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 and the American Indian, lays out the path of progressive, assimilationist, residential schools and the prioritization of educational settings that separate Indigenous children from their communities. The focus of the Progressive Education Association (the educational branch of Indian Services) was “education for extinction” as historian David Wallace Adams points out. 

During the residential school movement, historical evidence shows Native families traveled long distances from their homelands to camp outside institutions which were housing and “educating” their children out of a real fear of losing them forever to the insidious world of the colonizer. 

As Kim Tallbear so eloquently stated in her 2019 article “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming”, “Indigenous peoples tend to have less interest in incorporation into a (liberal) settler worldview than in pushing for thriving Indigenous societies.”

In progressive independent schools, are we expecting Indigenous peoples to commit to a very specific worldview? How does this impact our sense of belonging when those values often uphold settler-colonial perspectives? As we center the student experience, does this create an imbalance of respect and reverence to elders — a foundation of indigeneity? And is progressive an all-encompassing term we use to justify not challenging white fragility? 

Are land acknowledgments helping our Indigenous communities to thrive? What else do our progressive institutions do to connect with our people? Allow our people’s self-determination? Allow us to have demands of the settler-state? Show our colleagues and our students that we are still here.

Throughout our careers as educators, we have had numerous colleagues at independent schools across the country ask for our endorsement and labor in writing a land acknowledgment for their gathering. To somehow automatically know which tribes lived in the area or to conduct the research for them. Some have even asked the day before their delivery of an acknowledgment at the start of an engagement, “Who resided on this land? I’ve got to give a land acknowledgment tomorrow.”

When these asks come from non-Indigenous peers, it is a challenging space to navigate. The history of colonization is intertwined with the attempted eradication of Indigenous people and the continued erasure of their existence through genocidal practices and dispossession of land. 

A key example lies within the history of colonization along one of the first points of contact: the East Coast. Our peers often enter land acknowledgment conversations without actively engaging in research on Indigenous history and understanding of this colonial legacy. This dynamic requires the Indigenous educator to attempt to dialogue about the complexity of Indigenous histories, the erasure of our peoples, and the violence enacted by whitewashed colonial historical records. It becomes clear that many progressive educators are looking for an enthusiastic Native person to co-sign their idea, execute their complex ask with easily digestible answers, absolve them of more meaningful work which allows them to center their experience and deem themselves an ally or savior. When they receive more complex questions, they often provide thank yous for the insights and follow up weeks later with the standard “I found the answers somewhere else” claim. Some have even circumvented our responses to seek support among other non-Indigenous community members, even going so far as to share our thoughts more widely without permission as if to say “do we all feel this is valid?” Beyond the interpersonal challenges, this exemplifies a long-standing notion that Indigenous history, culture, and thought come from the perspective of the colonizer and ultimately devalues our existence, expertise, and ownership.

When progressive educators or institutions are asked, “do you plan to give the land back?” or provide other forms of reclamation and reciprocity, this question is met most often with an awkward laugh, as if the thought is ridiculous. But if that idea is so ridiculous, then why do an acknowledgment in the first place? To place focus on the fact that this country is founded on genocide, theft, and erasure is short-sighted if our curricula are misleading around these core foundational realities. If our students are not challenged to look at the systems that were built and how to dismantle them, then so what? It is often inconvenient for institutions to explore; decolonizing our spaces, and curricula are tied to a dismantling that removes a certain comfort and safety from those who hold privilege. 

Land acknowledgments without sincerity, consistency, and mutuality are short-sighted. They lack the depth to fully educate a community and to see Native people as part of that community. We ask: who does this performance serve? How does this show solidarity and understanding of our communities in a settler state? Is this a token? And how does it fetishize us not as living and thriving kin but as the dispossessed vanishing Indian?

How do these land acknowledgments uphold the real nation-state relationship our sovereign tribes have with the United States through treaties? How do institutions learn about their own issues of land theft and mistreatment of Indigenous communities? Why are independent schools so quick to create a land acknowledgment, but hesitant to learn authentically about Indigenous history? 

As institutions consider the next phases in the land acknowledgment performance and school diversity, are schools actively considering the recruitment of Indigenous students to their institutions? As with any other marginalized group, critical mass is a factor in accountability, belonging, and authentic feedback. The existence of Indigenous community members — both faculty, staff, and students — should be a cornerstone of an institution’s goals prior to the creation of a land acknowledgment.

Beyond that, we must, as educators, dismantle what we have always done and decolonize our educational frameworks and institutions. No longer can we use “tradition”, “progressive”, or “liberal” as shields, barriers, or excuses to dismantle a colonial settler mentality. 

A CHECKLIST FOR EDUCATORS USING LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • Challenge the research phase. Where are you doing this research? What does it look like? Whose labor are you seeking?
  • Do you know the history of your school’s land ownership? How did it attain this land? What is the historical relationship between your school and Indigenous Communities?
  • Do you have Indigenous students or faculty at your institution? How does this change or reposition your work?
  • How does a Land Acknowledgement dovetail with your mission? Anti-racist policy?
  • Give your audience a guidepost for further learning (ex. Boston educators can couple a Land Acknowledgment with a history unit on The Doctrine of Discovery and its connection to the myth of the first Thanksgiving using Akomawt Educational Initiative Resources)

Jenna Wolf is tribally enrolled in Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma and the library director at The Cambridge School of Weston, a 9-12 boarding and day school just outside Boston, MA. 

Jordan Clark is tribally enrolled in Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, Massachusetts, and history faculty at The Cambridge School of Weston, a 9-12 boarding and day school just outside Boston, MA.

Intrepid Contributor

Many thought leaders contribute innovative and provocative content for Intrepid Ed News. Click on the Contribute menu item for more information about submissions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *