If you’ve been to any event held at or by the University of Connecticut in the past couple years, you’ve probably heard a land acknowledgement statement being read aloud before the event. According to UConn’s Native American Cultural Program website, a land acknowledgment is “a formal statement that recognizes and respects Native peoples as traditional stewards of lands. The statement highlights the enduring relationship between Native peoples and their transitional territories.” UConn’s land acknowledgement statement does this: It recognizes that the land is the territory of seven indigenous tribes, thanks them for protecting the land, and then kind of promises to uphold that protection.
For centuries academic institutions have failed to educate students about the history of the Native people that came before colonization, so it is undoubtedly beneficial to acknowledge that the land that we occupy has an Indigenous history. According to its website, UConn’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion even worked with the Akomawt Educational Initiative to create the acknowledgement, meaning Native peoples’ perspectives were included in its conception. The intention of UConn’s land acknowledgment seems purposeful. However, we need to continue to remember that purpose and think about the context of the land acknowledgement every time we hear it.
It is all too easy for words to lose their value when they are repeated time and time again without the speaker or listeners pausing to think critically about them. Take the Pledge of Allegiance — anyone raised in the U.S. knows it by heart from repetition at the beginning of every school day, but it has not necessarily instilled patriotism in the mind of every student. UConn’s land acknowledgement statement cannot become a “pledge” as such. If our mission as a university is to reckon with the past erasure of Indigenous history and the atrocities committed by colonization, it will take more than reciting a statement at the beginning of university events to do so. Reciting a land acknowledgement at events could, and maybe already is, becoming a performative act — but it doesn’t have to be.
There needs to be emotion and mindfulness involved in acknowledging the land. We fail to fulfill the purpose of the land acknowledgement by not being present in it. We need to imagine a time when all of the university buildings, lawns and roads weren’t here — imagine how the forest must’ve looked when Native people lived in it, and reflect on this. Think of the ways that we individually and collectively hurt the environment that Native people thrived in without destroying it. In doing so, we are motivated to actually follow through with our promise to be good stewards of the land. At UConn, acknowledgement is a step, but action must follow.
Acknowledgements and similar recognitions should only serve as a pretext to the empowerment of Indigenous communities in Connecticut. A minimum toward this effort includes UConn and other land-grant universities giving platforms and resources to Indigenous communities themselves, and accepting their perspectives about what it means for an institution of higher learning to approach reconciliation and justice for the victims of the Indigenous genocide in North America.