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What do Indigenous leaders and history keepers really think about land acknowledgments?

 Two women sit at a table speaking. One is holding a microphone and has a reporter's notebook in front of her.
Ana Castro
Yufna Soldier Wolf is the Wyoming Outdoor Council's tribal conservation advocate.

You may have witnessed a popular way that the American public is attempting to reckon with its history of genocide of Indigenous people: before a public event, someone recites a list of the original peoples from the area. But what do Indigenous leaders and history keepers really think of these land acknowledgments? We decided to ask. Wyoming Public Radio’s podcast The Modern West is currently releasing the series Mending the Hoop, which takes a look at the history of the Plains Indian Wars from the perspective of tribes. Host and producer Melodie Edwards assembled this collection of Indigenous voices.

Editor’s note: This content has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Ramona Beltran: Land acknowledgments are… complicated.

Jordan Dresser: I think the value of land acknowledgments is the fact that they're just saying, like, ‘Hey, you know what, this don't belong to us.’ You know, and I think that's a very powerful thing.

Lynnette Greybull: I think it's powerful because I think it says we understand the true history of this land. We understand that we are foreigners, that we’re immigrants of a sort. And I think that a land acknowledgment is the essence of honor. And I think that the more we're able to do that moving forward, the more people are going to tear down those false images of who we are, and maybe something will hit here, in their heart to say, ‘I want to learn more.’

Yufna Soldier Wolf: So land acknowledgments are great when you can acknowledge that the land used to belong to so many other ancestral tribes. It does show that people went beyond to look into that research. But that shouldn't be the stopping point. It should be the fact that we should all be doing something to accept and acknowledge Indigenous people back to the land that they once belonged to.

Jeff Means: A statement about acknowledging the Native Americans is great if it's sincere, and if it's historically accurate.

Gregg Deal: It's a nice idea. It's a nice thought, I think there's a point where they're just words, and it becomes performative.

Ramona Beltran: I really think of it as just a first step. The way that I've been taught about land acknowledgments is basically a way to position ourselves in relationship to the land and the Original peoples, and acknowledge that, you know, we are outsiders, that we have an obligation to tell the truth, to give our resources, to give our time and energy to the land and to the Original peoples. Like, it is not just something we should do to assuage guilt.

Jordan Dresser: Especially at the universities, when you hear a land acknowledgment, I'm like, that's great. But what are you doing for those tribes and those students that come from there? For here in Wyoming, I would love for the Arapaho and the Shoshone and also the Crows and the Utes, other people who have ties to this land, to be able to like, ‘Hey, you know what, you get free tuition.’ You know, that would be a powerful step.

Ramona Beltran: Folks will open a meeting, you know, at a colonial institution with a land acknowledgment, but do nothing to support the Native or Indigenous students in the institution. And that does not, that does not correspond. You know, that, to me, is an appropriation of the practice.

Danielle SeeWalker: There was this whole time of a rising land acknowledgment movement, where it seemed like everybody in every entity, in every organization was like, we need to have a land acknowledgment. And in many cases, as crazy as it sounds – for me, anyway, it's crazy – is that they would ask Native people to do these land acknowledgments. And they would reach out and say, ‘Hey, I have this event, do you know somebody?’ Or, ‘Would you be able to come and do a land acknowledgment?’ And to me, that was like such a lightbulb moment that these organizations and people don't even realize what a land acknowledgment means or what it signifies or symbolizes. A Native person should not be doing that and should never be asked to do that, because we already acknowledged the land. We already know where we come from. So it's really people that are not Native to acknowledge that these lands that they work, play and live on are our lands that were stolen. And in some cases, Natives were forcefully removed.

JJeff Means: There should also be an implied recognition that the land that you're on legally shouldn't be yours. Almost universally, most of the treaties that were signed, were broken by the United States. And so to sit there and say, ‘Oh, thanks for letting us steal all your land.’ Ah, sometimes it can be disingenuous for one thing, but then it's just condescending, and an act of colonization and hegemony where we're saying, ‘Oh, we still control you, we still dominate you.’ So therefore, we have the freedom to say, ‘Gosh, thanks for what you've given us, we're not giving it back.’

Gregg Deal: I am of the opinion that we live in a capitalist society and the best way to show support to something is to put your money where your mouth is. So I will frequently tell people to donate to Native organizations. If you're doing a land acknowledgment in front of 200 people, and then everybody puts two bucks towards an organization, that can turn into a sizable amount of money pretty fast. And so, yeah, they're nice. I think it's time to put something else behind it besides the words.

Yufna Soldier Wolf: Land acknowledgments are great, but there's so much more work that has to go beyond that to start showing and inviting people back into public lands, federal tribal lands and say, ‘You know what, this is yours, we still need your input to take care of it. We can't just do it ourselves. And we don't have the funding or the manpower to put boots on the ground to maintain it.’ I think incorporating tribes back into their ancestral land is that actual movement to acknowledge they were a part of the land.

Ramona Beltran: That commitment has to be followed by action. And if it is not, it is doing nothing. It's actually causing more harm. Because then Native and Indigenous people see an institution acknowledging them but continuing to harm them through acts of aggression. It is truth telling. It is a commitment that should be followed by action.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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