We All Go Back to the Land: The Who, Why, and How of Land Acknowledgements
Getting the Land Acknowledgement Right
Land Acknowledgements often begin academic conferences, cultural events, government press gatherings, and even hockey games. They are supposed to be an act of Reconciliation between Indigenous peoples in Canada and non-Indigenous Canadians, but they have become so routine and formulaic that they have sometimes lost meaning. Seen more and more as empty words, some events have dropped Land Acknowledgements altogether.
Métis artist and educator Suzanne Keeptwo wants to change that. She sees the Land Acknowledgement as an opportunity for Indigenous peoples in Canada to communicate a message to non-Indigenous Canadians—a message founded upon Age Old Wisdom about how to sustain the Land we all want to call home.
This is an essential narrative for truth sharing and knowledge acquisition.
- Publisher: Brush Education
- Page Count: 432 pages
- Dimensions: 0.8in x 5.5in x 7.5in
Harold R. Johnson, retired defense attorney, author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for English-language non-fiction
This book will create a shift in consciousness for anyone who reads it. It provides deep understandings of Indigenous values, truths, and realities.
Alex Saunders, author of Aullâk: A Labrador Experience and the forthcoming Nine Days on the Land: Memoir of an Inuit Elder
The length and depth of Suzanne Keeptwo’s We All Go Back to the Land beautifully illustrates the importance of, and complexity behind, land acknowledgements.
Charlene Bearhead, Indigenous education activist, serves on the Pathways to Education Canada Indigenous Education Advisory Circle, Education Advisor on the Indigenous Peoples’ Atlas of Canada, author of the Siha Tooskin Knows series
1. Original Land, Original People
2. The Land Acknowledgement: An Educational Opportunity
3. The Land Acknowledgement as Cultural Practice
4. Invest in the Land Acknowledgement
5. Identity Politics
6. Examples of Problematic Land Acknowledgements
7. The Land Acknowledgement as Artistic Practice
8. We All Go Back to the Land
Bonus: The Framework Summary
About the Author
CHAPTER 3: THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AS CULTURAL PRACTICE
THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT SWEEPS THE NATION
In order to understand what I propose regarding the reclamation of the Land Acknowledgement, it is important to know that Customary Law adheres to inherent acknowledgement protocols pertaining to both cultural (or tribal) identity and ancestral Land affiliation. Identification of self, accompanied by characteristics of language terminologies, dress, hairstyle, adornment, tatouage, architecture, and artifacts were/are directly aligned with one’s hereditary Land base, crafting a cultural definition.
The practice of self-positioning and Land or Territorial Acknowledgement for purposes of governance, negotiation, trade, subsistence, celebration, and ceremony has obviously been diminished, even denied, by the impact of colonization. Lands have been lost, lands have been taken, peoples have been relocated, cultural communities have merged by adoptions or reserve systems, colonial boundaries have created divisions, children have been taken, and European values, religion, and governance structures have been imposed, adopted, and rejected. Regardless, Indigenous peoples within the nation-state of Canada are reaching back into ancestral memory, which has been kept alive by brave Knowledge Keepers, and bringing these Practices of Old to the forefront of contemporary society—with determination, energy, and pride.
Since the release of the TRC report in 2015, Land or Territorial Acknowledgements have been sweeping the nation. For the last few years, government, academic, and arts institutions have led the acknowledgement of the Original peoples of the lands they are situated upon. Under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership, Land Acknowledgements have become standard practice at the commencement of federal events and announcements. Although no government at any level has officially mandated the practice, the Land Acknowledgement has grown exponentially in popularity.
The National Hockey Leagues’ Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers announce their home games with a Land Acknowledgement. More than 250,000 students within the Toronto public school board hear an acknowledgement every morning. Toronto has put acknowledgements in its bus shelters. Christian churches across Canada provide statements at the beginning of their services and print a Land Acknowledgement in their bulletins. Commemorative plaques are appearing on condo buildings in Vancouver. Regina’s Globe Theatre installed an acknowledgement plaque in its lobby. The Canadian Union of Public Servants’ website includes Land Acknowledgement guidelines. Amnesty International published “a process of reflection” to encourage activists to write their own Land Acknowledgements. Individuals and institutions have taken it upon themselves to include statements beneath the email signature. And the list goes on and on.
When Land and Territorial Acknowledgements first began to circulate, they provided powerful declarations of Indigenous existence—past and present. For the first time, everyday Canadians were hearing about diverse cultures and attaching location to Original inhabitants. It woke Canadians to the fact that there is Indigenous presence in this country and a prehistory to colonization. They often evoked unintentional discomfort. They were Elder led.
The phenomenon spread like prairie fire, pushing east to the Atlantic and even toward the north, but some of these fires are starting to die out, dwindling because of inefficacy, uncertainty, or theft. Most organizations decide if and when a Land Acknowledgement is to be done, how long it needs to be, where it fits on the agenda, and whether projecting it on a screen is easier to avoid mispronunciations or whether it makes a better impression to have an Indigenous person deliver it. The Ontario Medical Association voted to discard the exercise “as a meaningless form of tokenism.” Strathcona County councillors, in Alberta’s energy and agricultural centre (Treaty 6 territory), vetoed a proposal to make the Land Acknowledgement standard practice at council meetings. The city council of Richmond Hill, in southern Ontario, scrapped their Land Acknowledgement in lieu of a proposal for training on Indigenous issues. Many, including Indigenous people, are currently questioning the purpose—and effect—of these acknowledgements. Land Acknowledgements are coming under scrutiny and are at risk of disappearing just like the Land itself.
AT FIRST THERE WAS FEAR
While Indigenous people were breathing a sigh of collective relief—or jumping for joy—that mainstream Canadians were suddenly interested in publicly acknowledging Indigenous peoples and lands, there were simultaneous inaudible gasps in some of those auditoriums. I heard panicked conversations and aggressive comments made to Elders who were initially tasked with providing the Land Acknowledgement at theatre opening-night parties. I heard one person say, “So, do you want us to give the land back, is that what this is about?” For others, it feels good that, at least, colonial institutions are assuming some role in the name of Reconciliation to bring Indigenous consciousness to the top of the show. Is there any popcorn—maybe made from Indian corn—to be served with that?
There are two camps regarding who should deliver a Land Acknowledgement: Indigenous representatives (preferably Elders) or non-Indigenous event organizers. The latter is becoming the norm, within which there are two more camps: one, for the non-Indigenous event organizer to consult with Indigenous peoples (although event organizers do not necessarily follow the guidance provided by the consultation); or two, also becoming the norm, for the non-Indigenous host organization to figure it out themselves. The second option means “winging it” or being very strategic with what is said for purposes of public appearance.
Pottawatomi and Ojibwe-Anishinaabe writer and educator Hayden King famously stated how he regrets writing a Land Acknowledgement for his employer, Ryerson University situated in the city of Toronto. In conversation with Rosanna Deerchild, CBC radio host of Unreserved out of Treaty 1 territory, he defines the practice as “a political statement encouraging primarily non-Indigenous people to recognize that they’re on Indigenous land and hopefully do something about it.” His Land Acknowledgement was later criticized because of referencing that “all newcomers are invited into the Dish with One Spoon Treaty.” So, instead, Mr. King would rather provide people with a framework and let event organizers write it themselves.
The Indigenous Circle of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) maintains that the practice of giving a Land Acknowledgement provides mainstream Canadians an opportunity to educate themselves about local Indigenous realities. Bob Joseph, member of the Gwawaenuk Nation located in what is now British Columbia, and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., suggests that, in giving a Land Acknowledgement, it is “up to you which words to choose and how deep you want to go.”
Templates, guides, and tips have been developed—including the popular Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) document listing acknowledgements for territories where universities take space across Canada. This runs counter to OPSEU’s assertion that the rich diversity of Inuit, First Nation, and Metis history and cultures “cannot be captured in a pre-written statement read at the beginning of a meeting.” More recent Indigenous sentiment is for those delivering the acknowledgement to “speak from the heart and make it personal,” rather than keeping to a script. I understand where this sentiment is coming from, but it is just not good enough.
The overriding outlook is that Land and Territorial Acknowledgements are the responsibility of the colonizer or settler Canadian community. The onus has been placed on the non-Indigenous event or committee/meeting host organizer to do their research and get the hard work done. In response, Indigenous spectators hope these wayward acknowledgements conclude by initiating actions and concrete obligations to Indigenous communities, and to better appreciate or honour First Nation treaties.
Land Acknowledgements have been increasingly criticized as tedious, performative, tokenistic, and rhetorical. If non-Indigenous event organizers are left to their own devices, why would it be anything other than less than satisfying? Metis writer and legal scholar Chelsea Vowel, from Treaty 6 territory within what is currently known as Alberta, observes: “The way in which territorial acknowledgements are delivered must matter. Are they formulaic recitations that barely penetrate the consciousness of the speaker and those listening? Are they something that must be ‘gotten through’ before the meeting or speech can begin? Can we escape dilution through repetition?”
Initially, Land Acknowledgements may have made an impact as most Canadians had not a clue what Indigenous Land base their suburb or city or town was built upon, treaty or no treaty. I would like to think most Canadians, at least, have become conscious of how little they know about First Nation, Inuit, and Metis peoples’ history, and each distinct people’s relationship with the federal government. In fact, both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians are products of the same educational institutional framework where history has been dangerously one-sided and Indigenous perspectives purposely excluded.
The initial shock, unsettling or not, of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement is long over. The same lame words that mean nothing and amount to nothing now have Canadians yawning while sitting comfortably in their seats once again, ready to enjoy the show or start their meeting (virtually or otherwise). Perhaps the grand plan was to have Canadians rendered desensitized—even angered—by its redundancy and empty speechifying? This way, when pipelines, mines, dams, and fracking are blocked by last-resort frontline Water and Land Protectors, Canadians won’t care to hear any more about Indigenous anything, especially about inherent rights, treaty rights, Aboriginal title, hereditary leadership, unceded territories, or the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and all the too-bad so-sad broken agreements. After all, aren’t all people immigrants from somewhere? Aren’t we all descendants of Africa? Should we not acknowledge Africans as the Original Original peoples of Turtle Island? That is the depth of ignorance I witnessed in response to the trend of Land Acknowledgement. And that is how far removed the Canadian conscious can be from Indigenous peoples’ history and realities.
So, with ready-to-use templates for fill-in-the-blank information pertaining to whatever territory one finds their building on, I question: Have event organizers done the work? Are they doing the work? From what I have heard and read, Land Acknowledgements from across this nation-state of Canada are muddled, unimpressive, uninstructional, downright confusing, and often factually incorrect. So, no, those in charge are apparently not “getting it right,” and Indigenous peoples are increasingly criticizing them for it. As a result, we find non-Indigenous Canadians opting out, complaining of its efficacy, redundancy, and purpose. I repeat, the Land Acknowledgement is being stolen just like the Land itself.
Indigenous peoples have handed over the responsibility of the Land Acknowledgement far too easily, without recognizing it as an opportunity for Metis, First Nation (and Inuit) peoples across this nation-state to assert and honour our own ways of knowing and being. It is time to (re)claim the Land Acknowledgement as a contemporary expression of Truth sharing in the spirit of Reconciliation, based on precolonial protocols.
The Land Acknowledgement is a wonderful opportunity for Native peoples to reinstate orators to share some of our greatest Teachings within the history and context of colonization. The written word has claimed what was once the role of great oral historians and Traditional Teachers. There are more and more great works of history and literature about the Indigenous experience, as more and more Inuit, First Nation, and Metis scholars and creative writers get published. Authors who put their research or personal memoirs and experiences on the page are equivalent to the great orators of the past. Their works often provide great leadership, guidance, and insight. They provide comfort and they combat isolation, especially for those who walk with each foot in different worlds. It can be a lonely and disheartening journey. But books of comfort are only accessible to those who have access to the page: the literate. Socioeconomic status and technology and geographical location can impact access to Indigenous-authored literature, and the business of books means these bound accounts are destined to become obsolete by going out of print or going out of fashion because of a new trend. They are representative of one specific type of learning mode, reaching a targeted audience for a certain wave of time.
A few years back, I started a master’s degree in Aboriginal and world Indigenous educational studies at a reputable university. I was at first relieved to know it was a course of study for Indigenous students delivered by Indigenous professors, then much dismayed to discover the course was confined to a colonial academic framework. Although we spoke of the value and application of Age Old Knowledge, we were instructed to use only the most recently published articles from the youngest minds as references in our dissertations. This was a contradiction. The program was indicative of a clash of knowledge systems existing within the stronghold of a colonial institution.
When I drew from older publications and cited works from across the decades to share still-relevant Wisdom (as is the case with Wisdom) that had been passed down, landing in some previous academic’s printed page, I was told my citations were too “outdated.” How can Traditional Knowledge ever be outdated? How can the voices of Elders from written accounts published long ago be forgotten or excluded from current discourse? It discredits their very memory and sharing of Wisdom when books with their knowledge are tossed to the wayside, replaced by new publications and current ideas. If the bible is a two-thousand-year-old reference book, why can’t the publications of our most impressive Indigenous thinkers be compiled and considered contemporary classics? Not everyone has access to the sharing of Oral Teachings, and, in addition, our memories have largely been colonized.
My father was an educational publisher who told me how the business of universities worked: students had to purchase newer editions of perfectly good educational resources to keep the flow of money circulating back to the university, the published professors, and the publisher. This is part of regular business strategies in contemporary economies. If books have become the main records of Indigenous Knowledge, we are putting our knowledge at risk of being lost along with those books, abandoned in damp basements, dusty attics, or mouse-infested sheds. We’ve all seen it.
Tatanga Mani (1871–1967), or Chief Walking Buffalo, of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation in what became Morley, Alberta (Treaty 7), attended the Red Deer Residential Indian Industrial School. He was an internationally renowned Great Orator. In Touch the Earth: A Self Portrait of Indian Existence, a collection of “American Indian” writings compiled by T.C. McLuhan, Tatanga Mani says:
“Oh yes, I went to the white man’s schools. I learned to read from schoolbooks, newspapers, and the Bible. But in time I found that these were not enough. Civilized people depend too much on man-made printed pages. I turn to the Great Spirit’s book, which is the whole of creation. You can read a big part of that book if you study nature. If you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity to study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals, which include us.”
Nature’s university is currently crumbling, which, in the words of this wise Elder, includes us.
We have a history of great leadership through oratory practice. As Cecil King explains, drawing from Frazer E. Wilson’s Around the Council Fire:
To obtain ‘oratorical efficiency’ our young men were trained by our Naagaanzidijig (chiefs and elder statesmen). The Naagaanzidijig instructed the young men and gave them the opportunity to practice oratory in public in our councils. Our men were trained to speak boldly without hesitation, to be confident, and to be able to speak rapidly, extemporaneously. Our orators were those with a ‘clear and open mind, a trained memory and previous experiences in statecraft [gimakahnwin].’ They learned the correct protocol in addressing representatives of our allies and from our enemies. They knew whom they should address as ‘Uncle,’ ‘Elder Brother,’ or ‘Younger Brother.’ These distinctions came from a thorough understanding of the relationships among our different nations and our history, alliances, and international connections.”
Oral histories are accounts of events or experiences of long, long ago passed down through the generations. New academics are trained to put spins on compiled “old information” to make their work unique and refreshingly different. By contrast, traditional peoples inherit that “old information,” accredit the Elders or Knowledge Keepers who passed it along, and, in the case of oral historians, are trained to recite that information verbatim. I wonder how many of our youth are being trained in this way today? Oral historians and storytellers are the messengers of tried and true Teachings and events, natural or otherwise, that applied to our ancestors and continue to serve and inform their descendants. They are not the inventors of rescripted histories or reinvented cultures, as they take Age Old Wisdom and contextualize that knowledge into a relevant framework of current reality. Grounded in Age Old Knowledge is a grounded identity: it is our strength, our comfort, and our hope, going forward.
This is why I continue to draw from publications written decades ago, just as I draw from my conversations with Cultural Carriers, Knowledge Keepers, and Elders who hold Age Old stories or knowledge from yesteryear to pass along, according to tradition, in a new context. Scientific discoveries may need to be updated, but Age Old morals, values, and worldview hold true for all time. This is not to say that Indigenous cultures are stagnant. Those stories of character foibles, animal tales, and star gazing can be embellished or contextualized for any kind of lesson needed to assist on one’s Earth Walk. Indigenous astronomy is finding its way into the mainstream science of the universe, and, hence, into mainstream institutions of study. Yet, its ultimate analysis is to help guide how to live in a more loving way, not to be guided by personal profit or the advancement of one’s career.