Land acknowledgement statements, which recognize that an event or organization is on Indigenous land, are increasingly popular gestures. But they’re only one step toward reckoning with what it means to live and work on Indigenous territory and with Indigenous tribes.
For Hayden King, an Anishinaabe educator at Toronto’s Ryerson University, land acknowledgement statements can sometimes offer well-meaning speakers an easy way out of true accountability.
King feels it’s too easy for individuals and organizations—particularly in privileged spaces like conferences and universities—to think an acknowledgement excuses them from their obligations to Indigenous neighbors, when the obligation is the most important part of the statement.
A more effective statement, King says, might sound like “‘We’re on the territory of [Indigenous nations] and here’s what that compels me to do.’”
How can you support Indigenous communities and causes as a non-Indigenous ally? The specific action plan will look different for every individual and organization. The suggestions below are geared toward people who live in the United States, but can be adapted if you live in another country.
Taking action for and with Indigenous communities
Connecting a native land acknowledgement statement to contemporary events is a good way to alert your audience to the statement’s ongoing relevance. These events could range from the way your local school system teaches Indigenous history, to challenges that disproportionately affect Indigenous people, to the environmental activism of Indigenous nations in the area.
Sometimes non-Indigenous people don’t realize Indigenous activism is taking place around them—like a campaign to remove a racist mascot or a plan to preserve local environmental resources—until this activism makes the news. In fact, Indigenous communities do plenty of work behind the scenes to make these changes happen.
Start out by researching some basics:
- Which Indigenous nation is closest to where I live or work? Who are their leaders, and what are their values?
- Are there active Indigenous-led nonprofits in my area? What are their goals, and what projects are they working on?
- Are there Indigenous-owned businesses in my area or online that I can support?
- Are there local groups of non-Indigenous allies already taking action?
You can look in the National Congress of American Indians’ directory to find local nations or tribes.
Nonprofit leaders at the Henry Luce Foundation suggest asking these three questions to generate ideas: “What work is being done now in Indian Country? What do current leaders feel they need to do their work[?]; and what infrastructure is in place to identify leaders who need support and to get that support into their hands?”
Tribal or organizational websites may help answer these questions for you by posting possible ways to get involved—from simple tasks like sharing their content on social media to longer-term commitments like volunteering.
Other ways to support Indigenous tribal sovereignty might include:
- Honor tax or voluntary land tax programs, where participants pay a monthly tax to Indigenous nations/organizations for land use. This tax gives direct funding to Indigenous groups and recognizes them as the original owners of the land.
- Voting for officials and initiatives who support Indigenous priorities in federal, state, and local elections.
- Contributing to ecological or climate action, an area where Indigenous communities around the world often focus their activism. To learn about specific goals and campaigns, check out the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Native American Land Conservancy, or Survival International.
Reconciliation and accountability
At the end of a land acknowledgement statement, speakers sometimes give a task to their audience, like an action to take on an issue affecting Indigenous communities or a place to give money for reparations.
This is an important step, since a land acknowledgement statement is a pledge of accountability. If you’re non-Indigenous or your organization isn’t Indigenous-led, it’s important to be transparent about the actions you’re taking as well.
Accountability may involve:
- Examining your organization’s (positive and negative) history of racial justice work and interactions with Indigenous communities.
- Educating your staff members and the people you serve about this history.
- Making a plan for ongoing financial reparations.
- Writing down the ways you plan to support and advocate for Indigenous nonprofits.
- Highlighting Indigenous organizations’ calls to action on social media.
Building stronger relationships with the Indigenous nations in your acknowledgement can be a long-term goal. You can start simply by prioritizing diversity in your hiring. If you work with artists, entrepreneurs, and service providers, make an effort to hire BIPOC or Indigenous professionals.
On an organizational level, one step toward partnerships is increasing Indigenous peoples’ presence in decision-making roles, as board members or executive-level staff.
A perspective shift may also be required. Philanthropy in the United States is built on wealth, and that wealth often comes from generations of colonialism and exploitation. Even if funders and organizations have good intentions, they’re still passing down this legacy. When working with Indigenous leaders and Indigenous nonprofits, non-Indigenous people should keep this context in mind.
Just as importantly, acknowledge that Indigenous people are the experts on what their communities need. The goal is community-led leadership and collaboration.
You could offer grant funding or a marketing initiative, for example, but an Indigenous group might need a more practical form of support—such as child care for employees and volunteers, conference space for an event, or website development. Let the group’s leaders tell you what resources would be most helpful.
Building trust in partnerships may involve:
- Seeing yourself as a cultural learner, rather than an expert.
- Putting in the time to get to know Indigenous people and groups, and not expecting fast resolutions.
- Basing partnerships on mutual values.
- Traveling to Indigenous communities and spending time there as a guest.
- Providing support for Indigenous-led solutions.
- Communicating honestly and respecting different communication styles.
- Remembering Indigenous nations are not a monolith; there are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, and each nation will have its own needs and approach.
While listening and learning are important, non-Indigenous people can also educate themselves without relying on Indigenous partners to do all the work. Native Americans in Philanthropy, a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous nonprofits working to advance Indigenous causes, has an informative “Native 101” website for this exact reason.
Donating and fundraising
Indigenous-led organizations are historically underfunded in North American philanthropy. In the United States, though Indigenous people make up around 3% of the population, only 0.5% of grant funding goes to Indigenous causes. And Indigenous nonprofit leaders surveyed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy don’t report positive experiences with funders.
Many organizations have moved toward a model of fundraising based on Indigenous values—rooted in reciprocal giving and receiving, relationship-building, and mutual aid. Philanthropy by and for Indigenous communities is emphasized. This philanthropy can take many different forms, such as:
- Regranting institutions—nonprofits that acquire a larger grant and use the funds to award smaller grants to other local nonprofits.
- Funding for organizations outside the 501(c)(3) structure, such as 7871 organizations formed by sovereign tribal governments.
- Capacity building within Indigenous grassroots organizations.
With Indigenous funding initiatives and organizations, Indigenous groups are both donors and recipients, creating a strong and mutually supportive community. Here are a few organizations doing this work:
- The NDN Collective and the Impact Lending Collective
- International Funders for Indigenous Peoples
- Native Philanthropy
A Cultural Survival examination of “Indigenizing Philanthropy” offers some insight into Indigenous approaches to fundraising and development. The piece suggests remembering the “four R’s: Respect, Responsibility, Reciprocity, [and] Relationships.” The entire Cultural Survival series on Indigenous philanthropy is worth reading.
Ultimately, partnering with Indigenous nations in nonprofit work may influence your own view of philanthropy—you may move toward a more community-oriented, relationship-centered approach, one that considers both the past and the future.
Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.