Reconciliation-Based Land Acknowledgements
Updated: Aug 9
Recently I felt called to produce a Land Acknowledgements episode for the Go Smudge Yourself Podcast (I’ll link the episode and the accompanying infographic below). See, they’re an important part of Reconciliation, but they’re completely misunderstood and misappropriated. My plan is to shed some light on the misuse of Land Acknowledgements and bring the Spirit and Intent back.
It’s important to approach Land Acknowledgements from a few angles. The first angle is acknowledging how Land Acknowledgements have become a form of erasure and colonizer complacency. Second, we have to recognize and honour that Land Acknowledgements are Traditional to Indigenous Peoples. Lastly, we have to come at Land Acknowledgments from an intentionally Reconciliation-based approach. I’m going to take this time to elaborate on all three of these angles, and you’re going to walk away with a better understanding of what Land Acknowledgements are, as well as how they’re meant to be crafted and used versus how they are currently being used.
By now we’ve all seen or heard a Land Acknowledgement. They’re highly controversial with a lot of Indigenous individuals and Nations disagreeing with their use. The argument stems from the fact that Land Acknowledgments have become a task list or a checkmark beside a meeting agenda. They’ve become generic and a symbol of colonizers' virtue signalling to appease Indigenous Peoples and departments in charge of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Yet, despite all this, many Indigenous Peoples maintain that Land Acknowledgements are a necessary part of Reconciliation. How, then, do we use Land Acknowledgements in a way that doesn’t contribute to erasure or colonizer complacency?
The first step is acknowledging how they do contribute to these colonization tactics. For a lot of people, this step will be confusing. “Don’t Indigenous Peoples WANT Land Acknowledgements? How is it erasure if I’m acknowledging their territory?” The answer is yes…but also no. Just like anything else in life, there’s a lot of nuance to this answer. When we talk about Land Acknowledgments and how they participate in erasure, we have to take a step back from the act of a Land Acknowledgement (“I’m grateful to live on the Traditional Territory of ____”) and focus on the process of arriving at a Land Acknowledgment. Anyone can say “I’m grateful to live work and play on the Land of _____.” How many of us can explain the depth of our relationship to Place? Indigenous Peoples most definitely can, which is where a Land Acknowledgment stems from. We have been stewarding these Lands for THOUSANDS of years, and we are as much a part of her as she is of us.
When Settlers and immigrants who participate in the colonization/settlement of Indigenous Lands don’t take the time to respectfully understand the gravity and the depth of Indigenous relationship to Place, or to comprehend the extent of our stewardship over several millennia, the richness of culture and the depth of the Indigenous experience are shrunk down. With the normalization of a generic Land Acknowledgment, both are minimized to the point of erasure and replaced with colonizer complacency. It’s a complacency that reinforces the colonizer’s assumed right to overwrite Indigenous Peoples and our role in the history of this Place. Knowing that, how can we be better?
The history of a Land Acknowledgment is Indigenous and very Traditional in its application. Many Indigenous Peoples participated in Land Acknowledgements, pre-colonization, in one way or another. It’s one of the reasons that generic Land Acknowledgements are so disrespectful. Not only are they erasure, but they are a form of cultural appropriation that has stolen a core concept of how we enter another Nation’s territory respectfully. A Land Acknowledgement requires more than a vague admission that Indigenous Peoples were here first. At its heart, a Traditional Land Acknowledgement is the understanding that a region is not an inanimate object without Spirit, but it is instead alive and connected in every aspect. Each region we acknowledge has immeasurable life within it, all the way down to the Land and Water as living Beings participating in the web of interconnection. Along with all of that is the understanding that the web has always and will always rely upon the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples.
When I say that Land Acknowledgements are Indigenous and Traditional in their application, I’m saying that we have long had an established process for how we arrive at a Land Acknowledgement and give thanks to our hosts. That process is reflected in many, if not most, Indigenous Nations on Turtle Island. Prior to colonization, we had unblocked intricate relationships with those around us, including other Nations. When we travelled into a territory that wasn’t under our stewardship, or even travelled to a different community, it was expected that we introduce ourselves in an equally intricate way (I say ‘was’ due to context, but this protocol is still very much alive). You’ve probably heard Indigenous Peoples give long introductions that include our Clans, our lineage, and which territory we hail from. This introduction is customary to Indigenous Peoples as everything about your interactions is based upon and shaped by your relationship to Place. The introduction itself is not a Land Acknowledgement, but it is the beginning of your participation in situating yourself in Place, which is required for a respectful Land Acknowledgement.
The protocol surrounding Land Acknowledgements will vary from Nation to Nation. In some Nations, they are lengthy and involve expressing gratitude to the host Nation while honouring the hard work that they, the Land and Water put in to sustain each other. In other Nations, they may be shorter because the implication of a Land Acknowledgement for Indigenous Peoples is that the guest has already taken the time to situate themselves and respectfully reflect on their position. The issue with the short, generic Land Acknowledgements that Settlers have begun using to virtue signal their participation in Reconciliation is that the backend work hasn’t been done. There is no respectful reflection or attempt to learn about their region, or how they fit into the interconnected web. Situated inside that lack of reflection is the ignorance (accidental or purposeful) of how much work Indigenous Peoples have put into supporting each region and their web.
So far, it looks like the argument against using a Land Acknowledgement would be strong for the Settlers and immigrants reading this, but I want to take this conversation in a different direction. There are multiple ways to do a generic Land Acknowledgement that reinforces erasure and colonization, but there are also multiple ways to do a respectful, reflective Land Acknowledgement that anchors your intention in true Reconciliation. Everything comes back to the relationship to Place and understanding the intricacies of your impact and responsibilities in that Place. There can be no Reconciliation without truth, and there can be no truth without every individual on this Land taking the time to learn the real history and impacts of colonization and their role in it. Taking the time to really sit with and understand the depth of your place here and the depth of Indigenous Peoples's place here is vital to being able to craft a Land Acknowledgement that contributes to Reconciliation.
Let’s explore my template for doing just that (and remember the infographic is linked below)
1. Research the area you live and/or work in.
Whose Land are you on?
Is it Treaty Land? If so, is the community you’re in the result of forced relocation? Is this the community’s Traditional Land or were they forced into a different area? A lot of Bands are located in areas that aren’t their Traditional Land so it’s important to know that going into your Land Acknowledgement.
Who has been left out of the story? For example, the Metis are often disregarded when it comes to Land Acknowledgements and their participation in stewardship.
Get familiar with the stewardship that Indigenous Peoples in the region have been responsible for since time immemorial.
Learn about the resiliency of the Land and Peoples, but also take the time to understand that resiliency. (Which lakes have been polluted with wastewater? How much work do the local trees put into cleaning city smog?)
2. Spend time reflecting on the Land and Water where you are and your relationship to them.
How do you benefit from the Land and Water?
How lucky are you to have access to such amazing places that fight so hard to sustain life?
Is this a one-way relationship where you take advantage of the Land and Water without consideration for how you impact them?
Are you hindering Indigenous stewardship or making their job harder?
Assess how the Land and Water support you, who it’s been supporting before you and who it will need to support after you’re gone (human and non-human). Relationship to place isn’t just about the here and now. You also need to think about who this Land and Water will need to support in the future and who they sustained prior.
3. Make it Personal
If you’re reflecting on how you benefit from a region, you should understand that acknowledging it must come from you and your heart.
Acknowledge if you’re an uninvited guest to the region, which doesn’t depend on if you were born there or not.
Are you Indigenous to that Place?
Did you receive an invitation specifically from the Indigenous Peoples in the region to come?
Show your commitment to understanding and respecting your relationship to Place and your responsibility to take part in Reconciliation.
4. Show appreciation for the Land, the Water, Plants and Animals
Sit with the understanding that non-humans have a relationship to Place too. They have an important role to play in the web as well.
How have non-human Beings been impacted by colonization and preventing Indigenous stewardship? When was the last time the rivers were lined with Salmon? Have the Caribou been flooded out of their homes and migration routes? How does that impact them?
How does your presence in the region contribute to the harm done by them and benefit from their hard work to continue supporting life?
5. Show appreciation, humility and respect for the Peoples that have stewarded it since the beginning of time.
Witness and acknowledge the hard work that Indigenous Peoples have put into stewarding this Land, and the hard work that we continue to fight for access to. The Land and Waters are sick without the continuous stewardship of Indigenous Peoples.
The Land, Water, Plants and Animals were thriving at contact because of our intricate Knowledge of the regions and our dedication to respecting the needs of all Beings there, not because we didn’t know how to effectively harvest our gifts.
The forceful removal of Indigenous Peoples from our Lands is one of the State’s highest economic goals because we stand in the way of unfettered access to the Land and Water’s gifts.
Our relationship with the Land, Water, Plants and Animals dictated how much we all thrived together.
When we say that we humbly acknowledge and respect the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples, how many of us are actually understanding how intricate that work is to the health of this planet?
6. Say their names right.
We’re not here to shame people for having to use easier pronunciations of certain phonetics in Indigenous languages, especially considering so many of us have had our languages stolen.
However, not all Nations will be okay with a bastardized version of their name. That’s why your practice should be consistent with the goal of eventually saying names correctly.
Seek help with pronunciation from someone who can say the name correctly.
Don’t think it’s a big deal? It is. Consider the use of the word “bow.” When used as “take a bow after the performance,” it’s a different pronunciation and meaning than when it’s used as “there was a bow on the present.”
Of course, if you don’t grow up making all the sounds in a language, the pronunciation will likely be off, but so then will the meaning in that language.
7. Lastly, say Thank You.
Show your gratitude and speak your gratitude. Show humility and show respect.
Don’t assume that anyone knows the research and reflection that you’ve done. Come right out and say Thank You and explain how grateful you are and why.
One last caveat or bonus tip is to remember that there is no such thing as ceded Land in our Indigenous worldview or experience. The history of intentionally deceptive Treaties with the Canadian colony and then the Canadian state requires its own essay, and there are experts much more qualified than I am that have already done this work. I recommend reading up on the real Treaty process that Canada doesn’t want you to know about. In the meantime, I would acknowledge that the Land you’re on is unceded regardless of its Treaty status.
Crafting a Land Acknowledgement that participates in Reconciliation instead of colonization takes time, reflection and genuine effort. Gone are the days when generic Land Acknowledgements were considered respectful or polite (were they ever, though?). It’s time to step up your game and get real with your relationship to Place and the Indigenous Peoples in your region. Don’t forget to check out the Land Acknowledgement infographic and accompanying podcast episode linked below.
Listen to the accompanying podcast for this essay
Save and share the Land Acknowledgement Infographic.