Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Indigenous Land Acknowledgments: Effective or Performative? By Katerina Richard (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

Land acknowledgments, or territory acknowledgements, have quickly become a part of the University experience, often being recited at the beginning of lectures and meetings. Land acknowledgments are meant to identify land as Indigenous land, where the Indigenous people of that area hold specific rights. They are meant to show appreciation for being able to operate on that land and to acknowledge the history of colonization which has brought us to where we are now. Acknowledging the land is an Indigenous way of honouring ancestors’ past, present, and future of Indigenous communities; therefore, land acknowledgments should be created by Indigenous peoples to ensure they are accurate and respectful. 

The word “unceded” is heard over and over, but have we discussed what this word means? It means the people who’s land you are on never legally signed away the rights to that land and they have not been compensated. It also means that they have no say regarding laws of that land, even when it is theirs by right. When it is acknowledged that a University sites on “unceded” territory, without a deep and accurate understanding of what this really means, it becomes extremely performative. 

The effectiveness of a land acknowledgment depends on the context of which it is given; whether or not it educates those listening or raises awareness for how institutions, such as universities, took hold of that land in the first place. The history of the land is often left out of the conversation, either ignored or erased completely. It becomes performative because although it is acknowledged the rights should belong to the Indigenous community of that area, they have no say in what the University builds or creates on that land unless the University allows them to have a say. This speaks to the colonial structures which are still very much present today. 

Land acknowledgments have the ability and potential to be effective in contributing to truth and reconciliation when they provoke self-reflection. The intention has to be for positive change and maintaining relations with the Indigenous communities, rather than just following what other institutions or universities are doing, to portray themself as progressive. Colonialism is an ongoing process and something that should be seen as a current issue, not something of the past. Thus, land acknowledgments should be treated as a present reminder to be mindful of whose land we are using and not as a memorial for a past event. 

Peach, L., Richmond, C. A., & Brunette-Debassige, C. (2020). “You can’t just take a piece of land from the university and build a garden on it”: Exploring Indigenizing space and place in a settler Canadian university context. Geoforum, 114, 117-127. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.06.001

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