treaties—or the lack of them. In my corner of southeastern Georgian Bay, you can mention the Huron/Wendat if you wish, who were dispersed in the mid-seventeenth century by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), but the main point ought to be the ongoing relationship between Anishinaabe people and the Crown (ie. the Canadian people) through the Robinson Treaties and the Williams Treaty. Canadians in general are becoming more knowledgeable about compelling Indigenous claims to territories, or to neglected treaty benefits, which is much different than a town in Connecticut prefacing a public meeting by saying its lands were once occupied by a people that hasn’t existed for 150 years. Attendees can make of that historical fact what they will, but in Canada, people are starting to understand that on the Crown or “settler” side (however much you like/dislike that term), there is often an ongoing treaty relationship to uphold, or even a relationship to formally establish. Canadians who live in treaty territories are by default treaty people, and where there are as yet no treaties, there is also unfinished business in acknowledging sovereignty and forging a proper relationship. Land acknowledgments, poorly crafted and performed, only undermine the ongoing relationships and hard work of relation-building.

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