Writing a Land Acknowledgement for Dummies, I mean Settlers
Land acknowledgements have become too ritualistic, like eating three meals a day or having sex with your wife.
I fall somewhere between the first and second generations on this land, and flat on the understanding that this land was not meant for me. The prosperity of my family follows the promised immigrant livelihood of playing by the rules, of keeping your head down and your foot forward. My acceptance into the colonial state is, for many reasons, conditional, but it comes at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty. So my lived experience in so-called Canada is one of crossfire.
Land acknowledgements are and (to an extent) should be for settlers—not to coddle them, but disrupt. They’re meant to be a recognition of the original inhabitants (stewards?) of the land upon which a person, group, or institution (regardless of size) has historically and continually been operating on and benefitting from.
In theatre, a moment is usually taken before the performance begins. Whether it’s a slip of paper in the front of house or a production member namedropping Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee (special shout-out to the Huron-Wendat), they have become more of an accessory than a genuine understanding of our history. Seldom is Indigenous presence illustrated beyond the past, never mind our own implications in upholding colonial structures and practices. The solution, however, should be to improve the ways they’re done rather than omitting them entirely.
IT’S SPELLED L-A-N-D
Acknowledging land may disrupt the possibility of a settler future, but it does not assure it. Land is the backbone upon which our nation was built: the original wealth (home and capital) and the reason Indigenous people were and continue to be dislocated. In fracturing communities and families, you lose your sense of belonging to the land, people, and culture—you lose your sense of self. And when Indigenous identity is policed and politicized, it becomes as political as it is personal. The disruption of Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land is a disruption of Indigenous ways of life and is, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang assert in Decolonization is not a metaphor, “a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence.”
Calling attention to the land and its dynamics reminds us what came before and what is happening now, physically and structurally. But history does not account for the ways knowledge, culture and livelihood are grounded in reciprocal ecological relationships. Remember: we inhabit this land, we do not own it. It is in that assertion you are also rejecting colonial thought, history, and values. You might not have the power to actually repatriate the land—unless you do, then do that—but if you have the power of doing an land acknowledgement, you have the power of rebuking that false ownership.
DO YOUR (OWN) RESEARCH
North America is huge. It’s a whole freaking continent. No one would assume that Europe has one solid culture, and yet Indigenous groups in North America are always homogenized. There’s a reason for this: reducing claims to Indigeneity (via blood quantum, status, cultural authenticity) reduces claims to land. Leaving them only as a name in our consciousness and mouths continues to erase/ignore their survival and continued presence.
When we call their lands ‘traditional’, we separate settlers and Indigenous populations temporally and assume Indigenous populations are no longer around or nearby. They’ve either all been wiped out (oops!), or live on reserves wherever reserves are! When we are vague about the original inhabitants, we undermine Indigenous presence and sovereignty. If we are going to talk about the people who originally lived where we are, let’s talk about who they were! Let’s give local Indigenous groups the complexity they deserve, but have been deprived of. Let’s understand why they had to leave and where they are now—because they’re not gone. And if we want to acknowledge how settlers have stolen and exploited the land, we must recognize that there are still people to which the land can be returned to.
ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT ABSOLUTE.
Standing in solidarity is a message of support, but it is by no means support. It is not a one-and-done moment the same way colonialism is not a one-and-done moment, but asserted everyday upon occupancy. The historical context of Indigenous oppression has become so diluted, that the focus appears to be on the fight itself rather than the reason.
You cannot call yourself an ally unless the people you’re advocating for claim you in that way. You stand in solidarity when you fully understand the issue, and you so full-heartedly agree that you would go out and fight for that. It is not simply saying, “I support you” or “I agree with you.” It means, “I would put the same stakes on the line for the same goal.”
Acknowledgement needs to be paired with action, not just followed. How are we responding to the history other than mentioning it? Otherwise we’re just reiterating what’s been said—we’re not doing anything new—and land acknowledgements will remain performative rather than sincere. But they can be potentiated with some kind of action that invites something out of the audience that will benefit Indigenous artists and communities on their own terms.
You could collect and send program donations to Indigenous organizations, or better yet, you could program and hire Indigenous artists and put Indigenous arts workers in leadership positions. Theatre itself derives from a history of Eurocentric practices and traditions that maintain the framework in which our stories are told, the stories themselves, and who gets to tell them. In Making Space in Indigenous Art for Bull Dykes and Gender Weirdos, Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator Lindsay Nixon marks a distinction between “two Indigenous art histories”: the one that has existed forever, and the one that makes it into a museum. Where is the room for Indigeneity if colonial structures are still in place?
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Did you know that the Katarowki or so-called Kingston area used to be entirely underwater? Victoria Park was originally a creek, and flowing out from there was a prominent fishing stream that ran all the way down University Avenue. The same route many people take to school and work each day is a path that has been taken since time immemorial.
That’s how we once started our land acknowledgement for a project I worked on in Kingston. I then went on a bit of a tangent about how anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains that culture is quite literally an evolutionary trait that developed in order for humans to understand and contextualize whatever the hell was going on. That without it, human behaviour would be ungovernable and chaotic since our experiences would be “shapeless”.
But we circled backed to how Indigenous cultures and pedagogies are heavily informed by an experiential relationship with the land and its inhabitants. And so, everyone was invited to introduce themselves and share something about their environment that informed their behaviour or way of life.
Acknowledging land does not need to be a beautifully scripted manifesto recited from heart (that’s what the performers are for). As artists, we should be the #1 people to get personal and creative with the ways land acknowledgements can be done effectively. Theatre, at its core, is about striking conversation through a shared experience. In creating a moment that is invitational rather than presentational, we can get personal and specific with the ways we express our positionality rather than reciting a long list of colonialism’s crimes.
CELEBRATION AND CEREMONY
Indigenous people are not limited to or defined by their suffering. We cannot limit our understandings of Indigenous presence at a loss, deficit, or opposition. A focus on Indigenous resurgence rather than oppression doesn’t limit the way we talk about Indigeneity as endangered or victimized, but empowered and thriving. Because despite all the colonial bullshit, surprise! Indigenous people do experience joy, and there is a sort of protest found in celebration.
In Medicine Shows: Indigenous Performance Culture, Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan explores Anishinaabe critical theorist Gerald Vizenor’s notion of survivance as a “narrative resistance”. She explains:
“For people who have refused to disappear in spite of hundreds of years of occupation, refused to be assimilated in spite of an active policy to take away their languages, traditional lands, and cultural practices, the telling of these stories and speaking of these languages in public is a political act, an act of resistance. Even when we tell other stories, stories about ceremony, about making community, or about transformation, those stories are built on the joyful, painful primary assertion that, in spite of everything, we are still here.”
Erasure and resilience are two different things. And would it be weird to be eulogized at a performance you’re currently attending?
FUCK SETTLER INNOCENCE!
Fuck settler innocence! Look, we’re not ‘better’ settlers for having done a good land acknowledgement or even having one, but we are worse if we actively choose not do one. We cannot deflect our identities as settlers while enjoying the privilege of occupation. We need to dedicate the time and effort into how we craft and express land acknowledgements. It doesn’t have to plug every single hole, but it should be sincere. Really think about how your acknowledgement applies not just to the land, but to the event, people, traditions, and institutions you’re speaking to/for.
This process should not be rushed. In fact, time should be budgeted to allow for this critical thinking and for the actual acknowledgement to occur from the get go. A lazy land acknowledgement reflects an inconvenience of Indigeneity and a desire to get this over with. I’m sure the audience will be able to manage five minutes of discomfort in their status and complacency as settlers. Most plays don’t even have intermissions anymore! We can’t acknowledge shit while comforting settler feelings, and the revolution will not be brought forth with the words ‘acknowledge’; ‘recognize’; or ‘grateful to live, learn, and play’.
WHERE WE’RE LEFT
Current land acknowledgements are framed in a way that pushes accountability on your grandparents who voted for a war criminal disguised as a Care Bear, on the past, on someone else. There is little responsibility, little action, and little sincerity. Acknowledging the ‘traditional’ territory does not recognize its longer history. Acknowledging its longer history is acknowledging its longer history.
But even so, it is not an apology. It is not restitution. It is not for those who have been hurt, but the ones who have done the hurting. Us settlers are not so much as ‘situated’ on Indigenous lands as much as we are intruding. A parasite is not situated on the body. It hurts to realize how we are complicit in colonialism, how we are able to harm others just by being ourselves, but a lifetime and legacy of systemic violence and generational trauma hurts more.
What we settlers understand as “reconciliation” is a strategic management of liability, a vague sentiment of forgiveness by the colonial state that is ultimately oriented towards efficiency rather than atonement. Reconciliation seeks to achieve an end product rather than enter a process of restorative justice—a tenet when convenient, and never challenging the power differential. It doesn’t seek to make amends, it wants to get things over with. And you can’t reconcile a relationship that was never good in the first place. As we abstain from culpability to keep the illusion of integrity intact, we render Indigenous livelihood as the killjoys of national pride.
TL;DR Land acknowledgements are misguided attempts at decolonization if they only offer peace to settlers.
First Peoples’ Performing Arts Festival of the Thousand Islands will be happening at the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands in Gananoque from Oct 15-17.
The Kingston Aboriginal Community Information Network (KACIN) is a network of Indigenous service providers located in Kingston.
Playwrights Canada Press offers a variety of scripts from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Playwrights.
The following are a variety of Indigenous perspectives (*except for) on land acknowledgements :
- Indigenous Artists Tell Us What They Think About Land Acknowledgements
- ‘I regret it’: Hayden King on writing Ryerson University’s territorial acknowledgement
- A guide to Indigenous land acknowledgment from the Native Governance Centre
- Canada’s Impossible Acknowledgment
- A Digital Land Acknowledgement*
Special thanks to Camille Usher, Dr. Ian Fanning, Amanda Lin, Paul Smith, and Columbia Roy.