Land acknowledgments: from words to transformative actions - Salish Current
May 29, 2024
Land acknowledgments: from words to transformative actions
Richard Arlin Walker
DeShawn Joseph of the Tulalip Tribes gives thanks and acknowledges the lands of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe during a visit on the 2013 Canoe Journey. Land acknowledgments have long had meaning to Native peoples. Advocates say non-Native peoples should understand the meaning of land acknowledgments before adopting one. (Richard Walker © 2013)
May 29, 2024
Land acknowledgments: from words to transformative actions
Richard Arlin Walker


Done properly, the process establishes mutual respect and sharing.

Land acknowledgments have been practiced by Northwest Native peoples since pre-contact, and they continue today at cultural gatherings as a form of respect. 

This scene is repeated canoe after canoe at every stop on the annual Intertribal Canoe Journey, the great gathering of Northwest Native canoe cultures: A canoe arrives at a host nation’s shore. The canoe skipper stands, acknowledges the host’s territory and perhaps drums and sings an honor song. Then the skipper asks for the host’s permission to come ashore. 

The process sets the stage for a relationship of reciprocal respect and sharing. In pre-contact days, failure to acknowledge your hosts and their homeland might mean you are an unfriendly visitor (think conquistadors and federal representatives with papers). Today, it might be taken as a show of disrespect or dangerously ignorant.

Land acknowledgments have now been adopted by non-Native peoples to recognize the original stewards of the lands on which they now live and work. Such acknowledgments are becoming ubiquitous — many communities, colleges and nonprofits use them. But some advocates fear the process is becoming little more than a feel-good act to be checked off a list.

Performative moments

Debora Juarez, the first enrolled Native American elected to the Seattle City Council, said a land acknowledgment without follow-through — without a relationship  is an empty gesture. “The beautiful message on how to ‘behave as a guest’ has been completely lost,” she said. “It’s become performative and used as a prop.”

Native American communities that share geography with Washington state are sensitive to words without follow-through. They signed treaties that ceded land to the U.S. but found the U.S. unwilling to fulfill all of its treaty promises. The U.S. reserved land for treaty signatories, only to allow those lands to be whittled down to make way for non-Native ownership. The U.S. made treaties with tribal nations as sovereigns, only to seek to end that relationship in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 2005, the Washington State Legislature passed a law that encouraged public schools to adopt a Native history and culture curriculum. In 10 years, so few did that the Legislature made it mandatory for them to do so. And yet, more than one-third of school districts still haven’t implemented the curriculum.

“I’ve done several consulting jobs with school districts and business owners to help them craft purposeful land acknowledgments,” said Mary Big Bull-Lewis, chairwoman of the nonprofit Indigenous Roots and Reparation Foundation, which works to preserve Native history, culture, traditions and language through education and advocacy. She is enrolled at the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and is a descendant of the Blackfoot Tribe.

“It has to be an actionable item. You’re recognizing that you’re on this land — so what are you doing? How are you creating a connection? How are you giving back?” she said. 

“Land acknowledgments became the thing to do back in 2020, 2021, and they can’t be just lip service. Like, ‘Well, we did that and it’s on our website’.” she said. “And so, when someone says they wrote a land acknowledgment, I ask them, ‘What else are you doing now, because we can’t just keep talking about it. Talking doesn’t get us anywhere.’ I really encourage people to consider that and then figure out what they are doing.”

Why acknowledgments are important

Washington state shares geography with 29 federally recognized tribal nations. Those tribal nations employ more than 37,000 people and pay $12.5 billion in wages and benefits and $1.2 billion in state and local taxes.  They have investments in aquaculture, entertainment venues, farming, fisheries, forest products, hotels, manufacturing, ranching, restaurants, retail, tourist attractions and real estate development. They own museums and host many cultural events that are open to the public.

Native history is Washington history. And yet, Native history and culture are not taught in all Washington public schools. According to information from the state Office of Native Education  in 2022, about 40% of school districts did not have a teacher trained in teaching Since Time Immemorial, the curriculum developed by the state in cooperation with tribes that share geography with Washington. This, despite the fact that state law adopted in 2015 requires them to do so.

Three canoes await individual turns to ask permission to come ashore on the Samish Indian Nation’s homelands during the 2012 Intertribal Canoe Journey. Acknowledgment and respect are traditional protocols during the annual gathering of Northwest Native canoe cultures. (Richard Walker)

Since Time Immemorial and land acknowledgments are two strands in a web of understanding and relationship building, advocates say, and an important web: As the late state Sen. John McCoy (D-Tulalip), author of the Since Time Immemorial legislation, said, today’s students are tomorrow’s community leaders and legislators. What those young people learn today will inform the policies and politics of the future.

“Land acknowledgments are important because they acknowledge that we’re still here,” Big Bull-Lewis said. “While growing up in Wenatchee and … pushing the dialogue that we’re still here, I found there were people who thought we were extinct, that we no longer existed. 

“And some people don’t understand that we are modern people as well. We don’t go around wearing headdresses or riding on horses every day. I’ve seen microaggressions and heard references to stereotypes from businesses. And so, I think that it’s important that acknowledgments are done. But again, we need to see action from these words that people are putting together.”

From words to transformative action

Several communities in the United States have followed up their land acknowledgments with transformative actions.

Nearly 23,000 individuals, households and businesses regularly contribute to Real Rent Duwamish, a symbolic rent payment that acknowledges that they live and work on Duwamish historical territory. And it’s provided a big boost to the tribe.

The Duwamish Tribe is descended from ancestors who refused in 1855 to join other Native peoples in relocating to reserved lands southeast of Seattle and on the Kitsap Peninsula. Those peoples became known, respectively, as the Muckleshoot Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe. Other Duwamish people moved to the Tulalip and Lummi reservations.

But the Duwamish Tribe is not federally recognized — a recognition decision in the last days of the Clinton administration was reversed by the George W. Bush administration — and recognition is opposed by Muckleshoot and Suquamish, who are considered the successors to treaty-time Duwamish.

The Duwamish Tribe has refused to be stifled. Since launching Real Rent Duwamish, the tribe’s annual income has grown from $173,635 in 2017 to $4.7 million in 2021, according to the latest federal tax records available on the IRS website. Of $1.7 million in expenses in 2021, half went to legal fees in Duwamish’s ongoing pursuit of federal recognition, the other half to maintaining and staffing the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center — located across the street from the ancestral village of həʔapus (ha-ah-poos) on the Duwamish River — and supporting various cultural, educational and health programs for tribal members.

All told, the tribe reported net assets or fund balances of $9.8 million, according to its 2021 tax filing. In 2020 and 2023, the tribe invested a total of $2.6 million to acquire four parcels adjacent to the longhouse and cultural center.

A similar acknowledgment effort began in 2023 by a theater company in Berkeley, California, in the historical territory of the Lisjan Ohlone people. The theater company, Shotgun Players, developed a land acknowledgment in collaboration with the Sogorea Te’ (sa-gor-ah teh) Land Trust, a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit focused on Indigenous land return.

Shotgun Players begin its performances and staff meetings with a 45-second-long statement acknowledging that the land beneath the theater and the studios and throughout East Bay is Huichin, the traditional unceded land of the Lisjan Ohlone people.

The theater company also pays a voluntary Shuumi Land Tax — Shuumi is an Ohlone language word meaning “gift” — of between $3,000 and $6,000 a year to the land trust, depending on the company’s annual income.

The first step

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. suggests reaching out directly to local Indigenous communities and tribal nations to ask how they want to be recognized. 

“Making a land acknowledgment should be motivated by genuine respect and support for Native Peoples,” NMAI advises. “Speaking and hearing words of recognition is an important step in creating collaborative, accountable, continuous, and respectful relationships with Indigenous nations and communities.”

To ease the process, the Lummi Indian Business Council — the governing body of the Lummi Nation — in 2021 wrote and approved a land acknowledgment that can be used by the community

“We, the (insert name of school, government agency, etc.), acknowledge we are residing on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Lummi People. The Lummi People are the original inhabitants of Washington’s northernmost coast and southern British Columbia. They lived in villages throughout this territory and continue to have an ongoing relationship with these areas. Since Time Immemorial they have celebrated life on their land, waterways and on the traditional, ancestral and unceded lands of their People to perpetuate their way of life. Please join us in taking a moment of silence as we honor their ancestors and as we acknowledge the past, present and future Lummi People as the original inhabitants of this land.”

Local colleges have adopted land acknowledgments. Skagit Valley College ‘“acknowledges we are on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, especially on Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, Samish Indian Nation, Nooksack Indian Tribe and Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe.”

Whatcom Community College’s acknowledgment is similar but invites a tribal representative’s involvement:

“I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered today on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, specifically the Lhaq’temish, the Lummi People; and NuxWsa’7aq, the Nooksack People, and I will now ask _____ to bring a welcome on behalf of the _____.”

Western Washington University’s land acknowledgment tells of the continued Native presence and stewardship of the land occupied by the university, and invites response from the listener:

“I would like to begin by acknowledging that we gather today on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish Peoples, who have lived in the Salish Sea basin, throughout the San Juan Islands and the North Cascades watershed, from time immemorial. Please join me in expressing our deepest respect and gratitude for our Indigenous neighbors, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.”

Laural Ballew is Swinomish, living at the Lummi Nation, and is executive director of WWU’s Office of Tribal Relations. On her office website, she wrote about the importance of WWU’s land acknowledgment — and some teachings both speaker and listener can get from it.

“As Native people, we never owned the land but rather we appreciated the abundance and the beauty this land provided for our people, and we value this practice every day,” she wrote.

“As we move forward, it is essential to continue the recognition of who the first people on this land were, and not forget the enduring gratitude they hold for the land, despite the ‘ownership.’ In our eyes, this land has always been a gift and we hold that relationship sacred.”

— By Richard Arlin Walker

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