Unless you are a hermit, you have probably listened to a “land acknowledgment.” These are short statements uttered before social gatherings, acknowledging the prior possession of the land on which the events are taking place by indigenous peoples. Originating in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, they have become popular in the United States, and are now regular features in theaters, sports arenas, academic conferences, college commencement ceremonies – and even private family gatherings.
Land acknowledgment details may differ depending upon the event and the attendees, but certain characteristics apply more or less consistently. The statement is delivered in solemn and serious tones. The Indian tribe or tribes identified in the statement are portrayed as innocent victims, and their land described as “ancestral” or “unceded,” thus implying that the non-Indian attendees are trespassing. For the most part, the statements are gentle. Few go as far as the Northern California ACLU, whose website advises readers that land acknowledgment statements help us “confront our own complicity in genocide.”
These statements do carry educational value. They remind us that the conquest of the North American continent by settlers of European heritage was accompanied by massive, often monstrous mistreatment of the native peoples. And learning about the people who earlier inhabited one’s place of birth or residence is always a laudable undertaking.
Yet at the same time that land acknowledgments have proliferated, so have criticisms.
In a much cited Atlantic essay, Graeme Wood ridiculed land acknowledgments as “moral exhibitionism” and as “what you give when you have no intention of giving land.” He elaborated:
The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.
Whether one agrees with these critics that land acknowledgments are preening empty gestures, there is no doubt that these statements carry deeper flaws. As a result, land acknowledgments, even as they proliferate in the short run, are quite likely to fade into faddishness and disappear in the long run.
The chief flaw inherent in land acknowledgments is the fact that they are based on fiction. They posit a pre-European American continent inhabited by peaceful, law-abiding indigenous tribes, each respecting each other’s ancestral homelands. If this were not the case, if the prior landholders were themselves guilty of trespassing, then these statements would lack moral force and no one would bother issuing or listening to them.
Presumed innocence is the sine qua non of land acknowledgments. Unfortunately, it turns out that American Indians were very much like the invading Europeans, which is to say that while some were peaceful and respectful, a great many more were warlike and cruel. To mix demographic metaphors, some American Indians were Quakers but many more were Mongols.
Land acknowledgments identify an Indian tribe as “stewards” of a particular place. But they never explain how that tribe came to acquire stewardship. If they did, listeners would quickly discover that most Indian tribes acquired stewardship in the same way most European tribes did on that continent: by conquest.
Contemporary articulators of land acknowledgments are the heirs of Jean-Jacques Rouseau, the Enlightenment philosophe who saw American Indians as existing in a state of nature, embodying peacefulness and equality. This is a nice thought, but it is rubbish. The North American continent was a bloody, dangerous place before the white man appeared. Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, writing in the New Republic, notes:
Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axe marks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.
Pinker based his opinion in part on the work of anthropologist Lawrence Keeley, who summed up the situation: “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash” in the pre-Colombian New World.
The arrival of Europeans did not introduce violence to the continent. It merely changed the dynamic of that violence, creating more causes for intertribal warfare. For example, the longtime rival Algonquin and Iroquois tribes fought a series of “beaver wars” to control access to pelts, which could be traded for iron tools and firearms. During the French and Indian War, indigenous tribes lined up on both sides of the European conflict, depending on which side provided the greater opportunity to gain captives and booty.
Farther west, the Sioux Indians whom the settlers encountered on the Great Plains were themselves newcomers to the area. They had originally lived in the northern woodlands where they warred against the Chippewa. They slowly migrated southward and westward, pushing aside the Omaha and Pawnee tribes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pawnee willingly served as scouts, helping the U.S. Army in its war against the Sioux.
It’s worth noting that internecine disputes between Indian tribes have never completely ended. The Hopi and the Navajo have been feuding for centuries over Arizona desert land. Today, rather than resolving their differences by the arrow or the lance, the tribes employ public relations firms, lobbyists, and batteries of lawyers to support their rival claims.
Some tribes, such as those along the Pacific northwest coast, were sedentary, and rarely attacked their neighbors. But throughout most of the continental United States, Indian tribes resembled their European intervenors in waging war, seizing land, and dispossessing and killing the prior inhabitants. It would be strangely racist to expect otherwise.
In short, land acknowledgments are paeans to a world that never existed, or, if it did exist, only in limited areas.
They also assume that the loss of land is somehow unique to the indigenous peoples of North America. In fact, the world is full of such victims; and the victimizers are rarely held to account. No one expects Poles living in Silesia to acknowledge the prior stewardship of Germans, who inhabited the region for hundreds of years, nor do we expect the Spaniards living in Andalusia to acknowledge the prior occupancy of the Moors, who held the land for half a millennium. And we certainly don’t expect land acknowledgments to be pronounced for the Jews, who were, at one time or another, expelled from and dispossessed by nearly every state and principality in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Levant.
As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a cut above other peoples. So what if others fail to acknowledge the victims upon whose lands they trespassed? That’s no reason for us to follow their morally questionable example.
But that leads to another flaw in land acknowledgments: their misappropriation by the politically correct cultural elites, who use them to condemn every sin, real or imagined, committed by the white male patriarchy. Consider the land acknowledgment statement of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65. It starts out, typically enough, honoring the local tribes:
We take time to acknowledge that the land we meet on is the traditional homelands of the Council of Three Fires, the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa. This land also served as an important meeting place for Miami, Ho-Chunk, the Menominee, Inoka, Sac, Fox, Peoria, Arapaho, Cheyenne and other Tribal nations. This land has long been a center for Indigenous people to gather, trade, and maintain kinship ties.
It notes and condemns the massacre of the Arapaho and Cheyenne committed by John Evans, the railroad baron who founded Evanston. Then it abruptly changes the subject to cover racial injustice:
The genocidal acts of settler colonialism extended to peoples of Africa and their enslaved descendants. Despite Illinois eventually prohibiting slavery, slavery was an accepted practice before and after statehood; the vestiges of slavery remain present throughout the United States.
After that, the statement unmoors itself completely from the mistreatment of the Indians to encompass virtually every imaginable marginalized group:
The genocidal patterns of violence against peoples of African descent and indigenous people have been replicated to exclude and harm people from many intersecting marginalized identities, religious, minoritized, disabled, and LGBTQ identified peoples, BIPOC and POC writ large, in the United States.
By this point, the particular experience of the American Indians is effectively forgotten, subsumed in a variegated mass of victims.
Granted, this is but one land acknowledgment statement by one entity. But it points to the larger purpose of such efforts.
The goal of land acknowledgments is not to return land. Just as the goal of Critical Race Theory advocates is not to abolish racism; just as the goal of “reparations” supporters is not to repair; just as the goal of the opponents of “cultural appropriation” is not to protect culture.
The real goal of these movements and their like is to inculcate a perpetual and omnipresent sense of guilt. A guilt from which there is no escape, not at the theater, nor at the opera house, nor at the museum, nor at the sports arena. They offer no haven from the guilt, no expiation of the sin.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Inner Party member O’Brien tells the protagonist Winston Smith: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” Today, the moral elites envision a different future, one not as physically dire as Orwell’s novel, but just as spiritually bleak. When they picture the future, they imagine not a boot, but a censorious finger. The finger is not stamping on a human face. It is wagging directly in front of the nose of that face. The owner of the finger is hissing “Shame!” – forever.
Winston Smith had no choice about the boot. But the rest of us do have a choice about the wagging fingers. We can ignore them. That is what growing numbers of people are likely to do with land acknowledgments.