If you live in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ve probably seen or heard a native land acknowledgement—a verbal or written statement honoring the Indigenous occupants of the area where an organization works or an event takes place. One 2019 report estimates nearly every university in Canada has issued a land acknowledgement statement.
The practice of land acknowledgement isn’t quite as widespread in the United States, but it’s becoming more popular in both Indigenous-led and non-Indigenous-led spaces.
If you’re a performer, artist, event planner, or someone who hosts public gatherings—on your own or on behalf of an organization—you may wonder if a native land acknowledgement statement should be part of your messaging. The statement is much more than a trendy addition to an event program; it’s a public commitment to allyship with Indigenous nations, and often a call to action.
What is native land acknowledgement?
Land or territorial acknowledgements serve multiple purposes:
- They show respect for the original inhabitants of the land.
- They recognize the ongoing relationship between Indigenous communities and their environments.
- They encourage awareness of, and reverence for, the land itself.
- They frequently introduce non-Indigenous listeners to the names of the area’s Indigenous tribes and communities.
- They challenge the “doctrine of discovery” or the idea that non-Indigenous settlers “discovered” the area.
- They support larger efforts toward reconciliation with Indigenous nations.
To Indigenous Mutsun Ohlone activist Kanyon Sayers-Roods, land acknowledgement statements help people consider the past, present, and future— “What does it mean to live in a post-colonial world? … And how can we be accountable to our part in history?”
How and when to acknowledge Indigenous territory
The specific wording of a land acknowledgement statement will change based on factors like the physical location, the speaker or writer’s relationship to local Indigenous communities, and the audience.
Since the statement should include specific reflections and goals, there’s no broad formula or template that works for everyone. The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, an independent nongovernmental agency, has a land acknowledgement guide for United States residents including customizable resources. Examples from other performers or organizations might also serve as jumping-off points for your own acknowledgement.
Statements can begin simply, saying something like:
- “I want to acknowledge that we’re on the traditional territory of [INDIGENOUS NATION NAME(S)].”
- “This event is taking place on traditional [INDIGENOUS NATION NAME(S)]. land.”
- “I want to honor the [INDIGENOUS NATION NAME(S)] tribe(s), the original inhabitants of this land.”
Written statements may add a phonetic pronunciation of the Indigenous nations’ names. If your research reveals more than one tribe is indigenous to the land, include all tribal names.
Some U.S.-based nonprofit organizations like Notchcliff Nature Programs and the Minnesota Public Health Association have land acknowledgement statements on their websites. Northwestern University’s land acknowledgement statement is also available online.
Performance venues sometimes have a statement that’s repeated before each event, printed in programs or lobby signs, or available on their website. These statements often invite audience involvement.
Midnight Kitchen, a nonprofit worker collective in Montreal, Canada, adds an encouragement to listeners “to learn about the history of these lands and to support Indigenous resistance.” Indigenous choreographer and performer Emily Johnson invites her audience to join her in gratitude and respect for the land’s original inhabitants.
Creating your own land acknowledgement statement
Here are a few do’s and don’ts to keep your statement authentic, accurate, and meaningful.
Do write and personalize a statement of your own.
Your words should reflect your own relationship (or the organization’s, if you’re writing on behalf of an organization) to Indigenous lands, cultures, and communities. Think about wording the statement in a way that inspires your audience to take action. Start by asking yourself:
- What is my relationship to this land? How did I arrive here?
- What actions do I want my audience/readers to take after hearing the statement?
- How does this acknowledgement relate to my or my organization’s work?
- What relationship do I/does my organization have to local Indigenous individuals and communities?
If your answers to the last two questions are “no relationship” or “I’m not sure,” you may need to backtrack and start researching the history of colonial settlement in the area and the ongoing actions of local Indigenous-led organizations before crafting your statement.
Do read the statement out loud if you’re opening an event.
How you deliver the message matters. Land acknowledgement is a way to welcome your audience and consider your collective role in history, so it’s an important part of your agenda. Johnson believes a land acknowledgement statement should be delivered aloud and “spoken with intention.” This may mean practicing before you speak in public—and, of course, ensuring you’re pronouncing any Indigenous names correctly. Do your research first.
Without looking it up, can you name the traditional inhabitants of the land where you live or work? If not (and many non-Indigenous United States residents can’t), your starting point is to learn whose territory and nation you’re occupying. This map is a good reference, though it doesn’t show official boundary lines.
Your next step is to learn more about tribal history and displacement. Consider questions like:
- Do any treaties govern the territory? What do these treaties mean?
- Is land ownership contested by two or more different tribes in the area?
- How did the tribe come to inhabit its present location?
- Was the tribe forcibly relocated from the original land elsewhere?
- How did settler colonialism otherwise impact the local Indigenous populations?
- What acts of violence or resistance took place on the land?
- Does the city or town where I’m located have any special significance to Indigenous communities?
Do mention specific Indigenous people, when appropriate.
If any Indigenous professionals, artists, or organizations have collaborated with you or otherwise been important to your work, you may want to publicly name and thank them.
Some land acknowledgement statements honor tribal elders. Others mention Indigenous experts working in a similar field.
Don’t use past tense exclusively.
For white non-Indigenous people, it’s a common mistake to treat Indigenous communities as if they only existed in the past. Though historical context is important, land acknowledgements should recognize the fact that Indigenous people still live and work on the land.
Many Indigenous nations in the United States are involved in activism, outreach, and the creation of community resources. To learn more about what the nations in your land acknowledgement statement are doing today, look for their social media accounts or websites for more information. Ideally an acknowledgement will celebrate the nation’s ongoing work, and let the audience know how they can support that community.
Don’t use the word “guest.”
This is a controversial word in land acknowledgement statements, since introducing yourself as a guest implies you were invited. If you’re not Indigenous yourself, the word opens up some complications (did you or your organization actually ask permission to be on Indigenous territory?).
On the other hand, if someone from an Indigenous nation specifically asked or permitted you to be at an event, calling yourself a guest would be appropriate.
Don’t assume your work is finished.
Land acknowledgement is only a small part of understanding your relationship to colonialism and to local Indigenous communities. To be meaningful, the acknowledgement should work in tandem with relationships and actions.
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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.