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Develop your own land and labor acknowledgment

You may choose to begin each of your public programs by delivering a verbal land acknowledgment—a brief formal statement that honors Native peoples as traditional guardians of the land and recognizes the enduring relationships that exist between Native peoples and their traditional, ancestral territories. It also recognizes that property ownership is a Euro-American, not an Indigenous, concept.

Consider this description, offered by Heather Ahtone, Senior Curator at the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, as we were working on our statement:

“Land Acknowledgements are, at their core, intended to be a mechanism to express respect, recognizing historical and contemporary relationships, and center Indigenous presence within the place at hand. Our relationship as Native people to the earth is an enduring experience that binds us as humans with the earth that sustains us.”

Adopting this practice is a very achievable step that demonstrates respect for Native peoples and moves on a path toward decolonization and reconciliation. The practice also honors Indigenous protocol, as Native people commonly acknowledge the earth and their connection to it at gatherings.

Generally, the idea behind a land acknowledgment is to recognize the Indigenous peoples who lived on, and had relationship with, the land where your institution sits today. This statement would typically acknowledge the Indigenous cultural groups who cared for the land in pre-Contact times, as well as Native peoples who resided there later, after leaving their traditional lands. Groups may have migrated to try to escape the pressures of non-Native invaders, or they may have been forcibly relocated to the region you occupy today, temporarily or through the establishment of a permanent reserve.

Native people frequently describe that stereotypes and popular culture have the effects of positioning Indian people in the past and making them feel invisible; that many Americans do not realize that Indigenous people and sovereign nations exist and thrive today. Connecting with Indigenous people in your community and inviting them to be a part of this process and your program planning—and acknowledging them in your statement as well—are steps toward correcting this misconception.

* Special thanks to Dr. Eric Anderson, Professor and Chair of the Indigenous and American Indian Studies Department at Haskell Indian Nations University, for reviewing the text of this toolkit.

Step 1

Begin this journey by learning more about the process and purpose of land acknowledgment.

These resources offer helpful overviews:

Step 2

Identify the Indigenous ancestral territories associated with your institution’s current location.

There may be many answers to this inquiry. The simplest way to begin this journey is to enter your street address into the Native Land Digital interactive mapping program. This project will generally identify Indigenous peoples associated with the land at the time of European Contact or will identify nations, who through their peoples’ stories, identify as ancient keepers of the land.

Native Land Digital is a Canadian not-for-profit organization, incorporated in December 2018. The associated interactive mapping project was begun by Canadian programmer Victor Temprano, who was looking for a way to acknowledge Native claims to land over those of colonists. The site allows visitors to enter a street address and learn about the traditional ancestral territory for that place. Information is frequently updated, and is based on maps and information from Indigenous governments, crowd-sourced information (especially from tribal nations), academic sources, and (as a last resort) old colonial maps. The organization is overseen by an Indigenous board of directors.

In addition, seek published resources that document pre-Contact Indigenous settlement in your region, to begin learning about the stories of settlement, geographic range, and movement of these groups. Begin by going to the tribal webpages of the peoples identified with your street address to see if they feature a history narrative, timeline, origin story, etc., or if they cite particular published histories. Some of these tribal websites offer the land acknowledgment that they prefer, in lieu of contacting them for guidance.

In addition, you may want to connect with your state’s Native American commission or consult historians at your area university, historical society, history museum, or library to identify scholarly summaries about settlements and land use by Indigenous peoples. Scrutinize resources that may present history from the colonizer’s perspective.

If you would like to investigate treaties, acts of Congress, executive orders, and other government actions related to the land in your region, see the suggestions below for taking this process a step further.

Step 3

Review land acknowledgments prepared by other organizations, and then, draft your own

Determine if other organizations in your area have already laid this groundwork. Many universities, for example, have been taking the lead in preparing land acknowledgments. These statements are often published online and will be helpful resources as you draft your own. Involve Indigenous advisors, board members, staff, or local tradition bearers in your drafting process.

Step 4

Share your draft with current tribal representatives of the nations you have acknowledged, or a representative from a local Native American organization, and seek feedback.

Whenever possible, do request feedback on the accuracy and language/tone of your drafted statement from tribal representatives (elders, preservation officers, historians, etc.), knowing that frequently, they will reside elsewhere due to land cessions and relocations. If the nation has published their preferred text for land acknowledgments on their website, this step may not be necessary. If you have not worked with Indigenous individuals in step three, connect with a representative at the Indian center, intertribal council, or college Indigenous Studies department in your region and ask them to review your statement. Offering a small honorarium would be appreciated, and do invite them to participate in Away from Home programming as well.

Confirm the name and spelling the nation uses when self-identifying.

Step 5

Practice your statement before you deliver it—including the pronunciation of names.

Pictured: Photography courtesy of Steve Snell, Artistic Innovations awardee FY23.