Land acknowledgements a way to honor Native American and Indigenous people

Land acknowledgments are a simple, powerful way to show respect to Native American and Indigenous people, which help to correct the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture.

Infograph by Keith BraveHeart
Artwork by Keith BraveHeart

According to recent studies published in Nature International Journal of Science, human beings have lived in North America for at least the last 20,000 – 25,000 years. The lands and waters that make up North America have been, and continue to be, stewarded by Native American and Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada, yet there are some people who may not be aware of the original, historical, or in some cases current, inhabitants of the land they visit and occupy.

Land acknowledgements are one way to recognize the histories and connections between Native American and Indigenous peoples and the land. "A land acknowledgement is an optional statement, often given at the beginning of organized events, celebrations and activities, or published in printed materials," according to the Native American Institute within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. “The purpose of a land acknowledgement is to recognize, respect and affirm the ongoing relationship between Indigenous people and the land.” 

Land acknowledgements help to remind and educate people about the relationships between specific lands in the United States and the history of inhabitation of that land by Indigenous and Native American people and non-Native American settlers. In this way, land acknowledgments serve as an important part of a broad approach to land education, which seeks to build knowledge among people in the United States about the historical, and current, relationship between land ownership and Indigenous peoples. According to the MSU Native American Institute website, “Land acknowledgements also raise awareness about the Indigenous histories, perspectives and experiences that are often suppressed or forgotten.”

MSU's land acknowledgement states the following:

“Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. In particular, the university resides on land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. We recognize Michigan’s 12 federally recognized Native Nations, historic Indigenous communities in Michigan, Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and those who were forcibly removed from their homelands. In offering this land acknowledgement, we affirm Indigenous sovereignty, history and experiences.”

While anyone wishing to include a land acknowledgement, such as MSU’s, as part of a formal event, program or gathering may choose to do so, it is important for the speaker to understand the context in which they are offering the statement and their own relationship with Indigenous and Native American people and communities. Land acknowledgments should be written to include the naming of the specific Indigenous lands on which a program or event is taking place on, and should include specific reasons why the land acknowledgment is being offered.

For those wishing to create or offer a land acknowledgement as part of an event, resources are available from New York University and by organizations such as Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, which is not an actual federal government agency but which describes itself as a “people-powered department - a grassroots action network.”

The resource “Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgement,” created with the involvement of Native allies and organizations and published by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, “offers context about the practice of acknowledgment, gives step-by-step instructions for how to begin wherever you are, and provides tips for moving beyond acknowledgment into action.” The guide offers a three-step approach to including land acknowledgements in public events and gatherings, which starts with “identifying the traditional inhabitants of the lands you’re on.”

The website includes maps that help people to identify Indigenous inhabitants for land located in Canada and the United States. The guide also recommends consulting with local Native individuals and organizations, as well as local universities and colleges, and learning how local Native American people wish to be named in the land acknowledgement.

The second step offered by the guide is to articulate the words that will be included in the land acknowledgement. The guide offers some examples of wording and tips that can be used to craft a land acknowledgement. The third step outlined in the guide is to actually deliver the land acknowledgement. The guide offers some insights into how land acknowledgements should be delivered, as well as discussing alternatives to spoken acknowledgements. The guides also includes many links to additional information and resources that people can access to learn more about historical and contemporary issues related to Indigenous and Native American people and communities, and to take action on these issues.

Michigan State University Extension through Michigan 4-H youth development programming seeks to engage youth and the adults who serve them by providing programs and services that help youth become leaders in a globally connected and multicultural world while developing a commitment to civic service and responsibility. As a result, Michigan youth understand and respect the culture of others and are prepared to respond to local and global issues through leadership, civic engagement and volunteerism. Land acknowledgements could be used during 4-H programs and events led by other youth serving organizations as a means to help non-Native youth learn about other cultures and the relationship between Native American and Indigenous people and the land of North America.

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