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Panelists share importance and complexities of creating statements honoring Indigenous peoples

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Indigenous educators and administrators shared potential benefits and possible pitfalls in crafting and delivering land acknowledgements during a virtual panel discussion this week.

The conversation was presented in conjunction with the University of Kansas’ First Nations Student Association Powwow & Indigenous Cultures Festival taking place on Saturday at the Lied Center.

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Guest speaker James Pepper Henry, vice-chairman of the Kaw Nation and executive director of Oklahoma City’s new First Americans Museum, joined representatives from KU and the Lawrence school district to discuss the process for developing land acknowledgements, which are intended to recognize and respect Indigenous peoples as original stewards of a particular location and to honor their relationship with the land.

Unfortunately, well-meaning people often fall short of their organization’s intended goals.

“We recognize not only the atrocities, but also the perseverance and resilience of our people as we talk about these land acknowledgments,” Pepper Henry said. “And we always try to refer to ourselves in the present tense, not in the past tense. A lot of people think of us as being invisible, as you know.”

Tuesday’s discussion included a road map detailing the process FAM administrators used to put together a land acknowledgment that hangs just inside the front door of the museum, which opened in September. Pepper Henry said that one of the first struggles faced when creating a thoughtful statement was identifying who to acknowledge and how to characterize their history in that location.

Identifying tribes “native” to a particular location requires nuance in both Oklahoma and Kansas. Many tribes that once called the two regions home were forced to move great distances, while tribes from far away regions were relocated by the U.S. government to land that would eventually become Kansas and Oklahoma. Pepper Henry said his colleagues were mindful of this as they carefully chose their words.

“We do not say ‘Oklahoma tribes’ because many of the tribes that are here are not from Oklahoma, and those that were on the land before statehood,” he said. “Oklahoma is a political boundary that I’m sure that those tribes weren’t exactly amenable to. So we don’t belong to the state of Oklahoma because tribes have the an equal status to state.”

As part of the land acknowledgement development at FAM, Pepper Henry said his organization gathered a group of tribal elders to act as advisers. As the process began, the advisers were referred to as “knowledge keepers.”

Pepper Henry said that it was a good example of the necessity to listen when, in a profound cultural moment, the elders explained that they were not knowledge keepers.

“The value of knowledge isn’t in keeping it, the value in knowledge is giving it,” Pepper Henry explained. “They said, ‘we are knowledge givers because we want to give you the knowledge that we have.’”

Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a KU distinguished professor, and chief justice for the Prairie Island Indian Community Court of Appeals, said people who are putting together land acknowledgements usually have good intentions and seek to own the history of white supremacy that led to the genocide of Native peoples.

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However, Deer said that without thought and care, well-meaning people can repeat inaccuracies that are not simply wrong, but also trigger painful memories for Indigenous people. Another common mistake, she said, was to assume that a group or tribe even want to be included on a statement. She cited tribes from east of the Mississippi who might rather avoid indelicate references to people who died during forced migrations across the river.

Most important, Deer said, was the importance of following up a land acknowledgement with action. Action on a greater scale was mentioned by several panelists, but Deer told a cautionary tale of how inaction at even the simplest level could also cause problems. Deer said she attended an academic conference where presenters were handed statements on cards and asked to make land acknowledgments unrehearsed.

“People weren’t necessarily ready for that,” she said. “Because they weren’t prepared, they mispronounced some of the tribal communities that were listed there. It became very awkward workshop after workshop to see folks struggle with this. Again, it was done with the best of intent, right? I just encourage people to slow down, be deliberate and communicate.”

Melissa Peterson, member of the Navajo Nation and director of Tribal Relations at KU, said she had worked with Deer and other faculty and staff to develop a university-wide statement. She said the process had moved slower than anticipated because each conversation and piece of research revealed additional complexities to be considered.

Peterson said one of the stumbling blocks had been their consideration of what actions would be taken to show a commitment to Native students and members of the community.

“As Native people I think what we are doing here at our institution or in town is building a better place for our Native people so that when they come to us in our systems that we’re there to help them,” she said. “That’s the point here.”

Pepper Henry said it’s important to remember that there was no guarantee that individual tribal nations would even agree on the nature of land acknowledgements or their usefulness. Each nation is sovereign and has the right to self-governance and self-determination.

He compared the diversity of the 39 tribes currently in Oklahoma to moving inhabitants from every country in Europe to an area the size of England. Tribes that came to Oklahoma from the far reaches of North America did not share languages, cultures, ceremonies or perspectives.

The term “land acknowledgement” itself might not even be the best characterization for the type of statement that honors Indigenous people, Pepper Henry said. The idea of possessing land is rooted in Judeo-Christian theology. Native people, he said, believe instead that they belong to the land.

“Land, in many of our native beliefs is not a commodity,” Pepper Henry said. “We belong to it. We belong to the land. By calling it a land acknowledgement you’re still one degree of separation away from what you’re really trying to say: that there are people you need to recognize who were here. I think I like to call them people acknowledgements.”

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Those acknowledgements, the panel agreed, were a good way to bring Indigenous people and culture to the forefront. Native students appreciate being “seen,” which requires an increase in the visibility of tribal culture and not limiting that information to history lessons.

“It’s harder for us,” Pepper Henry said. “We’ve been displaced, we’ve been removed from the land, and it’s been a struggle for us to come back and have any kind of a presence. There’s a lot of ways to increase the profile of Indigenous peoples. Land acknowledgement is a step in that direction.”

Peterson said the KU team would soon be meeting with the Kansas Association for Native American Education to begin development of a land acknowledgement toolkit in the hope of removing some of the mystery from the process.

Tuesday’s conversation was one of several events leading up to Saturday’s festival. On Friday at the Lied Center, Red Sky Performance will present TRACE, a contemporary dance work inspired by Indigenous (Anishinaabe) sky and star stories.

On Saturday, the Indigenous Culture Festival will feature speakers, children’s stories and language activities, and interactive events for everyone. Powwow grand entries will be at noon and 6 p.m. All events take place at the Lied Center or on the Lied Center grounds.

Visit the FNSA Powwow & Indigenous Cultures Festival website for more information.

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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