Special thanks to BEETLES Emerging Leader, Erica Ellis, and other Cheakamus Centre staff for their contributions to the development of this text.
As environmental and outdoor science educators, we have a unique opportunity to engage youth meaningfully with nature. With this, we think, comes a responsibility to examine our own relationship to the land we live and teach on, and to learn about the relationship the local indigenous communities had and have with the land. We can also engage our students in this conversation, guiding them to thoughtfully develop a relationship with land and nature. One way to do this is to include territorial acknowledgments in our programming. At their core, territorial acknowledgments name the indigenous peoples who first lived on the land and call attention to their enduring presence.
In the United States, we all live, teach, and work on land stolen from indigenous peoples. It’s easy to forget about this as we move through our daily lives, focusing on our families, communities, and work. And, this reality is frequently glossed over in educational settings, where local indigenous people are frequently unacknowledged or are talked and taught about only in the past tense. Learning about indigenous peoples in classrooms and outdoor programs is often focused on traditional indigenous practices, not the significant impacts of colonization on indigenous communities, where and how those communities currently engage with the land, and how they continue to be marginalized today.
Territorial acknowledgments are a way to honor and validate the experience of indigenous people, and to guard against the “invisibility” that many indigenous people continue to experience. They are also a way to introduce some awareness into the daily lives of non-indigenous people, a reminder to consider the historical and current impacts of colonization on indigenous communities and to be in thoughtful relationship with the land. Including territorial acknowledgments towards the beginning of a program or event (and putting them on your organization’s website– see an example here) can introduce some discomfort for the audience, and it is one step towards deepening understanding and awareness of the impacts of colonization on indigenous communities.
Some acknowledgments are simple, and just state the name (pronounced correctly) of the indigenous tribe that originally lived there, from whom the land was stolen. Other acknowledgments go deeper and include some history of and current information about local indigenous peoples, the impacts of colonization on indigenous communities, and/or direct requests for listeners to reflect on their relationship to the land. Ideally, territorial acknowledgments should be created with input from local indigenous representatives so they can express preferences about what the acknowledgment includes.
It takes research! Here’s an example of the steps we took to write a territorial acknowledgment for our August 2018 BEETLES Leadership Institute: we did some research to better understand the history of the land on which Grizzly Creek Ranch, our Leadership Institute gathering site sits. We reached out to Plumas County Museum as a starting place and found out that the region was originally home to the Mountain Maidu. After Googling and reading several articles online, we reached out to Lorena Gorbet, a Maidu Indian, to learn more about her experience living in the region as well as her ancestors and community. In particular, we wanted to know:
- Pronunciation of Maidu
- How did land use change throughout the year?
- The impact of colonizers on the community
- Present day management of land
- What would you like people to know about you and your community
BEETLES Project Manager, Ramya, who had a phone conversation with Lorena, said: “While I had planned several questions to ask, the call was more of a discussion than an interview to get a better understanding of her story as well as her community’s connection to the land. I decided to ask her what she would like to share with the group since neither she nor anyone else from the Maidu community would be present. This provided an opportunity for a voice that wasn’t present in the space.”
View the resulting territorial acknowledgment for Grizzly Creek Ranch in the example section of this page.
Beginning to integrate territorial acknowledgments into our programs and routines is an important a first step, but there is much more that needs to be done as environmental and outdoor science educators to meaningfully examine our relationship with teaching on stolen land. Efforts to make the indigenous inhabitants of the land more visible must be paired with sincere and consistent efforts to build relationships with local indigenous peoples, to listen to their perspectives and leadership, and to allow these understandings to influence our organizations and decision-making. What can this look like?
We encourage you to start by reading this article and watching this video of a panel from indigenous leaders in Canada linked at the end of this blog. They include important perspectives from indigenous leaders on the limits of territorial acknowledgments.
Other ways to move beyond territorial acknowledgments in outdoor science organizations and programming:
- Building relationships with local first nations tribe members, asking “How can we be better guests on this land?” or “How would you like us to engage communities of youth with this land?”
- Offering indigenous peoples voice in the decisions you make about your organization, programming, and policies (but not expecting or requiring their participation)
- Donating land or money to indigenous-led organizations, businesses, or efforts (see an example of an indigenous-led land trust here)
- Deepening your own understanding of the impacts of colonization on indigenous communities, and how to engage respectfully with indigenous communities (this online course is one place to start)
- Taking a hard look at your programming and addressing any instances of cultural appropriation or inaccurate information in your programs. This could include:
- Indigenous rituals or practices shared with students without permission
- Inaccuracies taught about local tribal practices
- Historical teachings about land use that gloss over the forced removal of indigenous peoples and the impacts of colonization
- Cultural appropriation of indigenous symbols, practices, stories, or clothing pieces used within programs
BEETLES is not the expert on doing territorial acknowledgments. We encourage our readers to check out the following research to learn more on how to craft territorial acknowledgments and learn about the tribes indigenous to the land you teach on.
Are You Planning to do a Land Acknowledgment?, American Indians in Children’s Literature
Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments, Chelsea Vowel
Making Coast Salish Territorial Acknowledgments Matter, Coast Salish Cultural Network
Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment, U.S. Department of Arts and Culture
“The way in which territorial acknowledgments are delivered must matter. Are they formulaic recitations that barely penetrate the consciousness of the speaker and those listening? Are they something that must be ‘gotten through’ before the meeting or speech can begin? Can we escape dilution through repetition?
Moving beyond territorial acknowledgments means asking hard questions about what needs to be done once we’re ‘aware of Indigenous presence’….How can you be in good relationship with Indigenous peoples, with non-human beings, with the land and water? No ideas? Well, it’s a good thing Indigenous peoples are still here, because our legal orders address all of those questions. So why aren’t you asking us?”
– Chelsea Vowel, Métis writer and lawyer
“One of the problems I am finding with land acknowledgments is they are now being carried out so frequently in schools that they are at risk of becoming almost robotic and meaningless. I think the question is how do we (as non-indigenous educators) make these acknowledgments meaningful and heartfelt. I think exploring why we are grateful to be on these traditional territories, and why we are actually thanking the Coast Salish people, is a good starting point. So too is thinking about what our responsibilities are as educators working on this land or in this place.”
– Rosie Dyer, Cheakamus Centre