Fuck Your Land Acknowledgements! A Guide to Avoiding Performative Passivism

Hazel Alexis #indigenous #opinion

Hey, you! You realize you’re on stolen land, right? Who am I kidding, of course you do. But, how do you feel about that? Seriously! How does it feel to live on stolen land? Are you uncomfortable? I encourage you to think about these questions and keep thinking about them until you die.

If you’ve spent much time around the University of Oregon, you’ve certainly heard that it’s “located on Kalapuya Ilihi, the traditional indigenous homeland of the Kalapuya people,” who were dispossessed of this land in the 1850s, forcibly removed to the coast, and whose descendants “continue to make important contributions in their communities, at UO, across the land we now refer to as Oregon, and around the world.”

This is the gist of the official land acknowledgement provided by the university, a paragraph of performative platitudes that’s proliferated through the institution like a plague and can now be found on plaques, in conference powerpoints, at administrative meetings, in class slides and even, unfortunately, on materials produced by so called leftists who really ought to know better.

“Hold on a second!” you may be thinking, “Isn’t it a good thing to acknowledge that we’re on native land?” I wouldn’t blame you if you thought this, because you’d be right… sort of. It is good for people to know they’re on native land, and to know the local history. But knowledge is just the first step—no, not even that, it’s the zeroeth step; in the fight for decolonization, land back and sovereignty, colonizers knowing that they are colonizers accomplishes next to nothing. Words are not land, I cannot build a home on a plaque, nor can I grow crops in your open mind.

But let’s give these white people the benefit of the doubt, and assume the intention is to educate people about historical injustices so they’ll decide on their own to become active allies to indigenous people—all the land acknowledgement is doing is giving them a little push! Unfortunately, this doesn’t check out. When was the last time you learned something from a land acknowledgement? What was it? What have you done differently in your life since then? If you had tangible answers to all three of those questions, I’m impressed. You’re a good liar.

The thing is, nearly every land acknowledgement plays it safe. They use weak, distancing language like “ancestral homelands”, “unceded territory”, “traditional caretakers”, “forcibly relocated”. They never go into much detail, rarely stretching more than a paragraph and almost never topping three (the few I found in my research that were longer were exclusively on the websites of native tribes). They shy away from words like “stolen”, “genocide”, “illegal occupation”. And they, across the board, fail to suggest that anything ought to be done about the situation. The boldest of land acknowledgements amount to “we really shouldn’t be here, but oh well.”

To learn something worth knowing from a land acknowledgement, you would have to know essentially nothing about indigenous history. This is actually a possible achievement, given how poorly our education system treats these issues, but even from a blank slate you won’t learn much. And once you’ve seen or heard the land acknowledgment once, you won’t learn anything from seeing the same exact words again.

So why are these form-letter land acknowledgements so ubiquitous? TO understand this we must accept that their main purpose isn’t to educate—if it were they would be more detailed, more varied, give new information each time. Hell, nowhere on the UO website is there even a link to more information about the Kalapuya people, the forced relocation, the formation of the tribes of Grand Ronde and Siletz, or the current contributions of these people. There’s not even any sources cited in the land acknowledgement!! We’re supposed to take them at face value, and we’re not supposed (nor expected) to be curious.

Land acknowledgements are as popular as they are for one reason: virtue signalling. They’re an easy way to look woke and perform allyship without taking any risks or doing any labor. Hell, you don’t even need to write it yourself; there’s countless websites that will suggest a general formula for you to plug in whatever names you get from native-land.ca, or you could just use the UO land acknowledgement—everyone else does, after all.

Every time I hear a land acknowledgement, I think, “so what?” Okay, you’ve acknowledged that you’re on stolen land, that bad things happened; what are you going to do about it? Most of the time, the answer is fuck all. The CBC Baroness von Sketch Show has an excellent land acknowledgement comedy sketch which can be found on Youtube and resonates for many indigenous people: after a land acknowledgement in a theatre, an audience member asks “should we leave, then?” The comedy comes from the universally recognized fact that land acknowledgments are not to be engaged with, nor to be taken seriously. They’re to be hurried through so we can get on with whatever we’re really here for.

And this too often is how the people or institutions upholding the practice view it. They do land acknowledgements because it’s the done thing (and gosh, what if people noticed we weren’t doing them? they might think we’re racist!), and they don’t do anything more, partly because they see the land acknowledgement itself as sufficient, and partly because they wouldn’t even know where to begin (it’s a generally accepted truth in the field of Being A Minority that performative “allies” don’t quite understand google).

So where does this leave us? The status quo is tame, formulaic, largely meaningless “land acknowledgements”, delivered hurriedly and awkwardly, mispronunciations mumbled through, to an eyes-glazed-over, impatient, distracted audience. There is no call to action, there is no accountability, there is no room for discussion or further learning. Normalizing this is actively harmful; it gets in the way of real activism, but the practice of uneducated white people teaching other uneducated white people these simplified histories can also perpetuate harmful ideas about indigenous people. In recognition of this danger, the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists has actually recommended a hiatus on land acknowledgements until more research on their efficacy can be conducted.

My biggest issue with land acknowledgements is that the very practice of doing them seems to imply they accomplish something, but they really do not. The idea that they accomplish something is tied up in what Yellowknives Dene First Nation scholar Glen Coulthard names the “politics of recognition”—a colonially imposed framework in which indigenous people benefit from recognition by the settler state and its agents. This framework must be rejected wholesale. So called allies do us no favors by recognizing, ratifying or legitimizing our existence, struggles or accomplishments. Doing so is rather the bare minimum of rejecting indigenous erasure.

“That’s all well and good”, you may be thinking, “but surely a land acknowledgement is better than nothing?” To which I respond, WHY THE FUCK IS THE ALTERNATIVE NOTHING??? Why is the choice between ignoring indigenous people altogether and tokenizing our histories for brownie points? Why do I even need to see “on stolen kalapuya land” in email signatures and twitter bios and instagram captions and zines? It’s downright offensive; do better!

I want to end his article here, but I am worried that if I don’t explicate how to do better, that will become an excuse for not changing. There’s countless perspectives and words of wisdom available at the other side of a google search, but I did promise a guide, so here’s five things you can do instead of a land acknowledgement, to actually support indigenous people and decolonization:

  1. Educate yourself about the colonial history and present conditions of the indigenous inhabitants of your area, and talk to people about what you find out. How many times have you heard or said the word “kalapuya” without knowing any details about who that word refers to? Do you even know where Siletz and Grand Ronde are? Do you know about issues currently facing Oregon’s tribes? If you answered no to any of these questions, these are some good jumping off points for your research.
  2. Talk to indigenous people in your community and make space for native voices and perspectives in your organizing. If there’s no native folks in the room, ask yourself why. It’s not because we don’t exist, but it might be because your organization’s rhetoric is reinforcing colonial ideology—I’m looking at you, class reductionists who minimize racial and national divisions and “public land” loving environmentalists.
  3. Donate to indigenous communities and support decolonial activism. At any moment, there are countless indigenous people on the front lines of the battle against capitalism and colonialism, defending land, protecting water, seeking justice for missing and murdered indigenous women, and serving their communities. These all cost money, and one of the most obvious things that you, as a person who has materially benefited from colonization, can do to make amends with the people who have materially suffered is GIVE US YOUR MONEY. This can be a great option for an organization that typically opens meetings with a land acknowledgement—start by sharing a venmo for a bail fund or an advocacy group instead, and talking about the issue. Just make sure that the money is actually going to indigenous people.
  4. Use your privilege by putting your white body on the line where it matters. As my friend Leon writes elsewhere in this issue, the only way to slow global warming is to actively intervene, and native folks have been doing this, while simultaneously protecting our homelands from colonization, for decades. It’s dangerous though, and many have died on the front lines of this struggle. There’s never zero risk, but white folks can weaponize their privilege for the cause by actively participating in clashes with police. White people are less likely to be killed, more likely to be released if arrested and generally will receive lighter sentences if they are convicted of a crime. Thus, they make great allies when they show up and listen to indigenous leadership.
  5. Give land back. This isn’t something everyone can do; not everyone has land. But if you do, or you work with an organization or agency that deals with “public” lands, or has land in trust, you can and should advocate for that land to be returned to indigenous folks. If “land back” is a scary concept for you, or you don’t quite understand it, I encourage you to do your research. There can be no reconciliation when native people are still dispossessed of our land.