Land recognition is often an empty gesture, say some Indigenous people

But while land recounts are generally well-intentioned, some Indigenous scholars and leaders say the way they are sometimes performed by non-Indigenous people can seem hollow, performative and ultimately problematic.

“It feels like a box-checking activity, as if people were doing it to report their policy,” says Len Necefer, indigenous studies researcher and founder and CEO of clothing and media company NativesOutdoors. “This is often how it can come out.”

Here’s why some are contesting land recognitions and what they say has to happen for true reparation and reconciliation to happen.

They can obscure the real story

Land recognition generally aims to recognize the indigenous history of the land on which one stands. But for Michael Lambert, many of these statements do not adequately reflect how indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their lands.

Lambert, associate professor of African studies and anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says such statements often refer to indigenous peoples as the original “stewards” or “custodians” of the lands that are now. occupied by another entity. For him, this language masks the fact that the tribal nations were sovereign over these lands and that they were not only its guardians.

“It’s like, ‘Oh god, thank you for taking such good care of the land. We promise to do a better job in the future,’ said Lambert, who is a registered citizen of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. . “It comes across as a very painful denial of what exactly happened.”

Certain land recognitions do not recognize either the traumas that accompanied the withdrawal of the Aboriginals from their lands, adds Lambert.

“This process of transferring control from Indians to non-Indians was fraught with pitfalls, it was violent, it involved murder in some cases and extreme pain,” he says.

Another problem Lambert sees in some land recounts is that they may suggest that indigenous peoples – and by extension, land dispossession issues – are a relic of the past, while indigenous communities today live in good numbers. of these realities.

“The dispossession of land continues,” he adds. “It is not finished.”

They can oversimplify the problems to be solved

Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation, recalls a recent experience he had on a conference call, in which each participant was asked to recognize the indigenous peoples whose homelands they called.

The exercise was uncomfortable and awkward, Necefer wrote in Outside magazine. He was calling from his mother’s home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which the Navajo have considered their homeland for centuries. But he was struck by the fact that many Pueblos in the area would challenge those claims – and a brief recognition of the lands would oversimplify what was actually a complex and contested story.
He notices a similar lack of nuance in the way people determine what earth they are on. Native Lands Digital, a commonly used app run by a Canadian nonprofit, allows users to enter an address to see which tribal nations lived there. But the map only includes the names of these tribes, without the history or context of potentially contested land claims. Some of the listed tribes are “functionally extinct,” he says, and are grouped with nations that continue to exist in the region. (Native Lands Digital, which did not immediately respond to questions from CNN, says in a warning on the site that the map is “not perfect” and is a work in progress.) Many people who use the app tend to approach it as the end point rather than the starting point, he adds.
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“I could see that people were just copying and pasting this stuff without really looking into the details,” Necefer told CNN.

In other cases, land acknowledgments could refer to “stolen land” – a seemingly well-meaning phrase designed to describe how Aboriginal people were driven from their homes. But while some tribes might agree with this characterization, says Necefer, others see the situation differently: rather than the land belonging to the people, the people belong to the land.

“The elements of the landscape make up the blood, bones and flesh that animate our bodies. When we die, we return to the earth and we transform into the trees, rocks and water that once gave us life,” he writes. in Outside. “The phrase ‘on stolen land’ can unknowingly erase these cultural views.”

They can overload Indigenous people

Native Governance Center, a non-profit organization that seeks to help tribal nations strengthen their systems of governance and their ability to exercise sovereignty, began a few years ago to develop resources on how to develop recognition. land, because she noticed that more and more people in the United States were talking about the problem.

As a result, the organization began to receive hundreds of inquiries from people interested in doing their own land surveys, says Apryl Deel-McKenzie, program manager for the Native Governance Center. The group saw this as an encouraging sign at first, but soon discovered that some non-native people expected them to do the work for them for free.

Adrien Pochel, who is Oji-Cree and Lakota, plays drums and sings at a land recognition ceremony for the Field Museum in Chicago on October 26, 2018.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries from non-natives saying, ‘Hey, we want to do a land survey: can you read this? “It’s important for people to understand that when you put this on Indigenous Peoples, it can put a lot of extra stress on Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous organizations. “

Larry Chavis, former director of the American Indian Center at UNC, put it this way at a faculty council meeting after being asked to write a land recognition for the university: “It’s like if I wrote my own thank you note for a gift taken from me. “

They can be considered just enough

Another problem Deel-McKenzie observed was that many people seemed too engrossed in the details of the wording of the statement, without giving enough thought to how they planned to help Indigenous communities move forward.

“It’s not a question of verbiage,” she said. “It’s not about your statement being ‘correct.’ It’s not about performance either. It’s about the action that needs to happen.”

Deel-McKenzie says land recognition should be seen as a first step, which should be followed by a call to action. This is a view shared by many Indigenous scholars and activists, although they may have different ideas about what constitutes sufficient action.

For Lambert, the next most logical step is to return the land.
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“If they want to acknowledge what happened in the transfer of these lands from Indian control to non-Indian control, there has to be proactive action by the institution for the injured group,” he said. he declares. “I think the Indians would say, ‘We want to get the land back.'”

The Native Governance Center views land repatriation as one of the many ways that institutions and individuals can go beyond mere recognition of land. Another action he is proposing is the voluntary property tax – regular payments that go directly to indigenous nations or organizations in the region. This could involve showing up at demonstrations led by indigenous peoples in the region. For universities, it could offer free tuition fees to Indigenous students, and for businesses, it could commit to hiring Indigenous people in leadership positions.

Indigenous activists protest the construction of the Line 3 pipeline in Solway, Minnesota on June 7, 2021.

“The bottom line in terms of recognizing Indigenous lands is that it’s something that educates Indigenous people here in this country in the United States,” Deel-McKenzie said.

Necefer says his organization NativesOutdoors has moved away from the red emojis in social media captions that function as land acknowledgments and instead is focusing its efforts on more ambitious ways to educate non-Indigenous audiences about the history of places where they live. But despite the flaws in some land surveys, he and others say they are not suggesting the practice be done away with altogether.

Land recognition can be a good way for people to learn about Indigenous history and can signal respect for tribal nations. On the contrary, those who criticize these statements stress that they should be seen as the starting point of a larger effort to understand the history and realities of indigenous peoples and to commit to change.

“It’s an imperfect tool,” says Necefer. “We have to figure out what it is. If we can figure that out, I think the rest will come.”

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