What Are Land Acknowledgements, and Why Do We Do Them?

Over the last few years, you may have noticed a new practice popping up at the Sierra Club. You may have seen people open meetings or introduce themselves by acknowledging that they are on the lands of particular Indigenous nations, or even been asked to do so yourself. Though new to the Sierra Club, the practice of land acknowledgement has ancient roots. Far from serving as mere virtue-signaling, it has deep implications for how we do environmental and conservation work. 

This practice has risen in tandem with the Sierra Club’s deepening engagement with Indigenous Nations over the past decade. We’ve worked with Gwich'in leaders to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas drilling, fought gas export facilities on the Gulf Coast with the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe, and supported the Indigenous-led struggle against the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, among many other fights where we have centered, partnered with, and supported Tribal communities across the country. We’ve had to learn many lessons about how to show up in authentic, principled partnership. 

But there’s much more we can do to become better allies to Indigenous Peoples in the struggle for climate and environmental justice. The Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, Hop Hopkins, sat down with Angela Mooney D’Arcy (Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation) to discuss land acknowledgments and how we can go beyond acknowledgment to truly honor Indigenous environmental leadership. D’Arcy is the founder and Executive Director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, a Los Angeles-based, Indigenous-led organization that works to build the capacity of Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples to protect sacred lands, waters, and cultures. She is also the Co-Director of the United Coalition to Protect Panhe, a grassroots alliance of Acjachemen people dedicated to the protection of their sacred sites.

Hop: So our first question for you, Angela, is what is a land acknowledgement? 

Angela: The specifics of a land acknowledgement are going to vary depending on who you ask and whose ancestral homelands you're in. But at a very basic level, it's just locating yourself spatially, understanding and then acknowledging that you are on someone's ancestral homelands.

Hop: And how and why did the practice develop? What's the origin?

Angela: I would say that the practice is as old as peoples are. The year before the pandemic, I had an opportunity to travel to Australia. I was talking to an elder, and he said that prior to contact, the common protocol was that anytime you traveled into anybody else's land, you had to be able to acknowledge them respectfully in their language. That specific practice of greeting people in their languages may not be the same in Indigenous communities everywhere, but I think it's always been a practice to understand where you are and recognize and respect when you're a guest in someone else's space. That might mean bringing gifts to people asking for permission to be there, and acknowledging not only the people of the land, but also the land itself and the animal relatives. So I would say that the land acknowledgement practice is as old as humanity, if not older. 

But more recently, it's been identified as something of importance for universities and organizations and even government agencies to do. And in other places they're way ahead of where the United States is with that. In the US, it's a practice that maybe started to emerge in a critical mass type of way five to ten years ago, if that.

Hop: Right on, and when should people do one, and why should they do one?

Angela: Well, one of the issues that comes up with land acknowledgements, now that there's such an interest in doing it, often people get excited about having the product and less so about developing a meaningful process to get there. That's a long way of saying, ask the people whose actual land you're on, ask the people whose land you're acknowledging, when you should do one, why you should do one, and what they want that to be.

 If you have already developed or are in the process of developing relationships with local Tribes, then the resources to create a thoughtful land acknowledgement should kind of find themselves. Besides that, there are tons of resources out there. Literally, you can Google “creating a land acknowledgement.” 

So one tip is, if you don't know the name of the native nations whose lands you're on, you're not ready to do a land acknowledgment yet. And you would think that that would be a basic thing, but it's not. You'll see a lot of land acknowledgments out there that are just very broadly saying Indigenous people were here and you should acknowledge them.

Another thing I would say is, definitely don't create land acknowledgements in the past tense. There are a lot of land acknowledgments that say "this was once the land of,” right? It wasn't "once the land of," it is the land of our people, and whether or not we maintain control over our ancestral homelands, and whether or not that relationship with the land is legally recognized, doesn't change that fact. 

And so when should people do one? Ask the local tribes who you're acknowledging. Why should they do one? Because we really all are missing out if we're complacent in or perpetuating the erasure of the largest time period of history of a place. My people have stories about the area now known as Orange County before it was even land, when it was still an ocean. When you don't do land acknowledgments, you're reducing the story of humanity and place to such a small fraction of the time that a place has been in existence. But you can't achieve any sort of environmental justice absent a thorough and full understanding of a place. 

Hop: What do you think isn't well understood about the practice of land acknowledgements? And how can people go beyond land acknowledgments? 

Angela: You hear a lot of resistance to this as just another box to check or just something that people who are quote unquote woke are doing now. I think the actual significance of the practice is misunderstood. 

I think that people who are resistant to land acknowledgement don't understand the emotional and spiritual and physical impacts on Indigenous Peoples of centuries of attempted erasure by settler colonial societies. And so, in that sense, this very simple practice of acknowledgement, when implemented thoroughly and consistently, can have a tremendous impact upon a people or peoples whom settler colonial society has attempted to erase in mind, body, and spirit, for centuries.

Hop: How can people go beyond that acknowledgement? Are there specific courses of action you would recommend for people to people engaged in environmental work?

Angela: That is my favorite question, how to go beyond land acknowledgments. I take what may be considered somewhat of a controversial stance in that I tell entities and agencies, if all you're going to do is the land acknowledgement, then just don't. I would rather people not create a land acknowledgement, if that's going to be the extent of their attempts to acknowledge or engage with Indigenous nations.

The most important step you can take to go beyond land acknowledgements is to give the land back. As my colleague Charles Sepulveda says, it may seem like a radical request, but quite simply, if it can be taken away, it can be returned. Land back, land rematriation, can mean a lot of different things. At a very small level, it can mean, are you a person who has the resources to make a donation to a local Indigenous-led nonprofit organization, or directly to a Tribe? If you don't have financial resources, are there other skills or things that you're able to offer to the people whose land you're on, in the same way that if you show up as a guest, especially if you are crashing with a friend or family member for weeks, months, years on end, one would hope that you're doing something to pull your weight: You're cooking meals, you're offering to clean the house.

If people are wanting to donate land, there's always opportunities to give it directly back to Tribes, or Tribal land conservancies or Tribal land trusts. There are federal and California versions of an initiative to protect 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 to address the climate and extinction crises. Let's conserve that by returning it to Indigenous hands.  

Another thing that many of my elders and mentors focus on is the actual land, and how much has been invaded by non-native plant species. They advocate for people to plant native plant species wherever they can to help rematriate and rehabilitate the land, because those plants have a right to be here too. It's their homeland as well.

Another thing that many of my elders have suggested is for people to learn the names of places in the local Indigenous languages. Because many times those place names are embedded in stories about that place and how to be in it. The more that people bring those names back, the deeper understanding they can have of that place. 

So there are many, many ways to go beyond land acknowledgement, and many, many ways to engage in that work. 

Hop: You've relayed some of this, but how do land acknowledgements relate to Indigenous demands for land back?

Angela: I think it's the first step. In order to have demand for land back honored, you have to be willing to first acknowledge that that is somebody else's on land and that you're a guest there. And I want to just name here that I'm using the term "land rematriation" because patriarchy is a settler colonial concept. And so we talked about "land rematriation" instead of "land repatriation," because we're trying to do more than just return land within a settler colonial heteropatriarchal paradigm.

Hop: Yeah, I really appreciate you making that point. I was going to ask about it later because I think it's a term that many people aren't familiar with. Our next question is, what if any relationship exists between the land back movement and the Sierra Club's work for a more sustainable future?

Angela: I think I should put that question back on you, Hop. Because my answer is, I don't know. And if I don't know, somebody in Sierra Club locally isn't communicating with local Indigenous leaders the way they should.

Hop: Right. Well, let me broaden it to the role that conservation organizations and environment organizations have more broadly. How should organizations like the Sierra Club be thinking about their relationships to the land back movement? And again, if you really honestly think that's a question that I as the author should take on, I'm happy to answer that question. I'm just wanting to give you an opportunity to speak to it. You may want the organization to reflect on its land conservation policy, or how it can be a good ally in the 30x30 work, or how it can use its federal policy positions to support non-federally recognized Tribes.

Angela: Well, I think all of what you said, especially how to be a good ally in things like the 30x30 initiative and the just transitions movement. A little/not little thing that I ask environmental orgs all the time to do, and I don't know any that have done it yet. Dedicate a space. If it's in LA, dedicate it as a Tongva room, and anytime a Tongva person needs to use a computer or hold a meeting, they should be able to use that space. At a very basic level, especially when we're talking about landless Tribes, or Tribes in urban areas -- because there's no Tribe that has jurisdiction over San Francisco or Sacramento or LA or New York City -- physical space can be really valuable. And maybe a starting point is an internal assessment of the physical spaces that the Sierra Club either owns or has access to through rentals or through donors. In what ways, if any, are those spaces being utilized to support the needs, desires, or work of Indigenous people whose lands they're on?

To take it back to what I said a minute ago, I haven't heard anything from the local and national leadership of the Sierra Club. Sometimes we’re on email lists together. But NRDC has made sure that they've met with Sacred Places Institute regularly, and see if there are any needs they can help us meet. I think the Sierra Club should do the same, not just in LA, but everywhere. It shouldn't have to be me or any other local Indigenous leader coming to them asking for a meeting. 

If Sierra Club wants to be serious about land acknowledgments and land return within their leadership, the executive directors and whoever else has leadership roles needs to seek out the Indigenous community leaders where they're based, and find out what those communities need. Like right now in Orange County, what the Sierra Club could do to help out is support our Sacred Places Institute's push for Banning Ranch, otherwise known as Ganga, to be returned to Tribal control, as opposed to yet another predominantly or entirely white land trust. That's a very concrete thing that they could do. But they won't know that if their leadership doesn't meet with me and others.

Hop: How do land acknowledgements help combat that myth of the virgin wilderness, propagated by early conservationists? In what ways was this a harmful and false idea that nevertheless persists today?

Angela: I don't know if you guys have seen the new comedy Reservation Dogs. My favorite scene in that whole series is a scene where two of the main characters are going hunting, and their car is parked right in front of this big no trespassing sign, and without any sort of hesitation  they proceed to duck under that fence and go do what they need to do on what is, after all, their ancestral lands. But I love that moment because it's so real. Indigenous people never stopped recognizing or claiming relationship to specific places, and nothing, not even fences or the federal government's no trespassing signs, can stop us from engaging with our ancestral places. 

The establishment of the national park system, setting these boundaries for the forest, all these things which were celebrated in the early conservation movement, are instances of further displacement of Indigenous people from our ancestral lands. There can be this tension between mainstream environmental orgs that to this day hold on to this idea of wilderness or nature as something outside of humanity that we need to protect from humans, and what Indigenous people see as the proper relationship between themselves and the land. 

The other thing that this myth of virgin wilderness gets into is a real degradation of Indigenous systems of knowledge. The assumption that, just because white settlers looked out on the land and didn't see it as modified, that it actually was untouched is quite silly. Because if you're new to a place, you're going to miss the nuances of a lot of what's happening. You’re not going to know the history of a place, you're not going to understand what changes may have happened, or the stories behind how or when things were altered. And that's really what happened when this myth of virgin wilderness was created: People who had zero familiarity with that particular place or landscape looked on it, decided that it was untouched, and created this narrative around what that means, how the land needs to be managed and conserved, and who has a right to access it.  When in reality, any place where there have been Indigenous Peoples is a place where there has been a relationship between people and the environment that altered the landscape. The difference is that the landscapes were altered in ways that were sustainable and done out of respect and with a principle of thinking seven generations in the future.

I think that myth is particularly harmful now, when we're facing all the incredible consequences of climate change. Because to the extent that people still hold on to this idea that Indigenous people didn't have a relationship with place and landscape, we're missing out on important knowledge that can help us figure out collectively how to be more resilient in the face of climate change.

Hop: So my last question is, what role can Indigenous place based knowledge play in ecological work and restoration? 

Angela: Any environmental issue you want to look at, there are traditional practices and ideologies and wisdom that can and should inform decisions that are being made and planning that's happening around climate adaptation and climate resiliency. 

I'm very honored and privileged to be a part of the Tribal Working Group of Climate Science Alliance. And many of the Tribal nations that are a part of that are already figuring out climate resiliency and climate adaptation from a traditional cultural lens. But I don't hear mainstream institutions taking guidance from them the way they should. With everything having to do with climate adaptation and resiliency planning, there should be funding worked into those budgets to compensate Tribal cultural knowledge holders for their advising on this work. Because we all miss out when that knowledge isn't there.

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