Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Territorial acknowledgements are the first step towards respecting the people who have been here before us
Note from the Writer:
When I was asked to write this piece, I was initially hesitant because a number of indigenous activists have already spoken and written about territorial acknowledgements. After speaking with a number of activists who I know and respect, I decided to write it because I believe that settlers such as myself have a responsibility to take on the work necessary to decolonize academia. I plan to use this space to boost the words of indigenous folks who have talked about this in the past, so I hope you will visit and spend time at the links I have included. Also, any funds that I make from publishing this article will be donated to indigenous people who are in need. You can learn more about me and my work at my website, saraecannon.com.
A territorial (or land) acknowledgment, a recognition of the indigenous peoples whose land we are living on and who have been displaced by the presence of non-indigenous peoples (or “settlers”), is a valuable tool for teaching and reminding people that most of us in the United States and Canada are visitors on the lands we call home.
They may help to undo some of the erasure that indigenous communities face on a regular basis. Most of all, they are a valuable first step to working towards decolonization and making academia a more inclusive and just environment for everyone. Here at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, all official events open with the words:
I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered today on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.
Colonization does not often enter academic discussions or coursework in the realm of physical science, so when I first heard these words as an incoming graduate student, I was largely unaware of the ways that colonization still harms indigenous communities today. As a non-indigenous person from the United States, I had been (incorrectly) taught that colonization was something that happened in the past and that is now over. In fact, the last residential school in Canada, which aimed to assimilate First Nations people into society and convert them to Christianity, did not close until 1996, when I was still in elementary school. Indigenous communities are still today regularly forced to fight industry and development to protect their homelands and access to resources (see the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline for a recent example in the United States and the current efforts of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to stop an expansion of a pipeline through their territory in northern British Columbia for an example in Canada [you can support their efforts here] ). Science is regularly complicit in harming indigenous communities; for example, Native Hawaiian activists are currently fighting against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, a mountain they consider sacred. This reading list about decolonization is a great starting point for learning more.
Territorial acknowledgements are a step towards decolonization that can also be a valuable starting point for people who are just learning about the ways that colonization impacts indigenous communities today. In the worlds of Chelsea Vowel (Métis):
If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands.
(Editor’s note: The Métis in Canada are groups of peoples in Canada who trace their descent to First Nations peoples and European settlers, primarily French in the early decades.)
Those of us who are settlers in North America benefit from the colonization of Indigenous peoples because it makes space for us to be where we are and to live our lives the way we want to. By living on lands that were stolen from indigenous communities, we are therefore complicit in the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples, and we have a responsibility to work towards decolonization, or to regularly confront colonization in our daily lives. Academics especially, who often hold respected positions in learning institutions and may have large audiences of students, are in a position to fight the erasure of indigenous peoples and the continuous harm they face. Giving a territorial acknowledgment before lectures and talks is one way to begin doing that. If you are in Canada, please visit this guide for an idea of how to give your own territorial acknowledgement (find out whose land you live and work on here).
It is important to note that territorial acknowledgments are not universally accepted by indigenous people. The main criticism is the ability for the acknowledgment to become an empty gesture that allows someone to feel like they are working towards reconciliation without taking any meaningful action. For example,
Oftentimes, when non-Indigenous organizers make a territory acknowledgment, it is done hastily (weacknowledgethatwearegatheredonuncededcoastsalishterritory), and then discarded (now on with the show!) (Wiebe and Ho)
Therefore, if we are truly committed to decolonizing academia, it is vital that we commit ourselves beyond just performing territorial acknowledgements. Academics must include the voices of indigenous people in our courses. For example, if you are teaching a course that discusses the impacts of climate change, you may assign readings from indigenous writers and scientists (this book does an excellent job of discussing the ways traditional ecological knowledge and western science can complement each other), and invite indigenous guest speakers to talk about how climate change disproportionately affects indigenous communities. You could also learn about ways to decolonize your research methods and to include indigenous perspectives in your studies (see this paper for an example from the marine sciences). Educating yourself on issues being faced by indigenous communities where you are from will provide important context; read books, subscribe to indigenous-lead newsletters, and follow indigenous people on social media with the goal of listening to their perspectives. Most importantly, decolonizing academia requires openness from settler academics, who must be willing to follow the guidance of indigenous people. Please read this list, 100 ways to Indigenize and decolonize academic programs and courses, for more ideas and resources.
For me, the most important change I have made since hearing my first territorial acknowledgment first introduced me to the ongoing effects of colonization is learning to listen to indigenous people with openness and without defensiveness. I have learned about the harm being caused by cultural appropriation, indigenous mascots, gentrification, intergenerational trauma, the erasure of indigenous languages, and other ongoing impacts of colonization from reading books and articles by indigenous authors (particularly women, who are disproportionately affected) and following indigenous people on Twitter (see the hashtag #indigenousinstem for indigenous scientists to follow). Learning to set aside defensiveness when an indigenous person talks about how they are being hurt by colonization is extremely important because it centers their experience over my own as a privileged person (an act of decolonization in itself), but also means that I am learning, evolving, and adding new ways to fight decolonization to my toolbox so that I can support them more effectively. This informs not only my research (I study marine management and coral reef resilience in the central Pacific, where there is also a long history of colonization that still impacts people’s lives today), but also the choices I make in my personal life, the media I consume, and the things I teach my 15-year-old son.
As settlers in Canada and the United States, it is our responsibility to pursue justice for those who are marginalized by our very presence here. Territorial acknowledgments alone will not decolonize academic spaces or fix the problems facing indigenous communities, but they are a valuable first step; they can battle the wide-spread erasure of indigenous peoples while introducing large audiences, who may be largely unaware as I was, to the ongoing effects of colonization. As long as non-indigenous academics do not stop at territorial acknowledgments and make further efforts to make academic spaces more inclusive, they can be a valuable step towards decolonization.