Moving Beyond Land Acknowledgements at the University of Oregon

Equity work is constantly evolving. As institutions, we are obligated to continually update and investigate our policies and practices because systemic racism is deeply embedded in all facets of society and the process of building towards real justice requires just as deep of a level of engagement. This doesn’t mean just having hard conversations to tell people we had them. It’s about engaging in difficult discussions that lead to concrete actions that actually move the needle for people’s quality of life. Read More.

The current discourse around land acknowledgements illustrates this juxtaposition between performative and substantive action. Specifically, institutions, including the University of Oregon, post land acknowledgement statements and recite them at the beginning of public events designed to honor the indigenous tribes whose land they are operating on. These statements generally include naming individual tribes and the genocidal actions of the US government and settlers, as well as acknowledging that more work must be done beyond statements.

Yet, in practice, these statements are often the beginning and end for far too many institutions. This has led to two trains of thought on how to respond. Some are understandably debating whether we should continue doing land acknowledgements at all. If they don’t include any action, who are they actually for? To be more blunt, have land acknowledgements just become a new tool for assuaging guilt and providing cover for institutions’ lack of work on improving indigenous people’s day-to-day lives?

Another approach is moving beyond land acknowledgements. The Native Governance Center outlines a plan for institutions looking to take this route in its 2021 article “Beyond Land Acknowledgement: A Guide”. The information for this guide came from an event that featured Nikki Pitre of the Center for Native American Youth, Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network, President Robert Larsen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, and Michelle Vassel and David Cobb of Wiyot Honor Tax. Suggestions included continuing to hold land acknowledgements and adding action items such as voluntary land taxes, returning land to indigenous groups and showing up to indigenous-led protests. In putting together plans to engage in these actions, the Native Governance Center advises institutions to participate in self-assessments and resource assessments, conduct extensive research on the lands they occupy and the Native-led work happening in their area, create action plans with measurable outcomes and make this information public in order to ensure accountability. They also suggest humility and being willing to reflect and adjust the plan as needed.

The guide also calls upon us to examine how we’re going about creating the land acknowledgement statements themselves. Many institutions reach out to indigenous leaders and educators for free labor in crafting their statements, which we must recognize as exploitative and unacceptable, in addition to hypocritical according to the words in land acknowledgement statements. An emerging practice from the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) is to provide opportunities for members to learn more about the Tribal Nations in the cities and communities in which they meet and to figure out how NADOHE can work in ways that are empowering, restorative and supportive. How we work with indigenous communities in particular and underrepresented communities in general matters.

It’s with these calls to action in mind that the UO celebrates Native American Heritage Month 2023. The UO sits on occupied land that belongs to the Kalapuya, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Chelamela and Winefelly people.

We observe NAHM annually throughout the month of November. The national observation began in 1915 as American Indian day and was celebrated on the second day of May. President George H.W. Bush expanded the celebration to a month in 1990 and moved it to the month of November. 

In addition to recognizing and honoring the rich history, culture and contributions of this country’s American Indian and Alaska Native communities, we also use this time to deepen our engagement with indigenous communities and build towards real justice for systemic inequity and the lasting effects of American colonization.

We lift up the work of indigenous groups creating space for community on campus and helping the University of Oregon live up to its mission. This includes the leadership of AVP Jason Younker and Katie Staton at the Many Nations Longhouse. Kirby Brown, Brian Klopotek, Gabriela Perez Baez, Michelle Jacob, Leilani Sabzalian, Jennifer O'Neal, Ashley Cordes, Lana Lopesi, Sage Hatch and Marta Lu Clifford are pushing the UO forward with their work on the Native American and Indigenous Studies Advisory Council. We are also inspired by the student leadership of Keyen Singer, Marisol Peters, Monique Samuels, Zechariah Webb and Tiera Garrety of the Native American Student Union. We celebrate and honor the lifelong work and contributions of Dr. Virginia Beavert, Elder-in-Residence at the Northwest Indian Language Institute. We are proud of the dedication and leadership of Michelle Jacob, Leilani Sabzalian, Stephanie Tabibian, and all the faculty and staff stewarding the Sapsik’ʷałá Teacher Education Program. We are grateful for the leadership of Norma Trefren at our Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence (CMAE). Our Native American and Indigenous Studies Academic Residential Community remains a strong springboard for first year students, and we applaud their creation of the Indigenous UO online, interactive map. There is also very necessary work coming out of the Native American Strategies Group and the Native American Law Students Association at this moment, and we are proud of our UO alumni Michelle Singer, Jolene Bettles, and Tana Atchley-Culbertson leading the Native Duck Nation. We remain eternally grateful to Dr. Tom Ball for the sturdy foundation that he laid with his vision for Native American Strategies, the first self-determining and autonomous group of its kind at the University of Oregon, which opened the door for many other Strategies Groups that subsequently organized. We also give thanks for the dedicated leadership of the late Gordon Bettles, whose stewardship of the Many Nations Longhouse provided a space of pride, community and belonging. 

Native American History Month 2023 at the UO will include a variety of events, including lectures, activities, arts and more! We hope you’ll join us and the entire campus community in not just celebrating, but reflecting and engaging in real action both on an individual and institutional level.