“Who’s Land?” The Trials and Tribulations of Territorial Acknowledgement

This past weekend my partner and i, indigenous Ph.D students in philosophy and sociology respectively, attended the Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges Summit held at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. Part of a broader array of “Truth and Reconciliation Response Projects”—spurred into existence by the release this time last year of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report on the Residential School programme in kanada—the summit saw some incredible keynote speakers, and a number of quite inspirational and informative Circle Workshops on various topics.

One of those circles was on the subject and practice of Territorial Acknowledgement in both the public and educational spheres, and it is to that subject that i direct this post. While many people in kanada are familiar with the practice (especially those who i assume make up the bulk of my regular readership), for those unaware (in particular for my readers in the united states), the practice of territorial acknowledgement is, in my opinion, relatively self-explanatory: it is the practice of prefacing ones work, writings, talks etc. with a recognition of the land upon which one stands, and in particular of the original people from whom it was seized by the expansion of empire.

I carry an example of such here on this blog, which reads:

This is the personal blog of Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew Kesīqnaeh. I am member of the Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak Nation, better known to the world as the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, within which i belong to the Ota͞eqciah Otōta͞em (Crane Clan). I currently live and work in the Dish With One Spoon Territory: the traditional lands of the Attawandaron Nation, Anishinaabek (Three Fires Confederacy & Mississauga), Rotinonshón:ni Six Nations Confederacy, Wyandot People and the Métis Nation of Ontario. Most specifically the city in which i reside is in Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract [note: the “featured image” of this post is of the Haldimand Tract].

However, while i myself engage in the practice above, it is not to say that my thoughts on, and relationship to, the practice are uncomplicated. It is some of these complications that i wish to briefly unpack here.

Me, Myself and the Land

I’ll admit that for a long time i didn’t engage in this practice at all. Initially it was because when i first moved to southwest Ontario, which is where i first encountered people engaging in this process, it was most common to see people only recognizing the theft of the Haldimand Tract from the Rotinonshón:ni. Knowing as i did that perhaps the most ancient residents of the land that became this city were the people of the Attawandaron Nation, i knee jerked and said “well yeah, that’s great, but this all sounds a little Rotinonshón:ni-centric don’t you think?” It wasn’t to say that i thought that we SHOULD NOT be recognizing the peoples, territories and struggles of the Rotinonshón:ni Confederacy, but rather that this quite narrow focus (which primarily flowed from the mouths and keyboards of settlers) buried the Attawandaron, Anishinaabek, Wyandot and Métis Nations, and their own relationship to the land and territory.

Related to this was a stance i took best summed up in short as: “this is all stolen Indian land, and it should all be returned to us.” I still stand by this. However there was a certain impression I always got from the Haldimand Tract focus that seemed to place the issue of Haldimand Tract on a plane of being the most pressing or clearest example of stolen Indigenous land in the region. In my view, then and now, this narrowing of the plane of dispossession to exclusively the Haldimand Tract seemed to be a way for settler peoples to side-step the larger issue that, of course, all of southwest Ontario, broader Ontario, kanada and indeed all of north amerika are, and were, land stolen and seized from our Nations by dint of dishonesty, betrayal and genocide, and that it is all in need of decolonization.

Thus to this day i will often not give a statement of territorial acknowledgement before i speak, or at the start of a paper, even as i do so on this blog. I prefer in those instances for people to ask me why i didn’t, and thus allow me the space to respond with the thoughts above. Indeed, as we discussed in the Circle, opening up space for broader discussion is part of the reason why the speakers believed this practice needs to be more widespread. We have different means, but i believe in these instances that our motives and goals are the same. I am willing to say though that perhaps i am still being block headed on this point.

I’ve since moderated though, as can be seen on in my own recognition of the land on this blog. Part of this arose from my learning over the years more and more about our Peoples’ traditional worldviews and how we related to one another as individuals and as distinct, if still at times closely related and allied, nations. In particular i was helped along this path by my partner—a wonderfully brilliant Anishinaabe indigenous feminist philosopher and philosopher of science. In finding out through the microcosm of our life together ever more about the traditional and ancient relations between our very closely related Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak and Anishinaabek Niswi-Mishkodewin Nations, i found that for myself it was important for to acknowledge that i live in the territory of her people. The Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak and Anishinaabek are old friends and allies (and at times opponents: it was like siblings i guess). Our cultures are virtually the same, we carry the same cosmologies and spiritual cycles, and our languages are very similar. Situated as my nation has been since the beginning of memory on the western shores of Nanāweyah Kaeqcekam/Ininwewi-Gichigami (Lake Michigan), we also maintained old ties to the Iroquoian Peoples of the Rotinonshón:ni, Attawandaron and Wyandot, and i found it important to recognize those relations as well.

Thus, for myself as a Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak activist and scholar, my own practice of territorial acknowledgement is as much about the recognition of these ancient relations of friendship, kinship and alliance between our Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak, Anishinaabek, Rotinonshón:ni, Attawandaron, Wyandot, and Métis Nations as much as it is about recognition of the relatively obvious fact (as far as we as Indigenous Peoples and Nations see it) that the land was stolen from us by the expansion of white settler sovereign power. We must, and indeed are and have been, rebuilding and renewing these relations as we struggle together for decolonization, the resurgence of traditional culture and the return of our lands.

Settlers and the Practice of Territorial Acknowledgement

On the other side of Indigenous People’s practice of territorial acknowledgement is the growing engagement in the practice by settler (and also arrivant) peoples. While this may have been for many years a niche practice of certain sectors of the radical left, it has since grown beyond those confines. Indeed today it is an increasingly common site to see major kanadian universities placing a territorial acknowledgement on their homepages, for business to do so, and for individual class syllabuses to contain a territorial acknowledgement somewhere in their body. Indeed, even at my comparatively conservative, borderline reactionary, research institution we have seen the University President giving a territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of new building openings, and even at the start of convocations.

Much of the reason for this has been the tireless work of Indigenous People, who have struggled and pushed for this practice to become accepted as an ingrained activity. While the local Indigenous women who began this push at first found themselves being called into meetings, conferences, classrooms and places of work to “give the territorial acknowledgement,” they always maintained that what they wanted to do was to educate settler peoples to the point that they would do it on their own, and without the need for further prompting from Indigenous People. Their work has paid off to such a degree that now even weddings are seeing an acknowledgement of the territory included in their proceedings!

And this is important for settler peoples to do. I do not believe that as Indigenous Peoples, scholars or otherwise, that it is our responsibility to save white people, to educate them, or to otherwise do this for them. This was always the point of the sisters locally: to give settlers the initial push, so that they can keep the ball rolling themselves. I believe it is very much so the responsibility of settler peoples to acknowledge genocide, acknowledge cultural destruction and to acknowledge theft of the land upon which they stand, and to acknowledge that they, every single one of them, benefits from those crimes in some way. In this i am indebted in my thought to the courageous settler comrades of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, who hold that is not for Indigenous and Afrikan peoples to save white people (we have our own more pressing struggles), but rather for white people to save white people and bring themselves back into the human family from which they have so long been self-alienated (even as they proclaim themselves the human subject of history). Part of this is to speak truth, and the act of territorial acknowledgement is this.

At the same time though i would echo the sisters who spoke at the circle in saying that in engaging in this process that settler peoples must take leadership on the issue from Indigenous Peoples. As i noted above in discussing why i pulled away from the practice when i first encountered it, this was in part due to the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of it at the time. Again this was not bad per say: it was because of the tireless efforts of the brothers and sisters from the Rotinonshón:ni community on and around the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve (the largest reserve in the region) in publicizing the history of struggle and theft regarding the Haldimand Tract that has put it in a prominent position.

However, this should not have meant that the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract were the only peoples, territories and struggles to be acknowledged. If the settler peoples who i first encountered writing and speaking territorial acknowledgements had taken the time to listen to the regional Indigenous community, and more specifically to sit and take leadership from them, they would have known this. For example, the Anishinabek community of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation is practically right next door to the Rotinonshón:ni at Six Nations of the Grand River. The region also contains several other Anishinaabek communities. This all would have become obvious to settler peoples seeking to acknowledge the territory if they had taken leadership instead of seeking to find their own way.

This is important because while, as i say, the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of the territorial acknowledgement when i first arrived here was not bad outright, it was only a half-measure. Further, in being a half measure it effectively erased the presence of Anishinaabek, Attawandaron, Wyandot, and Métis. In doing this it actually perpetuated settler colonial epistemic violence against those nations.

I am glad to say though that now in the region at the very least the presences and histories of the Anishinabek, Attawandaron and Rotinonshón:ni are all recognized. Even more correct territorial acknowledgements further have come to include the Wyandot and Métis Nations. The point i am trying to make here if that settler peoples on this, and any other decolonial issue, must take leadership from Indigenous Peoples in terms of form and content. As one of the speakers at the circle noted: “if you want to know whose territory in your area to acknowledge, ask the Indigenous community!”

Territorial Acknowledgement and the Metaphorization of Decolonization

However, even as the practice of territorial acknowledgement spreads throughout white civil society, we must also problematize it to some degree. What does it mean for the President of a university that actively supports israeli settler colonialism, actively opposes the creation of safe spaces for Indigenous and Afrikan students (on the stated belief that the rest of campus is by extension “not safe” [it isn’t safe, but that’s another issue]) and which, through its massive STEM faculties both reaps the benefits of, and trains the intellectual and practical foot soldiers for, the whole sale destruction of our lands and resources to acknowledge that our campus sits on the traditional territories of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabe, Rotinonshón:ni, Wyandot and Métis Nations?

Out of the university arena we might also ask what good is it for a petty bourgeois yoga studio, a long critiqued Mecca of white appropriation and emptying-out of the ancient spiritual traditions of the peoples of South Asia, to place an acknowledgement on their website that their capitalist private enterprise is situated on stolen Indigenous land?

The cynic in me, and i readily admit that that is it, sees these things, and sees bulwarks of capitalism, settler colonialism, antiblackness, and cultural imperialism. I look at them as they acknowledge the territory and i see a movement towards what Tuck and Yang deftly labelled “settler innocence.” I see it coupled with the practice, also a move to settler innocence, best described as “white confessionalism”: the practice of individual white people proclaiming their ignorance of the processes and structures of settler colonialism, even as it and the benefits of it are all around them; even as they know Indigenous people used to be more numerous; and even as “good whites” have written about and opposed the evils of their kings and countries since Bartolomé de las Casas, and then saying that they are sorry. It seems to cynic in me as if they expect we, the people who have managed to survive five centuries of invasion, who carry the inherited trauma, pain and anger over a loss without name, and yet who continue to live, to thrive and to struggle for our freedoms against the overwhelming violence of multiple, converging vectors of death arrayed against us are supposed to take on their tears and say “there there, it’s ok.”

I will say this, as i said above, i believe white people do need to acknowledge the traditional territories that their ancestors first seized, that they continue to appropriate and that they continue to act as a garrison population with the goal of holding said land against the people from whom it was taken. It is important, as a first step in their own disalienation, to speak truth to power.

However, to echo again Tuck and Yang, that for it to mean anything of value to Indigenous and other colonized and oppressed people, we must recognize that decolonization is not a metaphor. We must move beyond words. Again i ask, “what good is it for a massive capitalist institution steeped in settler colonialism, antiblackness, cultural imperialism and the exploitation of the world’s non-white peoples to acknowledge the territory on which it stands?”

It was mentioned by the sisters leading the circle discussion that one of the most common questions they have received (and i am sure will continue to receive) against the inclusion of a territorial acknowledgement in a syllabus, conference or website is “what does this mean?” The anxiety on the part of white professors, students, administrators and businessmen is that acknowledging the territory means that the land then must be returned to Indigenous Peoples.

This fear though is not just in the minds of the white capitalist, or the white imperial bureaucrat or civil servant. I addressed during the last burst of my writings in May of this year, that this deep fear, in fact a form of existential dread, runs clear across the entirety of white civil society, even amongst those sectors that most explicitly claim to oppose and resist the current dispensation of power relations in society: the radical anticapitalist left.  As i wrote back in May:

Ongoing accumulation by dispossession is so deeply fundamental to the material basis, and attendant ideological outgrowths, of settler society that a call for even a small fraction of the bare minimum of anti-colonial justice—the return of what was taken from us—is interpreted as a clarion call for some kind of white genocide (and in this, the fear of white genocide, the circle between the white left and the white right becomes complete).  Think visions of cattle cars—or perhaps much more aptly: a trail of (white) tears—in which europeans, euro-amerikans and other white settlers peoples are shipped off to be reeducated on small, barren portions of land, and through labouring to help (re)build up our societies.

This deep anxiety informs a not insignificant portion of knee jerk first world responses to genuine anti-colonial politics and theory.

Against these white anxieties i offer a different response than that which i often hear. Instead of reconciliation, or rather as my own take on what reconciliation must me (in the sense of “to  make right”), i say this: “of course, yes we do want our land back.” To reiterate what i said in May and quoted above, the return of land is but a “small fraction of the bare minimum of anti-colonial justice.” Our lands are at the very centre of our beings. Everything about us arises from the lands: our languages, our cultures, our cosmologies, our ceremonies, our kindship structures. Everything. Reconciliation, decolonization, territorial acknowledgement: none of them mean anything without the repatriation of our lands to our nations.

To bring it back to the subject of this post, and by way of that to provide an answer to the questions i have posed to you, my valuable reader, it has long been a fear of mine that the practice of the territorial acknowledgement, within both the petty bourgeois and bourgeois mainstream institutions of power as well as the most ostensibly radical sectors of society, is indeed quite often a move to settler innocence and the transformation of decolonization into a mere metaphor. We must move beyond words and into the actualization of decolonization as a goal and a process. In the introduction to my suggested reading list i list three of my own calls to action for a radical decolonial movement, echoing Tuck, Yang and many others:

  1. Complete decolonization of Turtle Island. This primarily would take the form of the return of Indigenous land: “all of it, and not just symbolically”;
  2. Abolition of antiblackness and slavery in all of their contemporary forms;
  3. Dismantling the imperialist metropole and the unequal relationship of exploitation between Global North and Global South.

Indeed, many of the very same people, organizations and institutions that now engage in the practice of territorial acknowledgement do so without doing anything beyond that to support Indigenous survivance, and more importantly to support Indigenous resurgence and decolonization. This applies just as much to those social actors who would see kanadian and north amerikan society transformed on the basis of a confederation of autonomous anarchist municipalities and syndicalist industrial collectives, or a federative socialist workers’ republic of the marxist sort as much as it does to the autocrats and plutocrats of north amerikan settler colonial capitalism.

However, all of that said, i am extremely grateful for the work of the young indigenous women on my campus who have pushed this conversation forward, and to all of those people across Turtle Island who have pushed it forward. They have opened space to enable us to discuss the history of colonization and the politics of decolonization where previously precious little existed. I further concur with them that acknowledging the territory is only the beginning of the conversation, not its end.

From here we must continue to push, to continue to deepen the conversation between not only our own Peoples and Nations, but between ourselves and our allies amongst settler and arrivant peoples as well. These movements away from hiding the history of kanadian and north amerikan settler colonialism, of being blind to 500 years of imperialist settler colonial arrogance and criminality, and instead choosing to acknowledge it, in all of its horridness, is most certainly a move in the right direction. So long as we continue to be way of the pitfalls of transforming decolonization into metaphor, and continue to speak truth to power, we will continue to take steps on our path to rebuilding our relations between our Red Nations, and continue down the Red Road of struggle and liberation.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s