Land Acknowledgments: Big deal or not?

Jon Shellenberger

What are your thoughts on land acknowledgements? Are they a big deal or not? They seem like a big deal to some. Until recently, I hadn't given it much thought. The last someone asked me, I believe I somewhat seriously, somewhat jokingly, replied, "it would be better just to give us our land back." I wasn't sure if that was the correct answer, but I was kind of surprised to hear that some may not be too keen on these land acknowledgments. So, maybe mixed reviews?

I understand tribes will have specific protocols regarding land acknowledgments, but having a federal, state, or local government follows that protocol is new to me. When someone does acknowledge our lands, there are a few things that pop into my head. Now, don't get me wrong, as a tribal person, I feel an obligation to thank the hosts no matter who they are. But how someone acknowledges our people on our lands makes me a bit uneasy.

When my wife and I went to Albuquerque a few years ago and Santa Fe just before that, I truly felt like I was in a safe place when I saw all the Native art in every corner. You just knew you were in a space curated by Native artists and designers. That felt comforting. One could even look at art while using the in a Santa Fe or ABQ hotel lobby bathroom. That is just how immersed in Native culture and art it is. In the Pacific Northwest (PNW), not so much. One wouldn't know there were even artists in the PNW, let alone Native artists. Unless you are in a tribal building, museum, or cultural center, you won't see Native art or architecture.

So, when we sit in these meetings and someone pulls out their well-intentioned land acknowledgment, a few things pop into my head. First, I would much rather our people know our lands than a handful of government workers. It seems funny that rounds and rounds of consultation between an agency and a tribe occur, yet some tribal people don't even know where their ancestors once lived. I genuinely feel like there are now non-tribal government workers with better training on our tribal history than our people, mainly as an unintended byproduct of the 40-hour workweek. As one of my mentors once said, "here I am fighting for the rights of the tribe, but I am chained to my desk and can't practice any of them." 

Secondly, as I hear the words acknowledging a specific tribe, I quickly look around the walls. As alluded to earlier, there isn't anything to create a safe or comfortable space for tribal people. One wouldn’t know they were on so and so’s land just looking at the building’s walls. At most, there are a few pictures of dead Natives, which may or may not be such a good idea. Problems accumulate, especially when tribal folks are invited to a meeting to share tribal information or help create solutions for a government agency's issues. Unfortunately, tribal people were eradicated from the lands over which the government agency, university, or museum now manages. This isn't a place to put people when you want them to be open and sharing.

Suppose we are to honestly "acknowledge" the land of tribal people, help by creating a safe space for tribal people to be in for people who have attached meaning to place, safe spaces matter.  The cultural education of future generations in Indian country is a real issue. The people we meet with take time away from their families to educate others about things they don't get time or space to educate themselves. Just like the Treaties, if land acknowledgments are just words on paper, they don't mean anything at all.

Or perhaps I am just overthinking it.

What are your thoughts?

Older Post Newer Post


  • I’m for making at least Washington state all native land. And continue until the USA is native again. I believe COVID is a lesson telling us to step backwards to survive….

    Laurie Butters

  • Absolutely it is important. I totally agree. Hopefully public statements about Yakamas are not the only thing the school districts are doing for the education of kids on our Reservation.

    Native Anthro

  • Greetings. With White Swan HS or Toppenish HS etc. do you feel it’s important to know, acknowledge and remember the origin and history of the land they occupy? I feel it is, otherwise it will get watered down and tossed aside. Acknowledge, because it is relevant, despite being a ‘state public school and not a tribal school’..who’s land you are on. I find especially important because our children are in those schools. Everyone needs to remember or learn. Thank you and take care!


Leave a Comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published