A new way of thinking about Land Acknowledgements

Something shifted this year, in Canada, I noticed. Land acknowledgements suddenly became mainstream. I’d noticed this happening in Australia over a decade ago. The two countries have really similar colonial histories (and uncannily similar “playbooks” for treating Indigenous peoples), so I wondered if or when the shift would happen here. I’ve seen hints of people struggling with land acknowledgements – I’ve opened tabs for half a dozen articles, and always had it in the back of my mind to write something exploring them.

Yesterday, I read something that landed in my body with a thump. So I screenshot it.

Joseph M Pierce is a ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ Cherokee Nation Citizen | Author, *Argentine Intimacies* @sunypress | and Associate Professor of Latin American and Indigenous Studies. I am not entirely sure how I came to be following him on twitter. But here I am.

And here is what he said:

“A land acknowledgement is not the same as a relationship. Land does not require that you confirm it exists or that it has been stolen, rather that you reciprocate the care that it has given you. The land and water and the air exists, regardless of your acknowledgement, which is only ever a first step. Next steps involve treating territory as kin, building relationships with that land itself, as if it were your kin. Because it is.”

Can I tell you how much I love this offering?

Can I tell you that I think, maybe, we’ve been doing land acknowledgements with an air of going to confession? There’s a ritual, we fumble with the words, we’re doing it because we feel like sinners and maybe this will alleviate the guilt a little bit, if we get it right. (I’m not a Catholic and have never actually been to confession, so correct me if this is off-the-rails.) Often, when I hear a land acknowledgement made, I hear the person say, “I’m grateful to be here on this territory”, and I sense a little bit of defensiveness, a kind of claim-staking, like, yes, it’s unceded, and I’m here and really happy about it.

I hope this doesn’t sound judgmental. I don’t mean it to. I don’t have any position of wisdom or authority from which to judge anyone. I think we’re fumbling through unprecedented times.

I’ve also thought a bit about the word “acknowledge” itself, because, you know, words are my jam. When in doubt, I go to the dictionary.

To acknowledge is a kind of admission or acceptance, I see the truth of you, of this. It is a kind of precursor to gratitude, I concede the value of this. It is a kind of legitimizing or recognition, I greet you as a fellow being.

It was only in the late 15th century that it came to be entangled with confession. (!!!!)

But at its heart, acknowledgement is the first step to entering into a relationship. First, you gotta acknowledge someone’s existence. And then you can move towards getting to know each other, encounters, understanding.

The radical shift that has been underway, as municipalities and businesses and conferences begin their gatherings with a land acknowledgement, is huge… because up until this moment, Canada worked very hard to proceed as if First Nations people didn’t exist.

Acknowledging “oh actually, yes, you do exist, and you have been here since time before mind, and you’re also human, and you’re also worthy of love and belonging and respect and dignity” is horrifically late to the party… but also, a vital precursor to moving forward, IN RELATIONSHIP.

My sense is that relationship is fundamental to Indigenous ways of knowing and being. And I imagine people who operate from within that paradigm are like, wow, you folk are sloooooooooow.

Yes, I am. I am slow to this realization, and it’s really beautiful to me, and also kind of hard. How do I begin to enter into relationship with the land, with the world, with other humans, when I actually come from a culture that can only succeed (to grow, be productive, be efficient), if we turn everything into a transaction, and remove the relationship from it all… I have to re-culture myself. I have to fumble my way into new territory, and remind myself that the Buddhists say that beginners mind is a wonderful thing to cultivate.

So, to return to Joseph M Pierce’s tweet, a land acknowledgement it seems, is not just our first step into moving into relationship with the First Nation on whose territory we find ourselves… it’s also about opening yourself to enter into relationship with the land.

I wonder if this might be an easier place to start for many people?

Claire Fuller pauses to take in the land she’s running through, on the last morning of run club earlier in the fall.

I acknowledge the land that I’m sitting on, and I want to acknowledge that it is right now, just in this moment alone, gifting me clean air to breathe, and the support of steady earth beneath my feet, and the sound of a creek to calm my body.

The next step that follows, I think quite inevitably, from really acknowledging that in my body, is to return the favour. To reciprocate the care. Not to pour paint and oil in that creek. Not to fill the air with toxins. Not to litter the earth. To greet the creek. To pull out garbage I see. To take a deep breath of the air, and when I blow out my out breath with a big sigh, say hey to the trees who will inhale that and expire cleaner air for me.

And the next step from that, is to want to honour the stewards of the land, the people of the land, because their teaching is that “the land and the people are one”, and so, when you acknowledge the land, and you realize in how many ways it is supporting you, and you want to return the favour, or keep those good vibes flowing back and forth, then inevitably, you will want to be an ally and a supporter and a friend to the people of that land. And so your gratitude for being here, has legs. Has hands. Begins to move into the world, as a series of offerings, gestures and relationships.

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