Institutions Must Offer More Than Words When Occupying Native American Lands, Say Indigenous Peoples


The lands of Ann Remy’s Lenni-Lenape ancestors once stretched from New York to Delaware, covering all of the Philadelphia area and all of New Jersey.

No more, of course. The land has been taken and stolen, defrauded and bought, then sold again and again for hundreds of years.

Now that’s being acknowledged, as governments and big institutions spill tons of words to publicly acknowledge that they’re sitting on property that rightfully belonged – or does – to others. But the rise of these “land acknowledgments” is fueling debate over their value, whether they constitute meaningful affirmation or serve to appease largely white sensibilities.

“It would be nice if they went further,” said Remy, a Penndel activist from the Coalition of Natives and Allies, “with events to educate people or using the original place names.”

Critics say statements posted on the websites of dozens of corporations, universities and museums too often mark the beginning and end of concerns about issues that harm Native Americans.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Terry Shepard, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, who lives in Bryn Mawr. “Statements are better than ignoring the story, but without any action behind it, it’s kind of a superficial gesture.”

More colleges and schools could offer scholarships to Native students, have tribal members on their boards, and add courses in Native American history and speakers, he said. Museums should mount more exhibits and programs, and work with tribes to return sacred objects held in their collections. Companies can offer internships and jobs.

As Indigenous Peoples Day arrives on Monday, the governments of philadelphia creamNew York, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, and Portland, Oregon, or their agencies, have done reconnaissance or are in progress.

“On the one hand, acknowledgment of the land is extremely important, because beyond acknowledgment of the land, it’s about acknowledgment of the people,” said Debra Yepa-Pappan, a Chicago artist and Indigenous activist. . On the other hand, “I wonder if people feel like they’re following a trend. Sometimes I wonder if this is coming from a place of white settler guilt.

She was inundated with requests for consultation on appropriate language. The key thing, she tells the organizations, is recognition is just the beginning, that “now you’re committing to doing work that will benefit Indigenous people.”

For some groups, “this is where it stops,” said Yepa-Pappan, a member of Jemez Pueblo and a Community Engagement Coordinator at the Field Museum. Now she refuses to help those who don’t want to join the growing movement to “return to the land” and return property to indigenous communities.

Beyond a statement, the Field Museum mounted the “Native Truths: Our Voices Our Stories” exhibit and released a video discussion between Indigenous women leaders who wonder whether land reconnaissances are simply “a shiny new thing”. In its statement, New York’s Lincoln Center Theater pledges to develop works that reflect the cultures it has displaced, to “begin to confront the racism that Lincoln Center Theater has benefited from.”

The University of Pennsylvania is explicit about forced displacement, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art speaks candidly on its website about broken treaties and fraudulent agreements.

“Land recognition is the first step in acknowledging how settler colonialism has affected Indigenous peoples,” said Erin Sheffield, Executive Director of People’s Light Theatre. “We look forward to taking meaningful action.”

For the past two summers, the Chester County organization has hosted an outdoor theater showcasing the stories of Lenni-Lenape and Ute. He is working with Native American consultants and actors on a new play and is planning a staff screening of Indian fighters, a film about a high school in Maine who vigorously resisted the abandonment of his “Indian” nickname.

A land acknowledgment is an official statement that recognizes Indigenous peoples as the original owners and stewards of the lands on which this country was built.

Today, indigenous peoples have lost 99% of the lands they historically occupied, according to a team of researchers found last year. Many land-holding tribes have been systematically forced into less valuable and less productive properties, excluding them from key sectors of the economy, the study notes.

The question, say indigenous peoples, is whether the institutions that offer recognition really understand what they are recognizing.

The creation of the United States is an immigration story, but not the one most people think of. The Europeans who settled on these shores killed, hunted and deceived the indigenous peoples, supported in this effort by the colonial government and later by the American federal government.

The federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 violently removed Native Americans in order to expand American land holdings in southern states. More than 100,000 were forced to move to what became the state of Oklahoma, and thousands died of disease and starvation along the way – the trail of tears.

The Dawes Act of 1887 directly claimed an additional 90 million acres of Native American land. The law required that tribal land be divided among individual members of the tribe, not held in common – and that “surplus” land be offered to white settlers. This has created a patchwork of properties held by a range of owners and continues to limit the ability of Indigenous peoples to mobilize vast territories as an economic force, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation found.

“The general public [needs] to recognize what brought them there,” said Cris Stainbrook, who is Oglala Lakota and president of the Land Tenure Foundation, which helps natives reclaim their homelands. “In a lot of cases it was murder, it was a scam, it was illegal taking. But if you don’t deal with it, there’s something missing from recognition.

The first official land acknowledgment he heard, Stainbrook said, was at a meeting of county commissioners in South Dakota. He expected the oral statement to be followed by action plans, that perhaps the county had property they wanted returned.

This was not the case. And that’s the problem.

“It requires more sincerity,” Stainbrook said. “Relieving someone’s guilt is the point of many of these statements.”

At the same time, a growing “back to the land” movement has had some success.

In September, the City of Oakland announced a plan to return five acres of park property to local Native Americans. In April, the Rappahannock Tribe redeemed 465 acres from their homeland in eastern Virginia, and in June about 1,000 acres in central New York were returned to the Onondaga Nation.

Private landowners in Chester County and South Jersey gave land to natives.

The loss of the territory of his ancestors, says Remy, remains painful. Not just because he was taken, but because of what was done to him. When she drives through New Jersey, she sees mega-warehouses and shopping malls, and a concrete floor that turns the streets into rivers when it rains.

“A lot of people think ‘back to earth’ is us coming back and kicking everyone off. It’s too complicated for that,” Remy said. “A lot of aboriginal people want water rights, to protect the water. And sacred spaces. And the graves, of course. This is the type of “return to earth” that would be beneficial. And keep it open to everyone.


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