Land Acknowledgments: The Importance of Acknowledging the Original People of Michigan

By Tara Maudrie, I-LEAD Program Assistant

Land Acknowledgements are a relatively novel concept to most people today, but to Indigenous people this concept is centuries old. Indigenous people for centuries have acknowledged that the land upon which they stood (and stand today) is not theirs to begin with but rather a gift from the creator. In most Indigenous cultures land was not ‘owned’ by people but rather a shared gift and resource. A common conservation theme among more modern Natives is that we do not own the Earth, we are borrowing it from our children and grandchildren. Although this is a cute saying shared all over Facebook and Pinterest, this truly was and is the philosophy of many Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples.

A Land acknowledgment is an act of reconciliation made by non-natives and native alike to acknowledge that the land they are standing on is not traditionally theirs. Many Native Americans who migrated or moved away from their traditional homelands often acknowledge the traditional people of the land they now occupy as well. For example, Mexica dancers who dance in Michigan Powwows often choose to acknowledge the Anishinaabe people before they dance.

The Mexica dancers at AIHFS’s 2019 Powwow & Health Fair

These simple statements, normally three to four sentences or less, remind all in attendance who hear this statement that Indigenous culture is simultaneously the past, present and future of this land and has been for centuries (Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples & Traditional Territory). This simple statement, which in some progressive schools is added before or after the Pledge of Allegiance, is a verbal reminder to hold yourself, and those around you, accountable to honor the land, the people who originally inhabited it and to protect the future of the land you stand on (Friedler, 2018). Land acknowledgements are more than just acknowledging the first people of the land, they are also honoring the land itself, and calling all of us to action to protect the land we stand on.

North Bar Lake at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

Academic Universities’ responsibility to the traditional people of the lands which they occupy is far greater than most universities realize. Indigenous people are rarely recognized or discussed in the college setting, in fact in my entire career as a college student I have heard Native Americans mentioned twice without me specifically bringing up the topic of Indigenous people. Indigenous people are often wrongfully disregarded or forgotten in discussions regarding academia simply because they make up such a small portion of students. Statistics show that only 70% of American Indians graduate high school within four years (Oliff, 2017). While 60% of the general population who graduate high school continue onto college, only 17% of American Indian students continue onto college (Oliff, 2017). Only 13% of Native Americans hold a college degree and the number of Native Americans that hold graduate school degrees are so small that there are not even statistics available (Oliff, 2017). Currently Native Americans make up less than 1% of undergraduate students. There are many barriers that prevent Native Americans from completing college including: being first generation college students, being more likely to work in college, rural isolation and lack of familial support. Looking at these statistics it is no wonder that Native Americans are rarely discussed in academia, Native students make up the smallest portion of college students and quite possibly the smallest number of college professors as well. Land Acknowledgements are a step towards recognizing that the history of Native Americans portrayed in History books, or in pop culture are not the true stories or history of the traditional people of the land and to educate non-Natives about what they can do to foster an environment that will hopefully encourage more future Native students.

Land Acknowledgments are a positive way to begin making amends for the wrongs done against Native people. By acknowledging that the land of a University was not originally theirs, it is a small acknowledgment of the dark past of America that is seldom discussed. As stated by Know the Land, “Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” Land acknowledgements are also an important reminder that Native people are not just the past of the land but also the present and the future. Too frequently Native Americans are referred to in the past tense, and many people forget that many Native Americans do still live in their traditional lands and are still a very real part of the continued existence of the land and a vital part of the community.

Friends of the AIHFS Sacred Roots Garden – Spring 2018

It is also important to remember that even though using Land Acknowledgements is a very important step towards creating a healthier relationship with Native people, a land acknowledgement is just that a step. In order to create a lasting and meaningful relationship with Native communities, there needs to be communication and a partnership with Native people. From an academic standpoint there are several things a University could do to help build this relationship. A land acknowledgment is generally one of the first and most important steps that is made. The next step that could be made is to make sure that Native history and culture are being taught from not just a colonial standpoint but also the Native point of view as well. A Native student organization can be made (I would make one but I unfortunately recently graduated). Creating a University’s Land Acknowledgement is a step in the right direction towards creating a healthier relationship with Indigenous people but in order to make this a meaningful acknowledgement, it needs to be more than just a statement in the beginning of a meeting. An acknowledgment should be a reflection for each person in the room to remind them of the past harmful relationships between colonial powers and Indigenous people and also to remind them that the past does not dictate the future, and that each person can do their part to create future positive relationships with Indigenous people.

This land acknowledgement was created with the intention of being used for a University in the metro-Detroit area. It is structurally based on Northwestern University’s acknowledgment and the City of Detroit’s by David Pitwanakwat.

This University sits on the traditional lands and territory of the Anishinaabe people, also known as the Three Fires of the Confederacy comprised of the Ojibway, the Odawa and the Potawatomi. Since the beginning of time it has served as an important and sacred place for these tribes and many other tribes throughout this region.

Today and everyday we acknowledge the peoples native to this land and the land itself. It is this University’s responsibility as an academic institution to respectfully discuss and educate about the traditional people of this land and the hardships they have faced and continue to face. Our intent is always to educate and enlighten, never to accuse or blame.

“By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change.”

 

Resources:

Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples & Traditional Territory. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2018, from https://www.caut.ca/content/guide-acknowledging-first-peoples-traditional-territory

David Pitwanakwat. (He is in Law School at University of Windsor and University of Detroit Mercy and has experience writing Land Acknowledgments. He wrote both Wayne State’s and the City of Detroit’s.) Retrieved on October 1st 2018.

Friedler, D. (2018, February 09). If You’re Not Indigenous, You Live on Stolen Land. Retrieved November 24, 2018, from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indigenous-land-acknowledgement-explained

Gurneau, J. (n.d.). Native American and Indigenous Initiatives. Retrieved November 24, 2018, from https://www.northwestern.edu/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples/about/Land Acknowledgement.html

Know the Land. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from http://www.lspirg.org/knowtheland/

Oliff, H. (2017, May 16). Graduation Rates & American Indian Education « Native American / American Indian Blog by Partnership With Native Americans. Retrieved November 24, 2018, from http://blog.nativepartnership.org/graduation-rates-american-indian-education/

Editor’s Note: Since the submission of this posting Tara has moved on from our agency to pursue a Master’s of Science in Public Health with a concentration in Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. We wish her the best as she pursues her dreams!

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