We’ve all heard classes and talks preceded by “land acknowledgments”—admissions that the land on which the speaker is standing was stolen from others, usually indigenous people like Native Americans. Several examples are given in the article below by Adam Ellwanger at Critical Discourses. (Click on the screenshot.)
Ellwanter is a professor of English here in Texas—at the University of Houston downtown, and knows whereof he speaks.
Now we’ve discussed land acknowledgments before, including their uselessness except as a way of expiating guilt, as well as the confusion involved since American land has been taken over many times by various groups and tribes, who displaced each other, before the “colonists” got it. (It would be even worse in Europe, where you’d have to begin a string of acknowledgments with, “I acknowledge that this land has been taken from “Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. . . “, and so on.)
And of course these disclaimers accomplish absolutely nothing, as they’re the epitome of virtue signaling: a lot of words that accomplish nothing except display the “high social consciousness” of the speaker or writer.
Whenever I hear one of these, I think to myself, “Well why the hell don’t you give the land back to the original occupants, then?” But it’s a bit more complicated than that, for, as Ellwanger says in the piece below, many Native Americans had no conception of “owning” the land. That, of course, doesn’t make it right for settlers to have displaced them, but if people were serious about land acknowledgments, they’d either allow the descendants of previous occupants to move back onto the land, or give them an amount of money equal to the present value of the land.
At best, besides signaling the virtue of the speaker, they remind people of history—except that that history is usually truncated given multiple occupancy of territory over time.
Ellwanger begins by criticizing those people who identify their pronouns, not those who do it as a way to show that they’re different from the usual cis-gender designations, but those who do it for two other reasons:
a. “to compel compliance from those who might not be willing to cooperate with the increasingly complicated lexicon that grows out of the pronoun wars.”
b. “to signify one’s membership in the priestly castes of university life: those intellectuals who, by mastering a complex vocabulary that eludes the grasp of regular people, demonstrate their superior respect for human dignity and their deeper concern for the many marginalized communities in the racist, fascist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynous hellscape some people still insist on calling “America.”
This introduction may undercut Ellwanger’s thesis a bit, as I wouldn’t want to die on Pronoun Hill, but he does it to segue into land acknowledgements, for he feels that once everybody is using pronoun specifiers—and this is pretty much true in academia—then you have to find another way to demonstrate your moral superiority and membership in The Elect. That way is to precede every talk or class you give with a land acknowledgment.
Why are these statements multiplying? Here’s Ellwanger’s explanation:
The fact that these statements imply a moral duty to acknowledge facts that are already well-known is a primary indicator that the Land Acknowledgement Statements are performing some function beyond merely “acknowledging” land ownership. One covert purpose is to put students on notice as to which worldview and ideology will be privileged in a given course. By immediately drawing an audience’s attention to “historical injustice” in a context of, say, a chemistry class, the instructor signals to students that they are in a space where the politics of grievance will be honored and encouraged. Further, the Land Acknowledgement Statement serves to compel a certain penitential attitude that is a prerequisite for the functioning of “critical pedagogies.” By clarifying that the university is a beneficiary of a program of cultural violence, Land Acknowledgement Statements make it clear to students that they are “complicit” in this legacy of violence and exclusion merely by matriculating at the school in question.
Who can deny the truth of what he said?
But there are problems with these acknowledgements. First, as I noted above, they don’t deal with successive occupation of the land:
. . . the statement from University of Texas names no fewer than ten tribes before concluding the sentence with an embarrassed “etcetera,” which acknowledges “all the [other] American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands”. The truth of the matter is that any piece of land in the modern-day United States was likely held by various native tribes over the course of the Pre-Columbian era and the early American republic. In other words, we can’t even be sure who needs to be “acknowledged” for the land: much of the information is lost to history.
And, more important, Ellwanger emphasizes that many Native Americans did not share our capitalistic preoccupation with “owning” land. He gives several examples; here’s one:
Massasoit Sachem (leader of the Wampanoag confederacy) is reputed to have asked “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all.”
And he adds this:
Thus, by “acknowledging” the native claims to a piece of land and implying that these claims supersede and negate the claim that modern local and federal governments make upon the territory, the Land Acknowledgement Statements erase the very particularities of Native American cultures that these academics purport to honor and preserve. In short, the non-Native academics speak on behalf of the people whose dignity they claim to uphold: by appropriating the right of those people to speak, they inadvertently inflict the very sort of cultural violence that they profess to abhor.
This all makes sense, but of course even if Native Americans didn’t have our concept of “property”, they were still displaced from their lands by settlers. To me that seems just as bad, especially when they were forcibly driven to desolate reservations. I don’t know the solution to this, except to say that Native Americans continually displaced each other by the same methods (war, broken treaties, and so on), and we are just part of that history.
To me, land acknowledgments are the height of performative wokeness: statements that accomplish absolutely nothing save to call attention to your heightened consciousness—and perhaps impart a history lesson, but why is that part of a talk or a syllabus? If you’re on stolen land, then give it back instead of moaning about it. It’s as if one began a class by saying “I’m using a laser pointer I stole from Professor Jones, but I’m not going to give it back to him.”
Ellwanger ends by citing the two lessons that land acknowlegments impart:
1.) “Recall that the primary purpose of these statements is not to do justice to the victims of historical oppression but rather to signify one’s affinity for the performative rituals of academic wokeness. The first lesson, then, is that the intellectual elite who fetishize the tragic stories of marginalized groups in America are less interested in redressing those sufferings than they are using them to maintain their membership in an elite group that is far removed from the plight of the “Other” (as they might say).”
2.) The second lesson is a darker one; one that the progressive left would do well to learn. Enamored as they are with the postmodern tradition of critical theory which they name-check when “speaking truth to power,” they miss one of the central insights of postmodern philosophy: that one can never get outside the network of power to speak truth to it. In their enthusiasm for condemning or humbling the entities that they identify as culturally-empowered ones, they forget that any gesture like a “Land Acknowledgement Statement” is itself an exercise of power. Through their attempts to honor the culture of historically-marginalized groups to which they do not belong – trying to create a space for those cultures to speak on their own behalf – they only end up speaking for them. In this way, they reenact the same legacies of privilege and appropriation that they disdain. So much for checking one’s privilege.
Whenever I read about stuff like land acknowledgments, I remember Grania’s test for the efficacy of social-justice statements and actions: Do they really accomplish something for the group that is marginalized? Land acknowledgments don’t do this, although sometimes a pittance is given to Native Americans as a token of apology. But imagine how much the lands owned by the University of Texas are worth!
And if you’re a reader who wants to defend these acknowledgments, why aren’t you preceding every one of your comments with the statement that your house or office is sitting on land previously occupied by people driven away by settlers? Because surely it was.