Although a common practice in many other Western countries, like Canada and Australia, the practice of land acknowledgement has yet to catch on in the United States. Intended as an act of respect and recognition for the Indigenous people who lived on our land long before the arrival of white settlers, land acknowledgement plays a crucial role in reconciliation with Native groups.
Land acknowledgement is exactly what it sounds like – it is the deliberate recognition of the Native group a particular land was taken from. It can take place at the beginning of a public event – for example, each Toronto city council meeting begins with the speaker recognizing the city’s meeting space as the traditional home of Indigenous peoples – or it can take a more passive form – like the National Park Service’s Montezuma Castle land acknowledgement page.
The University of Arkansas and Crystal Bridges both have land acknowledgement statements on their websites. Crystal Bridges’ is particularly direct, stating: “We acknowledge the Caddo, Quapaw and Osage as well as the many Indigenous caretakers of this land and water… We are conscious of the role in colonization that museums have played.”
While the emergence of passive land acknowledgements is certainly a step forward in the U.S., an active approach is crucial to widespread public awareness of those who called these lands home first.
Beginning in elementary school, all American students certainly learn about the Native groups who inhabited our land before the arrival of white settlers, but too seldom is our ancestors’ brutalization of Native people and Native land discussed. The American education system is correct in its acknowledgement of white theft of land, but still does not display necessary respect for Native groups, nor does it do enough to educate students about the Native heritage of public lands.
An essential part of land acknowledgment and widespread reconciliation with Native groups is recognition of exactly who the land was taken from – specific groups should be acknowledged. It is necessary to pay due respect, which does not stop at the mention of stolen land.
Effective land acknowledgements should do more than simply recognize that land was stolen from Native peoples. They should call attention to the responsibility communities may have to support Native groups today, and like Crystal Bridges’ statement does, describe how institutions will effectively not contribute to further colonialism.
Parks, trails and public outdoor spaces have a unique obligation to acknowledge the original stewards of what is now public land. Outdoor recreation areas are devoted to enjoying what the land itself has to offer, as Native peoples did before the land was taken from them. Signage and resources dedicated to the specific groups whom the land first belonged to are particularly important to these areas.
Recognition of colonialism’s history in what may literally be our own backyard is essential to modern respect and reconciliation with Native peoples. It is up to us, the people who benefit from public land, to break down the detrimental impact colonialism has had on Indigenous groups, and to define a new normal in which the first owners of these lands are paid due respect.
The Arkansas Traveler editorial staff would like to thank and acknowledge Arvcúken Tsulvsada-Noquisi for reading this article in the editorial process and lending his perspective.