by Carrie Ferguson (she/they), with Seal LaMadeleine (she/her) and Noam Brown (he/him)
Much thanks for consulting on this project go to Strong Oak Lefebvre, Ko’asek Traditional Band of Sovereign Abenaki Nation, Executive Director of Visioning B.E.A.R. Circle Intertribal Coalition.
Territory acknowledgement is a way that people insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life. This is often done at the beginning of ceremonies, lectures, or any public event. It can be a subtle way to recognize the history of colonialism and a need for change in settler colonial societies. However, these acknowledgements can easily be a token gesture rather than a meaningful practice. All settlers, including recent arrivants, have a responsibility to consider what it means to acknowledge the history and legacy of colonialism.
—Native Land Digital
This article is about my ongoing process of learning how to incorporate land acknowledgments into my work, as a non-Indigenous person of European colonizer descent, and some of the challenges and questions that have come up for me as a performer for family audiences. My hope is that sharing my process here will inspire other non-Indigenous children’s performers and educators to utilize land acknowledgments as an educational tool to resist and dismantle white supremacy and as an entry point to allyship with Indigenous Nations.
In the spring of 2021, I made a pact with myself that, going forward, I would try to do a land acknowledgment (or make sure that one was done) at all my shows. A cluster of factors had inspired this decision. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I was more aware than ever of white supremacy in this country. Also, our government’s continual dedication to climate change denial and to sacrificing the environment for corporate profit was, and still is, terrifying. I had recently read An Indigenous People’s History of the United States and my eyes had been opened even wider to the fact that I, as a descendant of European settlers, live on stolen land, that the so-called United States consists of stolen land, and that this fact is almost never discussed honestly.
In light of all of this, I was determined to find every way possible to use my work as a musician to help dismantle white supremacy. For me, doing land acknowledgments at every show is just one part of this ongoing commitment. I believe that land acknowledgments, when done effectively, are important because not only do they acknowledge the Indigenous Nations from whom the land was stolen, but they also highlight and celebrate the vibrancy of Indigenous Nations currently. This disrupts the white supremacist mainstream narrative that North American Indigenous cultures are extinct, represented only by stereotypes and racist mascots. Land acknowledgments, at their best, assert a sense of relationship with and responsibility to both Indigenous People and the land itself.
When I first made the commitment to doing land acknowledgments, I felt extremely unprepared. I was aware that land acknowledgments can be performances of optical allyship, and I was clear that I didn’t want to say empty words. But I also didn’t want to wait until I could do it perfectly. I decided to begin and to commit to the ongoing process of research and learning.
Let me just say here that I am extremely lucky in that I’ve had a collaborator in this whole project: my partner, Seal LaMadeleine, who is a nature educator. She and I both do research and discuss all the information and issues that come up. When I say “our” and “we” in this article I am referring to the two of us.
In preparing our first land acknowledgment, we consulted information from various Indigenous websites, reflecting on what is considered appropriate and respectful allyship. Here are some of the questions that arose from reading these websites, questions we grapple with every time we write a land acknowledgment:
- How are land acknowledgments tied into environmental justice?
- How do we make sure that our practice of doing land acknowledgments is not just performative? How do we back up our words with personal, ongoing action? What does the process of becoming real allies to Indigenous Nations look like?
- Besides educating our audience about the past, what other resources can we offer?
- How can we focus on positive representations of contemporary Indigenous culture and empowerment?
- How do we communicate the often violent history of a place in an age-appropriate manner, while still being honest?
- What are the origins of land acknowledgments? How do we honor the land?
- What are the complexities of mentioning hard history and then turning around to play goofy, fun music?
Here are some of our reflections and information we have compiled on these questions.
Environmental Justice and Call to Action
Native land theft and subjugation is not a thing of the past. The attempted annihilation of native people, which began with forceful, brutal occupation of their land, was the first of many steps in the systemic racism and white supremacy that founded the United States. This system is still in place and still at work. It is important to be aware of the subtle and overt efforts that are still happening to take away the rights of Indigenous People, their land, and their sovereignty. Development, climate change, water and food insecurity, and pollution all disproportionately affect BIPOC communities. Pipelines, landfills, and uranium mines are often constructed on and devastating to First Nations’ lands.
Awareness of this can be brought into a land acknowledgment by speaking about local, regional, or national issues affecting Native rights and Native lands and by giving concrete examples and connection to actions our audience can take. We feel it is important to acknowledge that these issues of environmental justice are human rights issues that affect everyone, whether we are Indigenous or of colonizer descent. We are all deeply dependent on the health of our planet, land, and waters.
We often provide further information at our table on how to get involved in environmental justice issues. Other resources we try to provide include information on Indigenous cultural events; websites and contact information for regional Native Nations; and books, music, or other media by Indigenous artists. There are times when it is not possible to make a thorough land acknowledgment due to time constrictions, so we try to provide this information at our table especially when that is the case.
In order for land acknowledgments to be more than just one-off performances, we’ve realized that they must be accompanied by a commitment to continual learning and intentional action. Here are some of our priorities in this area:
- Self-Education: Read, watch, and listen to Indigenous-made media; research local and national Indigenous history and cultures; learn proper pronunciation of group and place names; learn about contemporary Indigenous organizations, leaders, struggles and campaigns.
- Action: Give money and time, when requested, whenever possible; elevate Indigenous folks, companies, and causes via social media and word of mouth; write letters, sign petitions, make calls; support Land Back efforts (rematriation of the land).
- Build Relationships: Attend Indigenous-led events, demonstrations, and protests; support Indigenous leaders, artists, and scholars; initiate conversations with Indigenous folks; listen to podcasts and music and read books and articles by Indigenous folks. Reflect on motivations for relationship building and come from a place of authentic interest, respect, and commitment.
- Practice Decolonizing Behaviors: Follow Indigenous leadership; be wary of our own and others’ white/settler centering; stay open to feedback; avoid appropriation or supporting appropriation of Indigenous symbols, traditions, and so forth.
In general, we strive to make our land acknowledgments developmentally digestible for the audience. If I’m performing for an adult audience, my words will be different than when geared towards an audience of children. For an adult audience I would really name the facts and details of land stealing and massacres that occurred, and the violence and environmental injustice against Indigenous communities that is still happening. For an example of a land acknowledgment we gave before a family show at a library, please see the resources at the end of this article.
Honoring the Land
The land, plants, and animals were here before people. The plants and animals are our teachers, not the other way around. Also, we belong to the land. She is our mother and cannot be owned by anyone. She is her own self. Colonists objectified her and claimed ownership of her. Indigenous People never “owned” her. In that way she could not really be stolen from us. We would never want to “own” her. If we did, we would be like the colonists. She really needs to be shared by all of us in reciprocal relationships as a fully liberated being.
—Strong Oak Lefebvre, Ko’asek Traditional Band of Sovereign Abenaki Nation
Expressing gratitude and awareness for the actual land is a core tenant of land acknowledgment, such as naming the nearby rivers, mountains, and significant places around us. In many Indigenous Nations, an address to the land with gratitude and prayer is held before gatherings. These are the origins of land acknowledgment.
It is important to note that this kind of acknowledgment is not a new practice developed by colonial institutions. Land acknowledgment is a traditional custom dating back centuries for many Native communities and nations. For non-Indigenous communities, land acknowledgment is a powerful way of showing respect and honoring the Indigenous Peoples of the land on which we work and live. Acknowledgment is a simple way of resisting the erasure of Indigenous histories and working towards honoring and inviting the truth.
—Duwamish Tribe of Seattle, Washington
We feel it is important to be mindful of the historic and sacred origins of land acknowledgments. It is not appropriate for people of colonizer descent to utilize the sacred aspects of an Indigenous custom. However, calling attention with gratitude to the place where we are is a step in decolonizing our mindsets and educating others to expand their visions and gain a deeper respect for the land. Additionally, all people living on Indigenous lands today owe a great debt to the Indigenous communities who survived and kept alive ancient land stewardship practices and wisdom. Everything from life-saving medicines to agricultural methods are traced to Indigenous Nations.
As children’s music performers, how do we grapple with the seeming contradiction between acknowledging the hard truth about things while having goofy fun? Life is complex and we need to be able to hold space (sometimes simultaneously) for the serious and the ridiculous, the painful and the celebratory, the sad and the joyful. Acknowledging the land we’re currently on as being stolen and having a painful and violent history attached to it does not necessarily preclude us from having fun. Making joyful music while keeping in mind the importance of our commitment to the land and the Indigenous People whose land we’re on is an embodiment of these complexities. Art is an important element of any struggle for justice, and music can be a wonderful and meaningful vehicle to honor that struggle.
Each time we do a land acknowledgment in a different area, we need to do the research about that area’s history and the local or regional Indigenous Nations and communities. It is a great way to keep learning! Wherever we are, we always try to make sure that the statement does the following:
- Honors (with correct pronunciation) the Indigenous Nations that occupied and currently occupy the land
- Acknowledges settler theft of the land
- Highlights realities of contemporary Native American communities and celebrates their cultural resiliency and vitality
- Reminds everyone of our connection with and responsibility to the actual land and waters of the region we are in
- Offers a call to action and resources to the listeners
This is an ongoing process and commitment, a continual practice in humility and doing things imperfectly! Reflections and suggestions are welcome. I’d also love to hear what other people are doing regarding land acknowledgments; please let me know at email@example.com.
We are grateful for the tons of amazing sites, blogs, articles, and podcasts by Native Americans and Indigenous People and organizations. We are indebted to these resources for all the information and thinking above. Some of these are listed below. Also, much thanks to Strong Oak Lefebvre for reviewing this article.
Land Acknowledgment Examples
Land Acknowledgment given before a Grumpytime Club Band family concert
Land Acknowledgment given by Franklin Musica at Fun Fest 2022
Land Acknowledgment Guides