the Colorado River at sunrise
(Photo: Alex Messenger, Tandem)

We Need to Reframe Why We Do Land Acknowledgments

A few years ago, I was a vocal proponent of the outdoor industry incorporating Indigenous land acknowledgments as standard business practice. As it’s become more common, my perspective has evolved.

the Colorado River at sunrise
Alex Messenger, Tandem

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Recently, I was on a conference call during which the organizers of the meeting asked each participant to give an acknowledgment of the Indigenous people whose land they were calling from, a well-intentioned gesture that has become standard practice within some parts of the business world. The meeting stands out from the blur of pandemic video calls because it was one of the most recent moments that I felt viscerally uncomfortable as the only Native person in the (digital) room.

As we went round-robin through the squares on screen, it reminded me of the awkwardness of my earliest Spanish immersion classes, where we stumbled our way through reading Don Quixote aloud. In place of the words of Cervantes’ Castilian Spanish stood the many tribes, whose traditional names clogged the mouths on the screen. The group experience seemed to range from engaging for some to deeply perfunctory for others. As a result, the tribes and their history felt as distant as the purpose of the exercise.

I didn’t prepare to give a land acknowledgment since I was calling in from a place my people have called home for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I was the last in the queue, so I sat and observed what was happening before me. Do the servers and data centers that made this video conference possible deserve an acknowledgment as well? That land underneath that server farm is also the result of Indigenous removal, I thought. Should I mention that some of the tribes listed don’t recognize each other’s claims to their homeland?

I was calling from my mom’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which arguably is a part of our traditional homelands as Navajos. However, the many Pueblos in the region would rightfully and vehemently disagree. Was this practice supposed to make me feel better or make my people’s issues feel seen? When it was my turn, feeling awkward, I jokingly acknowledged myself for being on my own homelands. Unfortunately my joke didn’t land with the audience, clearly uncomfortable after the exercise.

Land acknowledgment—stating the names of the Indigenous people who were the traditional stewards of a section of land—might look something like, “I’m calling from Moab, Utah, traditional homelands of the Ute people.” On social media, an acknowledgment could appear as a red location pin with the names of the Indigenous people listed following it. In the last few years, it has pervaded the outdoor world. As it’s grown more common, I’ve begun to see it for the incomplete tool that it is. The cynic in me wonders if this is simply a perfunctory, box-checking exercise to signal someone’s politics without a deeper understanding of Indigenous people. It’s time for a dramatic reframing of the guiding question of why we participate—or don’t—in land acknowledgment.

I didn’t prepare to give a land acknowledgment since I was calling in from a place my people have called home for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

One of the stronger arguments for the practice is that it addresses the erasure of Indigenous people from history. Without a doubt, we are all products of a settler colonial society, in which Indigenous people’s past is rarely taught with the depth and complexity it deserves. In part, it feels like we’re using this practice to signal our desire to learn more about the history beneath our feet. The problem is, we don’t know where to start. At its best, a land acknowledgment is a first step.

It’s important to recognize the background this practice signals. The dispossession, removal, and state-sanctioned acts of genocide against Indigenous people are not confined to the past. Many of the challenges Indigenous communities face today can be traced back to this violence—including economic marginalization, food insecurity, poverty, and the looming extinction of many Native languages. But acknowledgments can have the unintended consequence of framing Indigenous people’s issues as antiquated and limited to land, glossing over the most brutal acts as a result.

This is the core issue with land acknowledgments: they aren’t enough. And while no single action can speak to all historical sins, this one in particular lacks nuance. At its worst, a land acknowledgment may make someone feel like they’ve done their part, and that Native history—and past and present identity—fit into a neat little box.

There’s also the often untold story of slavery of Indigenous peoples within the Americas, whose scale, historians argue, rivaled that of the Atlantic Slave Trade. From the late 1400s through the 1800s, millions of Indigenous people were enslaved, resulting in genocide and eradicating culture. There’s a clear parallel between that cruel history and police violence toward Indigenous people today, which often exceeds those of other marginalized groups in the country. In a small way, land acknowledgments are a step forward, but they don’t provide enough visibility to truly highlight this traumatic past and present.

A common variation on the land acknowledgment calls out that the land was stolen (“on stolen Ute land,” for example). From a western perspective, it might be easy to say land was “stolen” with little consideration of word choice. While some tribes share this perspective, for other tribes, the view on land ownership is flipped: people belong to the land. Landscapes’s elements make up the blood, bone, and flesh that animate our bodies. When we die, we return to the land and turn into the trees, rocks, and water that once gave us life. The phrase “on stolen land” can unknowingly erase these cultural views.

A focus solely on land oversimplifies many other varying beliefs. For some Indigenous people, while the land is important, bodies of water—rivers, lakes, and the ocean—hold significantly more cultural relevance. For other tribes, the dream world may be a much more central component of their lived experience. I have yet to hear a water or dream acknowledgment on one of my conference calls.

A year ago, we moved away from placing the pins in our Instagram photo captions because they didn’t spur the education for our non-Native audience that’s critical to our work.

When it comes to using land acknowledgments, I’ve begun to ask myself a guiding question: Is what I’m doing positively impacting the social, economic, or political standing of Native communities? If I can’t answer yes to any of these categories, I try to find another approach.

Sometimes, instead, I’ll identify a teaching moment and share a story that could spark the curiosity of the audience into learning more about the contemporary issues of Indigenous people. In other instances, I might encourage people to give money to support language revitalization or college scholarships for Native youth.

NativesOutdoors, the media and consulting company I started five years ago, sells products and shares stories of Indigenous peoples and the outdoors. A year ago, we moved away from placing the pins in our Instagram photo captions because they didn’t spur the education for our non-Native audience that’s critical to our work. Now, our work has shifted to filling the gaps in the land acknowledgments with storytelling through writing, photography, and films. To move the needle, we have to better reflect the vibrant contemporary relationship Native people have with the places we live. And a Navajo’s own creation story can dig so much deeper than a little red pin.

Lead Photo: Alex Messenger, Tandem