Hollow words, and deep down we know it

When people gather, it is common to hear acknowledgements of the group meeting on unceded territories of Indigenous people who have populated western Canada for roughly 14,000 years.1

The announcements make me uncomfortable. They are hollow words, and deep down we know it.

According to Dr. Len Necefer2, land acknowledgements may have a negative consequence:

The cynic in me wonders if this is simply a perfunctory, box-checking exercise to signal someone’s politics without a deeper understanding of Indigenous people. It’s time for a dramatic reframing of the guiding question of why we participate—or don’t—in land acknowledgment...

It’s important to recognize the background this practice signals. The dispossession, removal, and state-sanctioned acts of genocide against Indigenous people are not confined to the past. Many of the challenges Indigenous communities face today can be traced back to this violence—including economic marginalization, food insecurity, poverty, and the looming extinction of many Native languages. But acknowledgments can have the unintended consequence of framing Indigenous people’s issues as antiquated and limited to land, glossing over the most brutal acts as a result.

We Need to Reframe Why We Do Land Acknowledgments

UNC Professor Michael Lambert3 and colleagues have similar concerns:

Land acknowledgments often fail to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples owned the land, describing Indigenous peoples as mere “stewards” or “custodians.” Such language tacitly affirms the putative right of non-Indigenous people to now claim title. This is also implied in what goes unsaid: after acknowledging that an institution sits on another’s land, plans are almost never made to give the land back. This creates a void that is often filled by another sentiment: “What was once yours is now ours.”

Rethinking Land Acknowledgments

Writing about a land issue in Ontario, Lucy El-Sherif asks:

What is the point of Canadians saying land acknowledgements ad infinitum if Indigenous Peoples’ land is still being taken from them? They are everywhere, but don’t mean anything.

Six Nations Land Defenders in Caledonia reveal hypocrisy of Canada’s land acknowledgements

I am a postwar boomer educated in Powell River, BC. In those days, almost nothing was taught about Indigenous presence nearby our community or about associated history, except perhaps that original people sometimes made life difficult for those who had settled on lands with permission of English Kings and Queens.

Despite the nearby Tla’amin Nation, our contacts were limited. Indigenous children were shipped elsewhere for education and not a single one sat in my secondary school until 1963. Today, British Columbia’s educators have altered the environment substantially and every public school child learns about Indigenous culture, languages and history.

Improved education may or may not change the way public policies are formed in the future, but I think it would be naïve to think that Canadian politicians today believe in more than highly performative, feel-good empty gestures. Modern reality is more like that described in this cartoon from a U.K. artist.

1 Archaeology at the Hakai Institute: Past, Present, and Future (Hakai Institute is part of the Tula Foundation.)

2 Len Necefer, Ph.D., is the CEO and Founder of NativesOutdoors. Len has worked for the U.S. Department of Energy, the NASA Glenn Research Center, and most recently the University of Arizona.

3 The research of Professor Michael Lambert (enrolled citizen Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) focuses on anthropological representation, economic and political anthropology, social movements, colonialism, migration, belonging, and indigeneity in Africa and North America.

Categories: Indigenous, Justice

5 replies »

  1. It has seemed to me that the purpose of a land acknowledgement, if there is one, is for people to remind themselves, perhaps uncomfortably, and however briefly, that there is unfinished business here. I think that’s a useful exercise, though certainly not an end in itself.


  2. The words seem hollow because of the long litany of apologies accompanied by less-than-half measures to address issues of dispossession and disenfranchisement by governments everywhere and of all political stripes. These words reflect a willingness on the part of some to engage in real consultation and real redress. I have difficulty seeing much of a change at the government level, and individual efforts are stymied for lack of resources.


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