Celebrating Native American Heritage: Land Acknowledgments Cultural Colloquy
March 7, 2023
Land Acknowledgments are a practice that is both old and new, carried out with good intent and an enormously heavy task. It is an attempt to shed light on and pay tribute to the native peoples who were here, and are still here. It is “a statement that recognizes the history and presence of Indigenous peoples and their enduring relationship to their traditional homelands” (UCSC American Indian Resource Center).
As part of the ACC Native American Heritage Celebration, a cultural colloquy was held to discuss land acknowledgments and deliberate on the purposes and benefits of the practice.
On Tuesday, November 29th at the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center a panel discussion around the practice of land acknowledgment was held as part of the larger ‘Cultural Mosaic’ celebration of Native American heritage and culture. Jean Lauer, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Humanities facilitated the discussion which was led by Ursula Pike (Karuk), Creative Writing Professor and Author, as well as Gary Moreno, History Professor and Director of the Latin American Cultural Center also known as El Centro.
The panelists asked tough questions about the practice of land acknowledgments, raising a number of issues and ideas around Native identity on college campuses in the process.
What is a Land Acknowledgement?
Professor Dr. Jean Lauer began the evening by reading a land acknowledgment developed by colleagues at ACC. She then followed with a primer on the purpose and history of land acknowledgment. The relatively new practice within non-native spaces stems from ancient native traditions involving honoring elders and the land itself. The goal of the acknowledgment, as Lauer understands it, is to honor Native people as stewards of the land and foreground settler colonialism. At its core, it asks: How did we get here?
After this introduction, Lauer dives right into the heart of the discussion: How do the guests feel about land acknowledgments?
To Land Acknowledge, or not to Land Acknowledge?
Ursula Pike remembers her mother describing her childhood in California and how one year, the whole fourth grade was tasked with creating ‘mission’ dioramas. The assignment glorified a past that for Native Americans, like Pike and her mother, is full of pain, violence, and genocide. But when Pike asked her mother about how she felt making this diorama, her answer surprised her. To her mother, it was the only time her Native community came up at school, and so she was partially grateful for this assignment for including her history (albeit a grossly offensive and inaccurate history). This is how Pike feels about land acknowledgments.
According to Pike, land acknowledgments at the beginning of a presentation or event are a problematic salve to a wound oceans wide and deep. At worst they can place indigenous people and history in the past and justify the status quo, but at best they can be a useful jumping-off point to a larger discussion and practice. The larger practices, according to Pike, can include education about the Native nations in the community, connecting to the Native communities in your local area, and attending or volunteering at events such as powwows.
Gary Moreno, as a Professor of History, also finds land acknowledgments lacking in depth. According to Moreno the practice of land acknowledgment throws all Native people together without distinguishing a complicated and ongoing history. They can also skip over the ‘how’ of dispossession, and gloss over a very violent past. According to Moreno, it is ‘easy to land acknowledge, but harder to learn the history.’
More Than Land Acknowledgements: Native Identity
College campuses can often serve as important sites of identity formation among young people, and yet according to Moreno, many Latinx students shy away from self-identifying with their indigenous roots. Pike agrees and adds that there is a reluctance to identify with a mixed ancestry, in contrast to what she has found in other cultures such as one indigenous community of Bolivia. She and Moreno explored the possible benefits of encouraging Latinx students to investigate their Indigenous ancestry and history while issuing a disclaimer against the possible appropriation or co-option of this history.
Land acknowledgments could serve as a step towards encouraging this identity exploration and formation on college campuses. Professors can play a role in steering students toward investigating their own identities and use the acknowledgment as opening the space for this exploration.
What Comes After Land Acknowledgements?
Dr. Lauer continued the discussion into ways to move beyond a performative land acknowledgment and towards a deeper reckoning with the past and present. She asked panelists to describe ways in which Austin Community College can grow to include more Native stories and voices.
Pike discussed how in her own Creative Writing classes, she often teaches Native writers. She calls on all disciplines to include more Native works in the curriculum. Moreno agrees and adds that the College could bring in more Indigenous speakers and performers, as well as take students on a trip to existing events such as the Austin Powwow.
To take it a step further, panelists discussed how everyone at the college can dig deeper to discover Native history on this land. This includes the celebratory, triumphant parts of Native History. Ruben Ramirez, an audience member, and Manufacturing Coordinator at ACC, agrees. He discussed growing up in West Texas with no real connection to his Native roots – that all changed after visiting Mexico City and discovering the vast, epic, and incredible history of his Native ancestry. He posited how we can all do a better job of exposing children and young people to their history and encouraging a recognition of and pride in this history.
So what if you decide to continue with the practice of land acknowledgment? The panel does not explicitly discourage the practice entirely, as long as it is done thoughtfully and considerately.
How ACC Celebrates Native American Heritage
We want to express a heartfelt thank you to Dr. Jean Lauer, Dr. Gary Moreno, and Ursula Pike for participating as panelists and sharing their knowledge and experiences.
This colloquy was made possible through a collaboration between the Teaching and Learning Excellence Division (TLED), the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center, ACC Philosophy, Religion, and Humanities Department, Liberal Arts Area of Studies, and the ACC Latin American Cultural Center (El Centro).
To find out the ways in which ACC honored Native American heritage month, including a GIS student project that mapped out native lands on which ACC resides, please visit the Cultural Mosaic: A Celebration of Native American Heritage website: austincc.edu/nativeamericanheritage.