Righting Wrongs: On the Proposed TCGIS Land Acknowledgment Statement

I am posting this guiding document that I wrote as part of my position on the Diversity and Belonging Committee of my children’s school. I’m posting this for a few reasons. One, I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far. Two, though, I want to be able to point at this document in the future, no matter the outcome or final language of the final statement, and allow people to see my thought process and the care I think I’ve put into crafting the philosophy of what we’re (or I, at least) was going for. So here goes.

I.I Background

Read land acknowledgments have risen to prominence in recent years: in academia, at sporting events, galas, and other events. The reading of these statements reflect a heightened awareness, particularly among liberals and progressives, of the legacy of colonialism and genocide inflicted by white settlers on those who previously occupied what is now the United States. This subject takes on even more potent overtones at this time of the year. We have, as a nation, recently found time to be grateful for our good fortunes while focusing on a highly mythologized past that marked the beginning of an era of brutal hardship for the native people of this continent.

This is a fraught topic, and I wish to acknowledge at the outset that I am not an Indigenous person, nor do I have a personal relationship with any Indigenous people. But I suspect (wrongly, perhaps) that this might be the case for the majority of the families and people who attend TCGIS, and that makes the topic of TCGIS’s proposed Land Acknowledgement Statement important. I will, however, argue that a land acknowledgement, whatever the intention behind the words, and as generally conceived and practiced today, serves little to help those it references, while in the worst cases simultaneously patronizing them.

An acknowledgement is the “acceptance of the truth or existence of something”. To acknowledge something is to point out its existence, to bring it to light. In the current case, we are discussing a statement, generally read aloud1 before a gathering of people, of the truth that the land on which the school (and city, and state) is situated on lands that other people traditionally occupied. In the case of the Saint Paul area generally, this included significant numbers of Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe people. This usage of the word “traditionally” is intentional, for one may dispute of whether one group or another has a “legal” right to the usage of a particular tract of land. Further, laws and treaties may be unjust in a moral sense. Regardless of the preceding, the government of the United States of the State of Minnesota currently recognizes several Native American areas of sovereignty (“Reservations”), with the geographically closest being the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community located several miles to the southwest of the Twin Cities.

I.II Acknowledgements: What They Are And Are Not

There is no single land acknowledgement script or template to use, and therefore, they vary greatly among the people who write and say them. This is to the writers’ credit, as rote recitation of a page of words is nothing but vain repetition. Here, it seems important to examine what acknowledgements say and do not say; what they are and are not.

A. Acknowledgements are not apologies

An apology is the act of declaring one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, harmed or wronged another. Some apologies are interpersonal. Other apologies are collective (by one group to another group or by a group to an individual). An acknowledgement is different: it draws attention to an event, and while it may draw moral judgements about the act in question, it does not meet further conditions for a valid apology2.

B. Acknowledgements do not accept standing, or blame

An acknowledgement that a harm has occurred is not the same as accepting responsibility for that harm. To accept responsibility, one would have to have participated in a meaningful way in the actions or events that caused the harm. This would give thee individual or individuals standing to accept the responsibility. As no one currently living participated in the theft of land from anyone else, this requirement cannot be satisfied, and it would be improper in a moral sense to accept responsibility.

Acknowledgements, therefore, are not apologies. While they can attach a judgement of moral worth to an act, they are not an acceptance of blame, nor do they express categorical regret (recognition of the fact that one’s act constituted a moral failure).

C. Acknowledgements are acts of public recognition and education

Acknowledgements can ask the listeners or readers to consider a powerful question: whose land are we on?

It is not always easy to answer that. From the late 1600s to the 1850s, two principle tribes vied for control of the lands encompassing present-day Minnesota: The Dakota (Sioux), had long occupied Minnesota when the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a branch of the eastern Algonquian people, began moving into the area from the east. This intrusion led to periodic but bloody inter-tribal warfare which resulted in the eventual migration of the Dakota from the forested part of Minnesota to the open prairies and river valleys of the south and west. The Ojibwe in turn occupied the east central and northern forests3.

Many if not most acknowledgments take the form of a statement recognizing that the speaker is standing on the “traditional” lands of another. This phrasing raises fundamental difficulties of basic meaning. What does “traditional” mean in this case? Does it simply mean “not legal”? Does it mean “sort of, but not really”? Whose tradition are we referring to? It seems possible that the Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe peoples might have differing accounts of who the land “belongs” to, depending on whom you ask and in what context. Offering a factually accurate acknowledgement becomes difficult when there are competing traditional and legal claims. The non-fixed nature of who resides on or who, in some sense, “has a claim to” the land must be taken into account when crafting an authentic and healing acknowledgement. History is complicated, and implicit in the question of “who the land belongs to” is the dubious assumption that it “belongs” to one specific group or another in a moral sense. In crafting an acknowledgement, one runs the danger of attaching a mythologized, reductive “Native identity” to the land, or perpetuating the stereotypical myth of the Native American living in perfect harmony with nature4.

D. Acknowledgements are reminders that a moral wrong occurred

Gathering together to listen to speeches and watch performances is one way that societies share values. Listening to and reflecting on a statement of shared values can help clarify a stance on issues, and in a very real sense, shared values are society.

Public acknowledgements can serve as a reminder and as an instrument of education. Like a memorial, they exist to bring to our recollection events in the not-so-distant past that request us to take a moral stock of ourselves, and the sort of people we want to be. The fields at Gettysburg, Yad Vashem in Israel – these remind us of dark times in our history and force us to confront the past by reminding us of the horrible things that humans inflicted upon each other in the past.

But acknowledgements can do more than remind, they can also inform those whose education and life experience has not led to an examination of issues of land. Some adults attended schools whose history curriculums did not include frank discussions of the history of the United States and the indigenous people who lived here, and in this instance an acknowledgement further’s the school’s interests in performing its societal and public goal of fostering education.

An objection against acknowledgements that might be raised here could be “If we mention this wrong, why do we not mention these other wrongs?” There are many moral wrongs in to examine in our history; to argue that “speaking about one requires us to speak of another, and so on; therefore we should not acknowledge anything” is a red herring, and this argument should be discouraged.

I.III Acknowledgements as examples of performative “purifying speech”

A darker aspect of the ritual of the land acknowledgement must be examined here, which is the possibility of them being performative gestures done solely for the good feelings of those witnessing and participating in them.

Social media is replete with examples of what is commonly derided as “slacktivism” – performing a painless and easy action to show support for a campaign or social issue. Perhaps the most recent example was users of the social media platform Instagram turning their profile pictures black in protest of George Floyd’s murder. This sort of activism consists of actions taken to endorse a political standpoint or social cause but with minimal effort, commitment, or risk to the individual. Campaigns of this sort are often mocked in the media for their supposed performative nature. Performative actions are only that, the argument goes, and to the extent that liking a social media post shows support for a cause at all, it is immaterial and useless support; virtue signaling at its worst.

On examination, though, performative gestures can serve important functions. Performance has always had a place in fostering political change and ideas, from the church using performances to convert people to Christianity in the fourth century to Shakespeare’s commentary on the monarchy in his plays. The very idea of “raising awareness” is the reason we write to our representatives and contact those who hold authority in government.

An action that is performative is not morally worthless, then, on account of its nature as a performative act. Performative acts become morally suspect when they are insincere, and it is this question of sincerity that is the crux of my argument against a rote recitation of a land acknowledgement.

Purification of speech has long been a trend within academia and the left. Purity of language often stands as a proxy for purification of the self; if I show that I can use the right words, it shows that I have reflected thoughtfully on how my words might harm others. Making an effort not to harm others is virtuous. But it is easy to clothe ourselves in the language of virtues we want to show others we have without doing the hard work of introspection and research into harms committed toward those others. A land acknowledgement is an outward symbol of inward purity; I acknowledge the complex history of the land, and therefore I have virtues that you probably share. But insofar as an acknowledgement serves to display this outward sign, it simultaneously offers no evidence of sincerity. People may freely assert holding a virtuous belief in an environment where this is unlikely to be challenged. An acknowledgement requires nothing more of us. They are in a political and social sense, safe; a form of expression that indicates at most a mere belief.

In this case, acknowledging that the land upon which we are sitting is – at best – disputed, forces upon us the responsibility of righting a moral wrong, for to sit idly by while injustice occurs is hypocrisy and complicity if we claim a moral high ground. Further, to be aware of the moral wrong makes this true whether or not we acknowledge the history of the land. A mere acknowledgement asks nothing of us; there are no consequences for stating them. Land acknowledgments do not challenge us to reconsider beliefs or learn new things; they simply signal that the speaker is an adherent of an ethical system that most of the audience members presumably share. They are, in this sense, insufficient evidence of sincerity, though this is not to say that they are evidence of insincerity. They are a signal that – regardless of the authenticity of the speaker’s attitudes – promotes the speaker’s and listeners’ individual interests by providing the appearance of shared morality.

An acknowledgment on its own serves no purpose in the area of substantively affecting the lives of those it acknowledges. It is words only, a faux-radical genuflection to popular values that offers no challenge, effects no change and serves no useful academic purpose. Further, to attach an Indigenous identity to the land itself sidetracks the conversation from what we can all do together and instead places the focus onto dubious historical footing, and potentially stereotyping broad swaths of people at the same time.

I.IV A Path Forward

In order to right wrongs, one must first recognize that a wrong has occurred, that the moral principles underlying each harm were offended. That European settlers and later the government of the United States waged a campaign of genocide, murders, forced relocation, ruthless massacres, torture, kidnapping, and other atrocities is indisputable. These things happened; they can happen again. These things are taught in the history classes here at the school, as they should be, and should be unapologetic in their frankness about the horrors our ancestors inflicted upon those who lived here before us. These classes constitute a form of acknowledgement that is powerful in their depth and length of time taken by the students to deeply study the history of the region. In short, to the extent that justice asks us to acknowledge the past with regard to the student experience, I believe a properly-conceptualized and historically accurate history class will satisfy that requirement, and do so in a more in-depth manner than the short form most spoken land acknowledgements take.

I submit therefore the following as preliminary suggestions to be discussed further. This list is by no means comprehensive.

  1. Actions for the School
    1. Have a yearly fundraiser to programs that help indigenous populations, such as the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. (A nonprofit that helps indigenous peoples live well with HIV and works to prevent further transmission of HIV, engages youth in cultural arts, assists with tobacco cessation, among other activities.)
    2. Recruit more Indigenous People to the school, and encourage under-represented groups to be in positions of leadership.
      Advocate, through letter-writing, donations, volunteering, and other means for legislative policies that will right the wrongs we see visited upon our Indigenous neighbors.
    3. Research oral histories of the Dakota Soiux and Ojibwe people, and incorporate their histories into our lesson plans.
  2. Further research
    1. Invite tribal elders to come talk to the board and committee about whether they have a tradition of land acknowledgement, how they feel about the concept in general, and examine the moral implications of that policy.

 

  1. My conclusions
    1. A frequently-spoken land acknowledgement does not, in my opinion, offer anything in the way of substantive healing or reconciliation without forceful effort and money put toward helping the lives of those it references. If the school is to have a spoken statement, its power can only be realized if it does not become trite and repetitive. I recommend reading the statement aloud once per year, as part of the school’s opening ceremonies.
    2. This does mean that a land acknowledgement is without utility. Having a written statement to reference as a “guiding principle”, so to speak, can be a tool to help formulate, guide, and sharpen the school’s policies. Putting a statement on the school’s website can help to inform those who visit about our moral and ethical outlook, serve as a signal to prospective students and staff members about the things we consider important, can direct visitors to examine their own thoughts and attitudes in a new light, and offer a historical context about the school’s location and people who inhabited the land before us.
    3. A statement should acknowledge that the history of the land is disputed, that a campaign of genocide and other atrocities was committed by European settlers against the people who lived here, that much work remains to be done toward reconciliation, a brief enumeration of the ways in which the school is working toward righting the substantive wrongs that are still ongoing, and an invitation into the various ways students, teachers, staff members, and parents can contribute to that ongoing work.

An acknowledgement does not right a moral wrong, or redress a harm. Apologies can do that, but an acknowledgement, for the reasons we discussed, are not apologies. For that matter, the people and students at TCGIS do not have standing to issue an apology. We should treat acknowledgements as a statement of education and acknowledgment, and a display of sincerity, and put our time and money where it can do substantive good.

The moral taint for these atrocities diffuses and spreads until we are all contaminated and affected. If there was ever a morally pure and righteous person at the time that American colonist’s violence was being waged, then surely their descendants became entangled in some way. This is not to say that the moral responsibility for these wrongs lies with any of us, just the opposite. But we, the living, bear the responsibility of setting about righting these wrongs. And while ultimately it is governments and state actors that have the financial resources and social power to address wrongs of this scope and nature, we should do our part – financially, legislatively, pedagogically, policy-wise, and in guiding those in leadership toward reconciliation, reparations, and creating a more just and equitable world.

1: Written acknowledgements included on websites and in print materials are discussed in the conclusions, page 5.

2: Dr. Nick Smith, The Categorical Apology, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 473-496, 2005

3: Military Historical Society of Minnesota, The Indian Wars of Minnesota

4: What Dr. Shepard Krech, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University, calls this the myth of the “Ecological Indian”.

Leave a Comment