Not Dead: Assorted Thoughts on Land Acknowledgments

My psychologist thinks I’m an empath. I’m not sure that I am. 

But I do sense rooms. 

I sense the tension when someone is about to perform a land acknowledgment. The discomfort is palpable. 

I feel it on all sides. 

The soft pride that finally, Native people are getting a moment. 

I sense what I call, “internal eyeroll,” and the tension:

The, “here we go.” 

The, “how do we behave?” 

The, “I guess this is what we’re doing now.”

A question I’ve been asked since the summer, is if I “know about land acknowledgments”. At first, I was surprised, because of their straightforward nature. But what I realized was valuable about those questions, and why I’m thankful to those who’ve asked, is how they are indicative of the shape and outline of this larger body of “stuff” that hangs around land acknowledgments — the very elements that bring tension into a room. 

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I have the pleasure of serving on the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum, and at a recent meeting I was invited to give the land acknowledgment, as we take turns.  This is what I shared: 

“While we are calling in from communities across the state, we are brought together today via the Alaska Humanities Forum. I want to acknowledge that the Alaska Humanities Forum office is on Dena’ina Ełnena, Dena’ina land. The location of the Humanities Forum office is in Dgheyaytnu, (Ship Creek), which translates to “Stickleback Creek.’ My pronunciation is approximate, but I know the ancestors of the Dena’ina can hear me. We pay our respect to those who have stewarded the land on which the Humanities Forum and many of us now reside, past, present and future, and recognize that unless we are Dena’ina ourselves, we have all migrated to, or settled in, Dena’ina nation, country and territory. 

The other day, I saw a graphic that illuminated something for me. If you were to search Google images right now for Apache, what comes up? A motorcycle. Chinook? A helicopter.

Ticonderoga? A pencil. Cherokee? A car.

Erasure happens when you don’t even come up when searching for your own name. 

At a previous meeting, we heard someone share a story about how the value of humor helped him and his friends survive a harrowing experience on the land. It reminded me how our Alaska Native values are survival values, and because culture comes from the environment, they were developed from the land. 

These knowledges are fit for everyone because they were developed from the lands we all now reside upon. They are custom-tailored to our residency here. They are fit for purpose. They are applicable, and available, to all. 

We perform land acknowledgments to pay the respect that is due to those of the land we now reside in. We perform land acknowledgments so that everything we are, every knowledge we retain, the purest Elders and their perfect love, our faces in cupped hands, is not one day reduced to being known by a toaster oven. Land acknowledgments are active resistance against erasure. Even if they someday feel trite. Even if they feel rote. Let them at least be. Because in a state of colonization, we are either gaining or losing. Nothing is neutral.

Naghe Nduninyu. Yaghali du? Dena’inaq ełnen’aq’ gheshtnu ch’q’u yeshdu. Chin’an.” This was the land acknowledgment.

I am earnest when I talk about paying respect to those of the land we now reside upon, as I am about pushing back on erasure. 

But I am also earnest in understanding and sensing the dynamics currently surrounding land acknowledgments; the anxiety, the concerns they feel “out of place,” or they’ll break up the “flow.” (Almost like land acknowledgments are creating space or something). 

If there are concerns, confront them directly. Talk to the room about why they’re important before the acknowledgment is performed. 

Because, respect. 

Because they’re true. 

Because it reminds everyone that unless you are Indigenous to an area, that we are all migrants or settlers. If we are reminded and know that we are settlers, then we know we are connected to a broader experience. If we know we are connected to a broader experience, we know there is a history that comes with it, one that shapes and informs my every day, the kind of history that individualism sifts like sand through fingers — the kind of frustrating sifting that ensures nobody is accountable, that things are never anybody’s fault, and so while we as Native people experience perpetual repercussions, nothing changes. 

When I perform a land acknowledgment, I am doing it for the 17 years I spent in our school system, never learning about Alaska, Alaska history, Alaska Native peoples, or the people of the land I had spent my entire life on. 

Because they are active resistance against erasure. It’s making what has become intentionally transparent through forced assimilation, opaque again. Our communities are not even at the place yet where there’s widespread signage, so we invoke land acknowledgments to act as verbal ones. 

Because I literally have talked with someone who thought I was dead. 

Someone who was shocked that I, Native, was very much alive. 

Because so one day, everything I am, every good thing my people have taught me, every laughing baby and Elder’s hand, will not be reduced to being known by a toaster oven. 

Because they protect my community so that there won’t be a time where the vast majority of residents won’t know they are on Iñupiaq land, like how the vast majority of Anchorage residents are still learning they are on Dena’ina land. So one day, they won’t have never heard of us. So that people know that we were, and are, real. 

Because we are watching narratives shift and evolve in real time. Land acknowledgments are what happens when people share their power. 

Land acknowledgments are what happens when Native people are listened to, and believed. 

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Afterword

I am one Native person. But I also am a Native person, and these are my thoughts from my point of view. 

If you’re interested in learning more about land acknowledgments, contact artist and community engagement practitioner Melissa Shaginoff (Athna), who has been in leadership regarding this topic,  performing workshops, educating and raising awareness in Anchorage and around Alaska for the last few years. If you are interested in a land acknowledgment workshop, contact her at mshaginoff@gmail.com.