The rise of Indigenous land acknowledgments

WORDS MATTER: A year before formally adopting a land acknowledgment, UNC Asheville named a room in its student union To Ki Ya Sdi, which means "the place where they race" in Cherokee. Pictured are members of UNCA's Cherokee language program faculty, as well as members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Photo courtesy of UNCA

Maybe you’ve heard one read aloud before a meeting or performance. Or perhaps you’ve seen one posted in a lobby, prominently featured on an organization’s website or shared on a business’s social media account.

Whatever the case, the odds are good that you’ve encountered a land acknowledgment: a formal recognition that your current location was taken from its original Indigenous inhabitants. In Western North Carolina, that’s the Anikituwagi, the people more commonly known as the Cherokee, who once occupied much of what is now the southeastern United States.

Such reminders can offer a means of connecting with a group that the country has marginalized for centuries. But if a land acknowledgment isn’t paired with action, say many Indigenous people, the connection can be fleeting — and unintentionally cause more harm than good.

Xpress spoke with several Indigenous activists to gauge their thoughts on a trend that has recently gathered local momentum, as well as learn what components are necessary for a successful statement.

Playing catchup

Trey Adcock, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and director of American Indian & Indigenous Studies at UNC Asheville, has noticed a rise in land acknowledgments over the past decade, and especially in the last five years. But he stresses there are two ways to interpret the phrase.

“There’s a differentiation between these bureaucratic land acknowledgments — these read statements — and the way Indigenous people have always acknowledged their presence in the land when visiting someone else’s territory,” Adcock says. “In terms of the bureaucratic stuff, they have their own history [dating back to the 1970s] in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Canada. So, the United States is sort of late to the game.”

Those pioneers among Canadian First Nations people, Aboriginal Australians and the Māori of New Zealand inspired Wayne Ducheneaux, executive director of the nonprofit Native Governance Center and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. His organization created an online guide to land acknowledgments that informed the “statement in support of Indigenous land ownership” used by Asheville’s Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective.

The guide’s tips for crafting a land acknowledgment include starting with self-reflection; putting in time to research key topics; using appropriate language to avoid sugarcoating the past; and using past, present and future tenses so that Indigenous people aren’t treated as a relic. Suggested action steps to pair with a land acknowledgment are likewise provided, such as supporting Indigenous organizations through donations of time and/or money and committing to some form of returning land.

Ducheneaux believes the recent increase in such statements stems from “the hunger for true, authentic understanding of Indigenous people.” In line with the social justice uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, he feels that people want to be in better relation with their fellow humans.

“For us, it’s fundamentally getting people to acknowledge that kernel of truth that … your right to occupy that land germinates from tribal sovereignty,” Ducheneaux says. “Whether it’s through treaty and cessation or outright theft of land, that deed you have to your land that’s dictated to you now through a modern instrument of legality … it comes from tribal sovereignty.”

Local language

Stephanie Hickling Beckman, founder and managing artistic director for Different Strokes, says she and her board “relied heavily” on the Native Governance Center guide while creating the nonprofit’s land acknowledgment. The statement is read before each performance and included in the playbill.

“We hope our statement also encourages folks to learn the truth,” Hickling Beckman told Xpress in September. “It is a shame that our children are being taught the same history I was — that Native Americans gave the land to the U.S. as a trade, leaving out the part where the U.S. did not keep their end of the bargain.”

Meanwhile, Adcock helped UNCA officials craft their own statement, which the university formally adopted in fall 2020. As a Cherokee person living in Cherokee territory, he says that he doesn’t need a land acknowledgment, which led to some trepidation in working with his employer in this capacity.

“I didn’t really want to do one,” Adcock says. “I think there were questions of ‘Who is this actually for? Who is it supposed to be benefiting? What’s the intention behind them?’”

But Adcock’s concerns were eased as UNCA worked with a community advisory group that consisted almost exclusively of native people, primarily Cherokee, to help write the statement.

“A lot of the elders in that group thought it was an opportunity to teach people about the land and about Cherokee people,” Adcock says. “I don’t think any land acknowledgment is perfect, but I do appreciate that about ours. We wanted to talk about the history of the land, because a lot of times, they just generally say ‘land,’ but they don’t actually talk about the specific history.”

Bo Lossiah, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a curriculum and instruction supervisor for the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program in Cherokee, helped guide the Asheville Community Theatre board of directors through various drafts of its own land acknowledgment. That language was submitted to the Cherokee Tribal Council for its approval this year and accepted. Fellow EBCI member Garrett Axe-Long provided the translation from English into Cherokee.

“A part or all of the statement will be recognized before each performance in order to acknowledge and show respect for the Cherokee people,” Tamara Sparacino, managing director for ACT, told Xpress in September.

Lossiah says the experience was a positive one and that the theater’s popularity means a fair number of people will encounter the statement. ACT will display the land acknowledgment, currently available on its Facebook page (, on a plaque in the theater lobby written in both Cherokee and English.

“It’s a first step,” Lossiah says. “[On its own,] it doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot. It’s a gesture, but as long as the gesture is respectful, I’m all for it. Ultimately, though, you do want some big goal to happen.”

Unintended consequences

The frequent lack of action associated with land acknowledgments has prompted certain groups to demand revisiting the concept. The Association of Indigenous Anthropologists, for example, has requested that the American Anthropological Association stop conducting land acknowledgments and “welcoming rituals,” the practice of opening events with blessings from Indigenous people.

That pause, the AIA suggested, would let the anthropologists reconsider and improve the field’s relationship with American Indians and Alaska Natives. The controversy, says Duchenaux, exemplifies why the Native Governance Center includes suggestions in its guide for going beyond land acknowledgment.

“It offers an opportunity for optical allyship,” Ducheneaux says of acknowledgments. “So, some people who are not wanting to do that deeper work, that more meaningful work, can feel like they can simply put a few sentences on paper and then move on from the work that has to be done.”

He notes that examples of that work are being launched around the U.S., including a voluntary honor tax that residents of California’s Humboldt County are paying to the displaced Wiyot Tribe. Ducheneaux also applauds efforts in California, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota, where Indigenous education is being implemented throughout the year, rather than merely during November’s Native American Heritage Month.

Adcock supports such actions. At UNCA, as he noted in an October 2021 commentary for Xpress, the Faculty Senate has provided specific recommendations for the university to offer scholarships for Indigenous students and hire more Indigenous faculty. But he stresses that such steps and other efforts beyond academia can be accomplished with or without a formal statement.

“The work is the work,” Adcock says. “You don’t need a land acknowledgment to be a good ally.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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