In advance of this activity, consider sending your students an anonymous poll asking them the true/false questions below. (Alternatively, make this an informal poll during class.)
- I have been somewhere where a land acknowledgment was made, and I have a vague idea what they are for.
- I have been lots of places where land acknowledgements were made, and I know a lot about them.
- I have never been somewhere where a land acknowledgement was made and don't know anything about them.
- I have heard about people doing land acknowledgments and am interested in understanding what they are.
DAY 1: What is a Land Acknowledgment Statement?
Invite each student in turn to think about and then share one thing they love about the natural environment in your area.
If you live in a city, think about the trees; the birds; bugs; the moss that lives between the cracks in the concrete; parks with grass, plants, flowers; the sky, clouds, or light.
Share with students the results of the survey: What do we know of land acknowledgments?
Work with students to arrive at a working definition of what a “land acknowledgement statement” is and its purpose is. (For example: It is a formal statement that pays tribute to the original inhabitants of the land you are on. The purpose is to show respect for Indigenous peoples and recognize their enduring relationship to the land.)
- Who lived on the land we are on before European colonizers arrived?
- If we DO know, what do we know about those people?
- If we DON’T know, why don’t we?
Video & Discussion
Invite students to watch this 4-minute video about land acknowledgements:
After watching the video, ask students:
- What struck you most about this video?
- What feelings did it bring up for you?
- What did you learn?
- What other thoughts and reactions do you have about the video?
Reading & Discussion
Invite students to read (either silently to themselves or out loud as a class) this short backgrounder on Indigenous peoples and the movement to acknowledge those who lived on the land we now inhabit.
After students have read the backgrounder, ask them to share their thoughts and reflections about the reading. This might involve the whole class, or could take place in smaller breakout groups, with time to share out from each group when the whole class reconvenes.
Backgrounder on Indigenous Peoples & Land Acknowledgment
In the United States today, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people. These people are the descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land.
Indigenous people of the Americas shaped life in the Western Hemisphere for millennia. When European colonists arrived in North America in the 1600s, this land was filled with diverse, long-established societies.
Over the next three centuries, European settlers and their governments pursued a program of genocide and land theft against Native peoples across the continent, and denied them the right to govern themselves.
Throughout this history, and continuing today, Indigenous peoples have fought for their survival and their cultures. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the “culture of resistance” that has allowed Native peoples to survive and create a legacy: “Native people continue to fight to maintain the integrity and viability of Indigenous societies,” she writes. “American Indian history is one of cultural persistence, creative adaptation, renewal, and resilience.”
Most non-Indigenous Americans know very little, and are taught very little, about those who originally lived and thrived on the lands we now occupy – or about Native lives and cultures today. Researchers have found that:
- The majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native Americans.
- Many Americans are not clear how many Native peoples still exist.
- Invisibility is one of the biggest barriers Native peoples face in advocating for tribal sovereignty, equity, and social justice.
- Invisibility, erasure of history, stereotypes and false narratives underlie the stories being told right now about Native people in the 21st century.
Fortunately, surveys also find that most Americans want to change: They want to learn more about Native cultures; they support Native positions on most issues; and they support significant changes to K-12 curricula to ensure accurate Native history and culture is taught in schools.
Historian Jack Forbes, of Powhatan-Renapé and Lenape descent, maintained that “while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.”
Learning about and acknowledging the people on whose land we live is one way we can begin to take responsibility for our country’s ongoing injustices against Native peoples. And it is a step that can be mind-opening and enriching for us.
In Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, school days and meetings — and even sports games – often begin with a land acknowledgment: a formal statement that pays tribute to the original inhabitants of the land. The purpose of these land acknowledgment statements is to show respect for Indigenous peoples and recognize their enduring relationship to the land. Practicing acknowledgment – at events, in our writings, and elsewhere, can also raise awareness about the suppressed histories of Native peoples.
“There have always been Indigenous peoples in the spaces we call home, and there always will be,” Kanyon Sayers-Roods, a Mutsun Ohlone activist in Northern California, told Teen Vogue. “The acknowledgment process is about asking, What does it mean to live in a post-colonial world? What did it take for us to get here? And how can we be accountable to our part in history?”
Land acknowledgment statements can be short, simply citing the name or names of the tribes that inhabited the land, or they can include more extensive information. Morningside Center for Teaching Responsibility adopted this land acknowledgment statement for the work it does in New York City.
Questions for discussion:
- What struck you most about the reading? What questions do you have about it?
- Why do you think most Americans know so little about Indigenous peoples?
- Do you know less than you would like to about the people on whose land you are living? If so, what would you like to know and why?
- Why do you think you or we as a class have so little information about this?
- What is the purpose of a land acknowledgment statement?
- What impact do you think it might have if gatherings regularly began with an acknowledgment of the people whose land we are on?
Next, ask students to consider:
- Do we want to create a land acknowledgement statement for our class?
If students do want to create a statement, ask them to research the following questions as homework:
- What Indigenous peoples originally lived in our area?
- What is known about these peoples at the time of colonization?
- What happened once white settlers arrived? How did the Indigenous people here respond?
- Where are these peoples today, and what can we find out about them? Can we find writings or videos about them and their lives?
Ask students to write at least one paragraph about the people on whose land they now live to share with class in our next session.
This Interactive Lands map may be helpful: https://Native-land.ca/
Also see this guide to land acknowledgments: https://Nativegov.org/a-guide-to-Indigenous-land-acknowledgment/
Invite students to read this quote from Mary Lyons of the Leech Lake Bank of Ojiwe:
“When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us.”
DAY TWO: Creating a Land Acknowledgment Statement
Ask students to imagine what the land in your area might have looked like before European colonists arrived. What is the natural look of the land? What is the terrain like? What are the natural features of the land? Ask volunteers to share a few images that come to them.
Activity: Who Lived Here?
Invite students to share what they learned and what they have written. Together as a class, consider:
- What did we learn about the people whose land we occupy?
- Have we come up with similar information? Conflicting information? Were there multiple peoples who lived in this area, perhaps in different periods?
- What strikes you most about what you or others have learned?
- What additional questions do you have?
- How can we find out more?
Ask students what points would be important to include in a land acknowledgment statement by the class. Record their responses. Remember that their land acknowledgment statement might be just a couple of sentences, or several paragraphs.
Work with students to arrive at a land acknowledgment statement from your class.
Once you have created the statement, brainstorm with students about what the class might do with it. Possibilities include:
- Read either the full statement or a short version of it at each class gathering. (Students might take turns reading the statement.)
- Publicize the statement throughout the school.
- Plan a presentation or workshop for fellow students about what they have learned.
- Work to get the statement read before school gatherings, whether in person on online.
- Reach out to the media to let them know about what the class has learned and what they are trying to do about it.
Students might also consider doing further research on the peoples who once inhabited this land – both what their lives were like before the arrival of Europeans, and what their lives and contributions are today.
- What is one thing you would like to say personally to someone whose ancestors used to live on this land?
- What is one thing you would like to DO to address the injustice that has occurred?