Why You Should Have A Land Acknowledgement And How To Write One
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
The best way to talk about a land acknowledgement is to start with one, to give an example. So, I will start with my own, which is specific to me and my practice.
As it is known today, the Susquehanna Valley region of Pennsylvania is named after the original inhabitants, the Susquehannock. “The People of the Muddy River” did not survive colonization and were among the largest confederacies in the area, consisting of 6,000 people by the sixteenth century. However, due to disease brought to North America by European colonizers, and because of the growing power of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, by 1675, their population had dwindled significantly. If they were not adopted into the Seneca after international wars, they were forced onto the Conestoga Reservation in present-day Lancaster County; this is why the Susquehannock have also been called the Conestoga. Those who were documented being there were killed in 1763 by a mob known as the Paxton Boys.
The land was not stewarded by the Susquehannock when it was signed over to William Penn by King Charles II in 1681, nor during the Albany Purchase of 1754 between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Albany Congress. The land that makes up present-day Pennsylvania consists of the ancestral lands of the Osage, the Shawnee, the Massawomeck, the Erie, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Susquehannock, the Lenni Lenape, and the Munsee Lenape. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Lenni Lenape, and the Munsee Lenape still reside in what is now New York State and Pennsylvania, despite genocidal attempts. I recognize the impact and the intergenerational trauma that have come out of Carlisle, the seeds that were planted for the United States in Philadelphia, the impact of the coal and steel industries coming out of Pittsburg and Central Pennsylvania, the signing of the first treaty at Fort Pitt and the breaking of it with what is known as the “Penn’s Creek Massacre” in 1755 along Penn’s Creek, which runs though my hometown.
The work that I hope to do throughout my career will bring other histories like these into the narrative of local, regional, and state histories, were acknowledgment of the past can lead to healing in the future.
This acknowledgment is specific to me and the information I learned about the place I have lived for the past twenty-two years or so throughout this process. Is this perfect? No; in fact, I am still working on it. But it is a start that welcomes an evolution of language as more information is learned and processed.
If you live and work in the Western Hemisphere, or Turtle Island, you operate on Native land. A land acknowledgement states the original inhabitants and stewards of the land, the legal and illegal land acquisitions and those actions’ sequential ramifications and recognizes any other contexts that has shaped our current society and geography. An acknowledgment can be used by institutions or individuals to contextualize their practice(s) within time and place, continuing actions, narratives, and histories. We can’t go back and stop colonization from happening, but we can move forward with this information and normalize it. The most important things to stress, though, are the kincentricity between people and the land, and that whiteness was not and is not the default where you are; how would that impact the operations of an institution or an individual? As a call to action, writing a land acknowledgment should used as a spring board to more inclusive, and socially- and historically-aware practices.
1. Do A Self-Reflection
Before you start writing, you should think about why you are writing one. Think about how a land acknowledgment will impact you and/or your institution in the long run? What will your impact be?
2. Put Indigeneity first.
When you’re writing, assume that Native peoples are telling the truth and put their stories first. They’ve spent the past 500+ years being silenced and pushed to the margins; by placing their cultures and their histories first, you are not only respecting the original land inhabitants, but you are also starting your history with theirs. This does not mean that Native peoples are to be thought of as “First Americans”, since their nations existed for millennia before the Americas were “discovered”. However, it does mean that you have the opportunity to work on including their stories with yours. It also means that the history you are going to be uncovering is dark. It will be difficult to bring such atrocities to the surface, but if there are museums dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust where those stories can be discussed, why can’t we start talking about America’s own genocide and ethnocide that is still going on today? It’s necessary.
3. Do your research.
Many of the histories we are trying to bring to light with a land acknowledgment may be difficult to find, so research is crucial to uncovering them. One of the first places you can look is native-land.ca. This map is visually engaging, interactive, and super informative. It lays out territories, languages, and treaties, depending on what you’re looking for. Acknowledging the treaties in addition to the land is extremely important because it not only says identifies the land as Native land, but it also acknowledges the political and legal histories of that land ownership—or more frequently, the theft of land in the name of “ownership”. The bloody and horrific pasts of Canada, the United States, and Mexico tell stories of hate and violence that are still continuing today; acknowledgment of these histories make up the first step.
4. Include every nation.
The land was inhabited, most likely, by multiple nations before colonization; to do a proper acknowledgment, you need to list everyone and the treaties that they signed. Yes, I said “nation”. There is political power, a sovereignty, that the colonizers breached in the name of “ownership”, “exploration”, and “progress”. Each has distinct laws, customs, religion, and stewardship over a territory that is to be thought about in the same way as Canada, the United States, and Mexico are thought of today: distinct. Because of this sovereignty, the inclusion of each nation honors individual and specific histories, customs, and inherent power that comes from nationhood.
5. Actually do something.
Use this acknowledgment as a springboard toward an action plan that is aimed at indigenizing your space and methods. But don’t just leave it at that, put it into action! Leaving things in the planning stage is like making false promises in a societal and political era where colonial institutions are under strict scrutiny. Our watchful publics are expecting their cultural institutions to be pushing communities forward, not falling behind.
An acknowledgement can be made more meaningful when created with Native peoples in your community. Use this as an opportunity to learn and create a relationship—and then foster that relationship in the future. Don’t just use them for something and then forget about them; constantly reciting your land acknowledgement and reminding your staff and community about those histories and current realities can be one way to never forget.
6. Using Your Words
As you’re writing, use correct language. “Use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by colonizers.” When these words are not used, the gravity of colonization is not felt, and thus, colonization is not perceived as detrimental as it has been and continues to be. Additionally, we shouldn’t be writing as if Indigenous peoples no longer exist. So, we must use the present tense where it is appropriate. Use your words to also celebrate the Indigenous peoples you are writing about; “Focus on the positivity of who Indigenous people are today.”
Was this helpful? Do you have any questions or a need for another post that dives deeper into any of these steps? Let us know in the comments!
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an aspiring curator and educator focusing on DEAI and indigenization work and incorporating activism into museum practices. If you have questions for Sarah, please comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Kincentricity is defined by heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) as “the interconnections among people, animals, plants, fungi, microbes, and other elements in Native people’s lives.” Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Greeves, “Introduction” in Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. pp. 22-23.  To learn about land acknowledgments from one Indigenous perspective, click here.  The instructional by the USDAC has some really great ideas about next steps.  Native Governance Center. “A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement”, 2019. https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/  A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment, 2019. Cover image by Amanda Lawrence, "You Are On Native Land", 2018. https://www.stocksy.com/2142014/you-are-on-native-land