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Gestures take place across the country for Indigenous land acknowledgements

Bill O’Brien, left, project director of Creative Forces, and Marty Bowers, education coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Gainesville Creative Forces Summit on Dec. 14. (Image via screenshot)

A land acknowledgement is a way to show respect to Indigenous peoples by recognizing them as the original stewards of the land, on which they may or may not currently reside.

Land acknowledgements have been increasing in recent months throughout the country with statements or actions from corporate, educational and cultural institutions. According to Marty Bowers, most people don’t know much about Indigenous history.

“We are a forgotten people,” said Bowers, education coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation. “A land acknowledgement lays the foundation for a larger conversation to take place.”

One function of his job is to take part in a newly formed community review group that reviews and edits land acknowledgment statements sent by various groups, organizations and companies to make sure Indigenous people are properly represented within the text. Many statements don’t go into the history of those who once lived on and took care of the land

“Part of my mission is to continue to raise the collective Indigenous voice,” Bowers said. “These acknowledgements are part of a holistic movement that is gaining momentum. Being part of that is a great thing.”

On Dec. 14, Bowers participated in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Gainesville Creative Forces Summit. The summit was part of the NEA’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to help improve the health, wellness and quality of life for military and veteran populations, who were exposed to trauma, and their families.
Bill O’Brien, project director for Creative Forces, read the land acknowledgement edited by Bowers. The opening paragraph acknowledges the Gainesville area as the ancestral home of the Apalachee Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

“To begin this convening in a respectful and honest way, we pay respect to these Nations, Tribes and communities including their Elders past and present, to their descendants living, working and contributing in current times, to the generations to come and to all Indigenous people who came from this land,” O’Brien read.

The statement continued by expressing gratitude for the ongoing relationships Indigenous people maintain with the land. The statement ended with the recognition of Bowers’ participation in the summit.

“Today we are fortunate enough to have present Marty Bowers, a Wind Clan member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida who was born and raised on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, and is the education coordinator of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, available to receive this acknowledgement. We know that by merely recognizing that we are on your ancestral lands is not enough to remedy the pain, hurt and genocide that has happened to Indigenous peoples throughout this country, but we do hope that it is the beginning of a longer series of conversations and education that we should join to really heal the injustices of our shared histories,” O’Brien read.

“This one [land acknowledgment] is out of character from most of them; it is much longer,” Bowers said. “Most are one or two paragraphs, but the last sentence is what land acknowledgements are all about.”

Bowers wasn’t always on board with land acknowledgments and thought people were just doing them to feel good about themselves.

“We talk about our similarities in our experiences, which are an important part of land acknowledgements,” he said. “Now I see them as an opportunity to begin a dialogue. I embrace it.”

Trauma is another significant component of land acknowledgements.
Rev. Houston Cypress, of the Miccosukee Tribe, leads workshops for organizations on how to create a land acknowledgement and ceremony. He first saw them being done in Canada and New Zealand as part of a truth and reconciliation process.

“They are owning up to the hurt and trauma they made to Native people,” Cypress said. “They are apologizing and making amends, which are baby steps to heal the trauma.”

Cypress believes the statements should also do something to correct the erasure of Indigenous people from history and should acknowledge that they still live here today.

“They should also be actionable,” he said. “They should include a better understanding of Indigenous priorities and a way to act on them. The statement needs to mean something and not just be words.”

Canada, New Zealand and Australia all publicly apologized to their Indigenous populations. The U.S. apologized in 2009 through an act of Congress, but Cypress is disappointed that it isn’t widely known.
Senate Joint Resolution 14 and its companion House Joint Resolution 46, passed and was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 19, 2009. The opening of the resolution reads:

“To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native peoples on behalf of the United States.”

The details of the bill include incidents over time beginning with the arrival of Europeans to the continent.

Cypress believes public ceremonies will increase the awareness of land acknowledgements and is a trend he supports.

“We probably aren’t going to get federal leadership anytime soon, so I’m encouraging people to do it themselves,” Cypress said. “This is something that should be led by people, communities and organizations. We shouldn’t wait for the government to lead on it. The government is for and by the people, so we should do it ourselves. Let the people lead.”

Land acknowledgement ceremonies may be inspired by traditional Indigenous ceremonies. Cypress advocates for public ceremonies to be meaningful, but not necessarily spiritual.

“The best thing that could happen with land acknowledgements is we could have stronger coalitions, friendships, teamwork and accountability across cultures,” he said. “Ultimately they will help us work together on important issues like climate and social justice. All these relationships could be revitalized.”

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade made its own land acknowledgement Nov. 26 with the performance by the group Indigenous Direction. The group made the land acknowledgement, performed a traditional rattle song and a blessing for the Wampanoag and Lenape people.

The Wampanoag Tribe has lived on the eastern coast of Massachusetts for thousands of years. The blessing, which was performed in the Wampanoag language, translated to English, states “Creator and Ancestors, we honor you for all things. We honor the Lenape people of Manahatta. We honor all our relations because, long ago, we were here. Now we are here and we will always be here. And so it is.”

Colleges and universities around the U.S. have also been creating land acknowledgement statements in recent years. A few institutions released new ones during Native American Heritage month in November.

“Colleges don’t need an Indigenous person to be there for a land acknowledgement,” Cypress said. “They should do them anyway.”

The University of South Florida’s anthropology department created one to acknowledge the land on which the university sits was once Seminole, Calusa and Tocobaga land.

The statement, which was drafted with the help of Bowers, declares, “As a Department, we recognize the historical and continuing impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities, their resilience in the face of colonial and state sponsored violence and fully support Indigenous sovereignty. We will continue to work to be more accountable to the needs of American Indian and Indigenous peoples.”

Florida State University’s Student Senate passed Bill 93, the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement statute over the summer. FSU’s virtual Latinx cultural celebration Sept. 28 opened with a reading of the statement, which reads:
“We acknowledge that the William Johnston Building at Florida State University is located on land that is the ancestral and traditional territory of the Apalachee Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We pay respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to their descendants, to the generations yet unborn, and to all Indigenous people.

“We recognize that this land remains scarred by the histories and ongoing legacies of settler colonial violence, dispossession, and removal. In spite of all of this, and with tremendous resilience, these Indigenous nations have remained deeply connected to this territory, to their families, to their communities, and to their cultural ways of life. We recognize the ongoing relationships of care that these Indigenous Nations maintain with this land and extend our gratitude as we live and work as humble and respectful guests upon their territory. We encourage you to learn about and amplify the contemporary work of the Indigenous nations whose land you are on and to endeavor to support Indigenous sovereignty in all the ways that you can.”

“We encourage everyone in this space to engage in learning more about these tribes, reflecting on the ways in which we occupy land not ours, seeking out Indigenous literature to enhance our understanding and increase our knowledge,” Luis Porto Hernandez, president of the Hispanic Graduate Student Association, said in an FSU News story.

Michigan State University’s college of Agriculture and Natural Resources created its land acknowledgement statement to spread awareness of the history of the land on which it is situated, as well as the Native people who still reside there and their ancestors. It states, “Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg — Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. The university resides on land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.”

“Land acknowledgements are centered on learning about and reflecting on Indigenous histories and relationships to land. The learning process encompasses honoring the history of the land, treaties, tribes, communities and Indigenous knowledge and languages,” Christie Poitra, a descendant of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and interim director of the MSU Native American Institute, said in an interview with MSU Today.

Educators at the University of Iowa began the process of writing a land acknowledgement statement years ago. It was finally completed and released in November.

Institutionalizing a statement can encourage professors to incorporate acknowledgments into their curriculum, inspire the inclusion of more historical perspectives and drive efforts to recruit and retain Native American students.

The University of Iowa’s land acknowledgement recognizes the many tribes who lived and continue to thrive in the state. In part it states, “As an academic institution, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the sovereignty and the traditional territories of these tribal nations, and the treaties that were used to remove these tribal nations, and the histories of dispossession that have allowed for the growth of this institution since 1847. Consistent with the University’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, understanding the historical and current experiences of Native peoples will help inform the work we do; collectively as a university to engage in building relationships through academic scholarship, collaborative partnerships, community service, enrollment and retention efforts acknowledging our past, our present and future Native Nations.”

Bowers encourages people to learn about the modern Indigenous experience, which is different than what is typically presented in museums. He believes individuals should know about the unhealed wounds Native people carry with them.

“The most important aspect of land acknowledgements is to be aware of and educate people about the trauma and acknowledge it,” Bowers said. “This is the only way my grandchildren and great grandchildren have a chance for a peaceful life. This is the journey of healing.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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