What’s wrong with Native American land acknowledgements at university commencement and graduation exercises?

In the northern hemisphere December brings with it cold weather, preparations for and celebration of holidays like Hanukah, Christmas, and Kwanza, and in many colleges and universities commencement exercises.

During this event, students who meet the requirements of graduation, who did not complete their degrees in the spring semester, and/or did not formally participate in graduation exercises by walking across the stage, are formally presented with their diplomas (or more realistically pieces of paper with instructions on where they can pick them up).

Before any graduate is called to the stage to participate in this time honored tradition, speeches from university presidents and/or provosts, and one or more invited guests who may either be a commencement speaker and/or being awarded an honorary doctorate are given. The audience will also most likely listen to one or more speeches from a graduating senior or graduate student who was selected by the student body.

As a faculty member who has participated in numerous commencement and graduating exercises, I’ve noticed an awkward recent trend. Increasingly many of these speeches start with native land acknowledgements or dedications.

In principle these statements draw attention to the fact that if one was to perform a thorough title search, the university was probably built on land that was stolen from the indigenous people (i.e., Native American/American Indian) either living there or in the region.

What benefits do public Native American land acknowledgements provide at university events?

Recognizing that the land where people have chosen to live, work, and/or build structures on was at one point in time probably stolen or obtained through shady practices is important. And this insight is almost completely ignored by most people living in colonizing states like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

In principle, and perhaps, the Native American land claim acknowledgement issued at these public venues is designed to shock those in attendance out of their complacency, change the definition of the situation, and maybe even do something positive about the long term exploitation of Native American peoples.

The public utterance of the land claims acknowledgement is also a low cost method of virtue signaling, and method to demonstrate political correctness. If that is the intended goal then the native land claim acknowledgement at the beginning of speeches has served its purpose.

But the native land declaration that are made at university commencement exercises (not to mention other public university events, and the websites) still remains problematic.

Why are Native American land claim acknowledgement problematic at public university events?

Although I’m not the only person to have difficulty with public native land acknowledgements, I think that the college/university context or platform deserves greater scrutiny.

First, Native American land claims acknowledgements are part of a continuum that includes the commodification, co-optation, fetishization, etc.of important social relationships.

Second, I would argue that the audience in attendance don’t really care. If it’s the graduating students, then their major goal is to get their degree, pose for pictures with their fellow students, family, and maybe a faculty member or two if they are in attendance. If it’s the parents or loved ones of the graduating students, then it is to celebrate the day. And if it’s the staff, faculty and administrators it’s to get the hell out of there as quick as possible.

Third, public Native American land claims acknowledgements disingenuous and disrespectful. Why? If we are talking about universities, then rarely does this mean that the institution of higher education has a native American studies program, or department, It does not mean that they will be hiring more American Indian faculty, or making a concentrated effort to recruit American Indian students more.

Fourth, one must conclude that issuing land acknowledgements is mostly performative. It’s a way to show to those in attendance, and perhaps a larger audience that the university cares or can check the box.

Fifth, the issuance of land claims acknowledgement is hypocritical. If, for example, the university where the land claims acknowledgement is being made dates back to pre-emancipation times, one can almost entirely assume that parts of the university were built with slave labor. But as one can predict this is rarely acknowledged in these public spectacles.

Sixth, public land claims statements like this is faux activism and virtue signaling. Their ability to change things is really limited.

In short, just like many public displays, Native American land claim acknowledgements don’t really do anything to help native peoples or repair the wrongs that have been done.

Ways to address this state of affairs

If you have gotten this far in this rant, you’ve probably gathered that I’m not saying that public announcements that the land where universities (or other structures) was stolen from indigenous people are inherently bad, but they really don’t do anything to improve the current lives of indigenous peoples or repair relationships.

Instead university administrators, individuals who are being honored, and graduating undergrads and graduate students who start a speech by making a land dedication should be held politically accountable.

For example, they should let us know if and which Native American organizations they have assisted (e.g., financial donations to an American Indian (American) or First Nation’s charity or the Native American Rights Fund). If it is the university administrator they should also explain how they have attempted to hire Native American staff and faculty. Alternatively they could elaborate on how they have helped to create and/or maintain a Native American studies program, and/or a Native American students organization on campus.

Until this is done the Native American Land acknowledgement at college and university public events will ring hollow.

Photo Credit
Photographer: Ted Drake
Title: Never Forget – DesertX 2021