Why Land Acknowledgements are a new Token of Liberal Progressivism at Independent Schools | Jenna Wolf & Jordan Clark | 7 Min Read

If you’ve attended a conference, academic gathering, or other progressive space in the last five years, chances are you’ve experienced one of liberal institutions’ favorite new tokens: the land acknowledgment. 

Meant to recognize the Indigenous peoples who call that place traditional homelands, it has become as much a staple of opening ceremonies as the name tag table.

As Indigenous educators working in independent schools, we have witnessed this evolution. To leave it out of gatherings means to hold a professional space ignorant of the United States’ lengthy program of extermination and eradication of our peoples. But on its own, it merely turns settlers into “woke” settlers. Often, being Indigenous in a progressive independent school environment is regularly experiencing “Settlers with Opinion as Daniel Heath Justice points out:” the distinct challenge of interacting with non-Indigenous people who hold opinions devoid of context.

Some of these territory acknowledgments are short. The simple, often freely available, statement on an institution’s website with an [insert Indigenous Nation or tribal peoples here] after a cursory search for who traditionally resided in that area pre-contact. 

The long-winded, but with more tribally-specific elements, signals more progressive, more thoughtful.

And of course, there are the ones that ask local Indigenous folks to parade around the stage, perhaps say a prayer for gathering goodwill, as a crowded ballroom gawks and claps exuberantly. Conference attendees have been bold enough to ask for an “English translation.”

At one time, land acknowledgments were powerful symbols centering the Indigenous experience. They may have even helped the often only Indigenous person in the space to feel safe and seen. But like all things, the more commonplace, the more void of meaning. A land acknowledgment doesn’t dismantle white supremacy and erase our experiences as Indigenous people. 

They are a performance tool most palatable for non-Indigenous people. Additionally, they afford POC audiences an opportunity to include the Indigenous experience because Indigenous peoples are further in conversations around equity and in the data that reflects marginalization. Omitted. Not a large enough group to be discussed in any formal way. Not reflective of our student bodies and making us irrelevant to our DEI conversations and goals.

Indigenous peoples make up less than 2% of the United States population. In our independent schools, that representation is largely nonexistent. Historically, progressive education was used to assimilate Indigenous people in the United States. Margaret Connell Szasz, in Education…

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