Higher Education , Law & Principles
J.E. McReynolds | December 20, 2021
‘Land acknowledgement statements’ abound, but some say reparations needed
Virtue-signaling Oklahoma universities are awash in ahistorical “land acknowledgement statements.” But some activists say performative gestures are not enough: It’s time to give the land back, or at least provide free tuition for Native Americans.
As you read this, chances are you're sitting on or near a place where indigenous peoples have sat in the distant past. In effect, you're sitting on their land. And that land was likely “stolen” by Europeans at some point in history.
Feel guilty? No problem. You can start by issuing a “land acknowledgment statement” (LAS), a form of overt guilt mitigation as ubiquitous today as the diversity statements that are considered de rigueur for college admission and job applications.
Land acknowledgment statements must be authentic, or at least sound authentic. Best to write a check while you're at it. A nonprofit group affiliated with the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) has tips on how to achieve authenticity.
For starters, your LAS should include words such as “genocide,” “stolen land,” and “forced removal.” The Sicangu group makes it easy to remove your guilt with a donation box on its website. Monthly or one-time pledges of $10 to $100 are suggested. If this sounds like a PBS pledge drive, alas no tote bag will be sent in exchange for a donation.
Rosebud Sioux community organizers want you to know that “acknowledgment without action does not address the systemic issues facing indigenous people.” The best call to action is to ask everyone who hears the land acknowledgment mea culpa to take out their phone, computer, or checkbook and donate at least $1 to a Native-led organization.
In other words, use a device that was likely invented by people with European backgrounds and manufactured by the indigenous people of China to transfer money from your account to the descendants of indigenous people who were victims of genocide and forced removal.
Sweet! And so easy.
Performative Preening in Oklahoma Higher Education
In the era of identity politics, Americans are divided into “settlers” who took land from natives and the natives who were victims of the taking. History paints a different watercolor. Native peoples throughout history have taken land from other native people. They were “settlers,” too. Should their ancestors issue a land acknowledgment statement? Send money?
Writing for The Federalist, Casey Chalk points out that hundreds of years before Columbus “discovered” the New World, a native civilization known as the Mississippians conquered neighboring tribes and became “settlers.” They expanded their political and cultural influence in what is now the central and southern United States. In the 12th century, they created Cahokia (in present-day Illinois) that equated to contemporaneous London.
Native peoples throughout history have taken land from other native people. Should their ancestors issue a land acknowledgment statement?
The Aztecs, Incans, Mayans, and Mohawks, Chalk notes, were also “settlers” who took land from other indigenous people. In Oklahoma, the Wichita, known as “The First People,” moved south in the late 18th century, “probably under pressure from tribes to the northeast that were encroaching on Wichita territory,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Students at the University of Oklahoma sit at desks that sit on land that was once sat upon by indigenous people. No problem. The university— whether in allied health, drama, geography, calculus, you name it—is chock-a-block with land acknowledgment statements. (Same with Oklahoma State University, the University of Central Oklahoma, East Central University, Oklahoma City University, and other institutions.)
OU’s College of Architecture, for instance, affirms that OU was built over the “traditional home” of the Caddo, Wichita, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole nations.
“We acknowledge this territory once also served as a hunting ground, trade exchange point, and migration route for the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Osage nations,” a college LAS reads. Indeed, it goes on, 39 tribes dwell in the state of Oklahoma “as a result of settler colonial policies designed to assimilate indigenous peoples.” OU has ignored the advice of the Rosebud Sioux in failing to mention “genocide” or “stolen land.” But it does “acknowledge, honor, and respect the diverse indigenous peoples connected to this land.”
There you have it: an LAS and diversity statement in one neat package. Nevertheless, OU refuses to budge from the site on which it was established in 1890. Seems the university has some authenticity issues to work out on the electronic drafting tables at the College of Architecture.
Moving Beyond Superficial Gestures: Give the Land Back
Of course, what this is really about goes far beyond a piece of paper acknowledging some grievous error of judgment on the part of one's ancestors. It takes little wit to realize that “settlers” have been with us always, with Homo sapiens settling into the territories of earlier hominids. Even the Asians who migrated across the Bering Strait to the future Americas likely displaced some other people at some point in time.
No, what this is really about is a transfer of wealth. The point is acknowledged (there's that word again!) by activists in the diversity, inclusion, and apologia industry of these Woke times. Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, director of Native Student Services at the University of South Dakota, penned a policy paper (“Beyond the Land Acknowledgement: College “LAND BACK” or Free Tuition for Native Students”) in which she acknowledges that it's all about the Benjamins, baby.
Apologize? Sure. Acknowledge? Why not? But according to this activist, it's an empty prairie without a wealth transfer. “Land acknowledgements without land-based reparations are empty,” she says.
Like other activists, Red Shirt-Shaw wants “stolen” lands returned to the victims of the thefts. Failing that, she wants Native Americans to receive tuition-free education from institutions issuing an LAS. “Institutions must challenge themselves to move away from encouraging acts that are performative, into commitments of transformative change,” she wrote. In other words, land acknowledgment statements are mere performances—stage acting. “Transformative” (read transference) goes beyond the playhouse and into the arena of wealth transfers.
Makes sense if you believe, as she does, that “settler colonialism is an ongoing process and system of power that perpetuates the loss of land by indigenous people.” Apparently, our ancestors not only stole land hundreds of years ago, but we're still taking it today!
“Land acknowledgment alone is not enough,” as another organization, the Native Governance Center, puts it. “Commit to returning land. Local, state, and federal governments around the world are currently returning land to Indigenous people. Individuals are returning their land, too. Research your options to return your land.”
Lest the leftists in Congress think they're immune from these outrages, consider that Biden's Interior Department nominee Deb Haaland testified before the Senate in February that “I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan and Piscataway people.” Yes, readers, the Halls of Congress sit on lands stolen from native people.
The new interior secretary may get a pass because she's an American Indian herself. Not so for most of the rest of us. Perhaps not even for the aforementioned tribes: Harvard's Steven Pinker has noted that these tribes “were often at war with each other or neighboring tribes.” But will they acknowledge any alleged wrong that may have occurred during this pugilistic period? It's much easier to have a common enemy that we all have met or may meet. That enemy, as Pogo famously said, is us. (Acknowledgment: Walt Kelly's cartoon possum lived in the Okefenokee Swamp, which was—until white settlement—part of the Creek Indians hunting grounds.)
The Federalist's Casey Chalk quotes anthropologist Lawrence Keeley on the subject of land acknowledgment: “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash” in pre-Columbian times on this continent, Keeley has said. Haaland's own Pueblo people fought against the Comanche and Navajo. Thus, claiming that any particular tribe members were aboriginal inhabitants of a particular piece of real estate is disingenuous and ahistorical. Tribes displaced other tribes. Land was stolen. Settlers settled.
The land acknowledgment movement, Chalk writes, is “built upon a broader, polemical historical narrative in which violent, imperialist Europeans arrived on American shores and brutally exterminated or displaced peaceful American Indian tribes that maintained a symbiotic relationship with nature. This, too, has no relationship to historical reality. Human sacrifice, cannibalism, torture and slavery were ubiquitous across native peoples, from the Aztecs, who sacrificed hundreds of thousands of captured peoples, to even the Algonquins and Iroquois.”
In some cases the victims of Native American violence were early European explorers and missionaries. We also hear little or nothing of the environmental devastation wrought by indigenous people in pre-Columbian times. Or the species of animals that were rubbed out by Indians before white settlement.
People—all people—do what people have always done: Exploit their surroundings and attempt to make the best lives for themselves and their families that they can. Sometimes—but certainly not always—this means harming other people, animals, and plants.
Isn't it time to acknowledge this fundamental, universal tenet of humanity?
[For more articles about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]
A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.