I have been practicing the ritual of land acknowledgement for many years, like many other Indigenous people.
It is a ritual that has become normal and necessary as we either introduce ourselves in group settings or as we begin meetings or gatherings in more formal settings. We are exhibiting our commitment to honoring Mother Earth and the tribal people of the particular place we might find ourselves in that particular moment.
Land acknowledgement is not a new ritual. While in the United States it may seem very new or strange, it has become quite normal in other parts of the world.
Take Canada for instance. In Canada, the ritual of land acknowledgement has been practiced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for nearly two decades, encouraged by the work toward truth and reconciliation as it relates residential schools and other genocidal acts perpetrated by settlers in their country.
Some would argue that the land acknowledgment is a very old ritual, always practiced by Indigenous people to honor and give thanks to Mother Earth for the gifts she provides and to recognize the tribal people and the non-human relatives who may have offered hospitality or sacrifice to the visiting party while on hosts’ homelands and places.
Such an acknowledgement or recognition was probably made with rituals that included more than only words and may have happened many times during the visit.
Today, Indigenous people have modeled and then gifted a tradition and ritual to the world that encourages, for most white settlers, a first step toward truth and toward healing. It is a simple ritual with a big impact, a ritual that will most certainly change the trajectory of the church’s relationship with Indigenous people in the United States.
As I and others have begun introducing land acknowledgement to more and more Christian leaders and their congregations, I have seen a variety of responses and reactions.
Some are excited and immediately recognize the gift and opportunity of such an acknowledgement.
Others are hesitant and cautious as they haven’t had much experience with Indigenous people, don’t want to offend and want to get it right. Yet sometimes these folks get stuck, and the pause can at times turn into never, which we don’t want.
Still others are downright against such a ritual and find every excuse and racist argument to prohibit the new opportunity and ritual.
And finally, many believe that a land acknowledgement, especially one that might be developed for their congregation, shouldn’t be practiced because they believe the ritual to be empty words, especially if their congregation isn’t going to do anything beyond the land acknowledgement for Indigenous people.
“It’s just words, with no action. I don’t think that’s right,” I’ve heard some people say. Of course, I don’t believe that to be true.
I believe that a land acknowledgement can be the first action they are taking. It is the first step in a congregation’s, an organization’s or a person’s work to build a better, right and just relationship with Indigenous people and tribal nations.
One shouldn’t predict or suggest that a second step or action won’t be taken by the whole, when, in actuality, it may be the individual’s habit not to take a second step beyond words to action or justice. Don’t be that person. Everyone should remain encouraged, committed and excited by the inclusion of this new ritual and all that is to follow.
The truth of the matter is this: there are so few people in our country who know anything at all about Native people and tribal nations, much less about the oppressive and genocidal acts perpetrated on Native people by white colonial explorers, settlers, governments and, yes, Christians.
Yet, today, we get to do better, but we must take the first step. Indeed, I believe that a land acknowledgment is that first step, a step in the right direction toward justice for Indigenous people.
Let me offer you some pro-tips that will help make your ritual of land acknowledgement healing and exciting.
1. The land acknowledgement should be focused on Indigenous people and tribal nations. It is really easy for one to want to make such a statement about one’s self, but keeping it focused on honoring and acknowledging Indigenous people and their tribes is most appropriate.
2. The process of developing a land acknowledgement can be as simple or as involved as you want it to be. It can be as simple as using the examples that I have developed for you in my land acknowledgement resource, or some organizations and congregations have commissioned a group to work on an appropriate land acknowledgement for the whole.
3. When I am in a meeting, especially these days when in Zoom meetings, I make a simple land acknowledgement when asked to introduce myself. “Hello, I am Vance, and I presently live on the original homelands of the Coahuiltecan and Tonkawa peoples.” It’s as easy as that, and you can do the same.
4. Do you know whose land you live on? Or whose land you are visiting? If not, check out www.native-land.ca
5. If you are developing an acknowledgement for a congregation or a worshiping community, develop one that can be recited at the beginning or before your worship service, can be printed in your bulletin (if you print bulletins), and can be posted outside your building or worship center so you can be a witness to others in your community.
6. As you begin practicing step one – this new ritual of land acknowledgement in your community – begin planning for step two!
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week to call attention to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S. The previous articles in the series are:
Who First Discovered America? | Machaela Murrell
Why Truth Must Come Before Lamentation and Reconciliation | Jessica Banninga
Responding to Colonialism | D. Steven Porter
An Indigenous theologian and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Blackfox is the founder and director of Other+Wise, a multi-site cultural education and cultural immersion program for youth and student groups from across the country. He also serves the church-wide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) as the Director of Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations.