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Going Beyond Land Acknowledgments

Two people perform on the lawn as part of The Missouri River Water Walk in May 2021. People sit in lawn chairs in a circle around them and watch.
Photo Credit: Bruce Silcox
Pangea’s performance of The Missouri River Water Walk in May 2021.

Land acknowledgment statements usually focus on recognizing the Indigenous past, present, and future of a location. This article helps you go beyond a statement and develop an action plan that actually supports Indigenous people.

Has your organization written a land acknowledgment? These statements usually focus on recognizing the Indigenous past, present, and future of a location. You may have heard land acknowledgments delivered at public gatherings. While well-intentioned, land acknowledgments oftentimes have unintended negative consequences. Here’s how to start the process of moving beyond land acknowledgments and focus on actions.

Land Acknowledgments and Optical Allyship

It’s easy for land acknowledgment statements to become yet another form of optical allyship. Optical allyship, coined by Latham Thomas, is “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ it makes a statement but does not go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.”

Without calls to action and next steps, land acknowledgments are empty words. They become an excuse for folks to feel good without contributing anything to the community. As President Robert Larsen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community puts it, “An apology or an acknowledgment is one thing, but what are you going to do next?”

At Native Governance Center, we’ve received hundreds of questions from people who want help with land acknowledgment. Most questions have focused on wording, rather than action steps. The truth is this: every moment spent agonizing over land acknowledgment wording is time you could use to actually support Indigenous people.

An Extra Burden on Indigenous People

Sometimes non-Indigenous folks ask Indigenous people to do free emotional labor when crafting land acknowledgments. When we’re unsure and anxious about something, it’s easy to impulsively reach out for help before doing our own research. Anxiety happens: we’ve all been there. But, it’s important to put those anxious thoughts aside and do your homework. Spend the time that’s required to develop a thoughtful statement.

Emotional labor is problematic because it’s time-consuming and can place more stress on Indigenous people. On top of attending to normal employment and family obligations, Indigenous people are working to heal. They don’t want to spend their free time serving as unpaid land acknowledgment consultants.

How Should We Proceed?

You’re probably wondering, if not a land acknowledgment, what should my organization do to support Indigenous people? We recommend creating an action plan highlighting the steps you plan to take to support Indigenous communities. Like a land acknowledgment, your plan will include information and research on the land you occupy. But it will focus on action.

Below, you’ll find a series of resources you can use to help guide your action plan creation. These resources will introduce you to key concepts and outline planning steps. At the end, you will find a sample action plan for an arts organization.

Start with Research

These Native Governance Center resources cover fundamental concepts related to Native nations. Knowing more about how Native nations work will help you create an impactful plan for supporting them.

Language Matters: How to Talk about Native Nations Explainer Video

Use appropriate terminology to describe Indigenous people. It shows respect for nations’ sovereignty and contributes toward Native narrative change. Watch the video to learn how to reference Indigenous people and nations in your area.

What is Tribal Sovereignty Explainer Video

Native nations are sovereign. They operate as independent nations within our nation. 574 federally-recognized Native nations share geography with the United States. It’s important that your action plan acknowledges Tribal sovereignty. Check out the video to better understand how Native nations’ sovereignty works.

What Do Tribal Governments Do Explainer Video

Your action plan might include Tribal governments. Learning the basics about Tribal governments can help you be a better partner. Watch this short video to learn about what Tribal governments do and how they operate.

Why Do Treaties Matter Explainer Video

Native nations signed more than 365 treaties with the US government between 1777-1871. Treaties are living documents that still matter for both Native and non-Native people and nations today. As you research the history of the land you occupy, you’ll come across mentions of various treaties. Learn the basics of treaties to better understand how they remain relevant today.

A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment

Finally, before creating an action plan, get familiar with land acknowledgment basics. You’ll do much of the same research for your action plan as you would for an acknowledgment. But, you’ll take things a step further by showing what your organization can bring to the table to support Indigenous people.

Put it in Action

Now that you’ve learned key principles, it’s time to take action! These Native Governance Center resources will help you develop and fine-tune an action plan. If you’re stumped on possible action steps, check out the sample plan below.

  • A Self-Assessment

    Our guide recommends doing a self-assessment before creating an action plan. You can adapt this assessment to fit your organization. It’ll help you decide if any of your behaviors are causing harm to Indian Country. If they are, it’s possible to change your habits to prevent future damage.

  • Beyond Land Acknowledgment: A Guide

    This guide will help you create your own action plan. Set aside ample time to complete the action planning process with your organization. Creating an action plan requires self-assessment, research, planning, and ongoing revisions.

  • Voluntary Land Taxes

    Voluntary land taxes are a great way to take action. Want to learn more about them? Our article provides insight on efforts already happening in the United States.

See It In Action

This is a sample action plan written by a fictitious arts organization located in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Our organization is located in St. Paul near Wakpá Tháŋka (the Mississippi river). This is not far from Bdoté, the place where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers meet. Bdoté, along with Bde Wakan (present-day Lake Mille Lacs), are central to Dakota creation stories. There are many other sacred Dakota sites near St. Paul. These include Taku Wakan Tipi (Carver’s Cave) and Eháŋna Wičháhapi (Indian Mounds Park burial mounds).

Mni Sota Makoce (Minnesota) is the homeland of the Dakota people. The Dakota have lived here for many thousands of years. Anishinaabe people reside here, too. They reached their current homelands after following the megis shell to manoomin (wild rice) the food that grows on water. Indigenous people from other Native nations also live in Minnesota. They’ve made innumerable contributions to our region.

We are committed to supporting Indigenous people and nations in our home state and beyond. To do this, we’ve outlined several ways we plan to take action on an ongoing basis:

  • From this point onward, admission to our performances and gallery space will be free for Native people.
  • Our purchases reflect our values. We’ll update our vendor policy to include a priority focus on Indigenous-owned businesses.
  • We’ll use our platform to amplify voices from Indigenous-led change movements.
  • Next year, once funding is secured, we’ll launch a new grant program for Native artists.

Each year, our organization will revise and strengthen this action plan. We’ll continue to conduct research and receive feedback from people in our community. We will share this action plan with our networks and encourage other organizations to create their own.