The second Monday in October is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the city of Denver. While the state does not officially recognize the holiday, the Denver City Council unanimously passed the resolution honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016.
The day gives schools and colleges the opportunity to educate students about Native American history, as well as to highlight contemporary Native American citizens and their cultures. As an alternative to Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is also a time to critically review the history of Columbus’ “discovery” of a land that already existed as home to Native Americans. Educational institutions, including many universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, have also been acknowledging Native American history by issuing land acknowledgment statements. On Oct. 28, 2020, the University of Colorado issued an official systemwide Lands Recognition Statement. The statement acknowledges that CU’s four campuses are located on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples.
Although CU is not the first university in the U.S. to issue such a statement, it is one of many institutions of higher learning now acknowledging that their campuses are located on Native American lands. Indigenous Peoples’ Day also provides an opportunity to consider land acknowledgments in general—how they started, what they mean, and why they matter.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Land acknowledgment statements began in Canada, through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 2015, the TRC issued its final report after documenting accounts by Indigenous peoples throughout the country between 2007 and 2015. Land acknowledgments became more common after the TRC Final Report, notably in universities.
The trend moved on to other countries that had established colleges and universities in formerly Indigenous areas, including the United States. John Ronquillo, PhD, an assistant professor at CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs who is also co-chair of the university’s Equity Task Force, researches governance and leadership within Native communities. He believes the statement is a great first step: “It is late, but it’s never too late, in my opinion, to do the right thing.”
The Problem with Ownership
Land acknowledgment statements remind society of the Indigenous peoples who previously inhabited specific geographical areas. “There is a whole history of policies of removal and relocation,” Ronquillo said. However, it would be inaccurate to say tribal nations were owners of the land—because “the word ownership is problematic,” he added.
In some ways, crafting a land acknowledgment statement requires a new way of thinking. It requires an education in Indigenous ways of knowing and being. “Now, ‘scientifically advanced’ researchers are turning to Native knowledge of land stewardship, environmental conservation, leadership, and governance,” Ronquillo said.
Revisiting American History
“In terms of acknowledgment, there are very hard truths that have to be spoken of—not just the land, but the history of the people needs to be acknowledged by the administration,” Ronquillo said. “The Utes laid claim to the entire Western slope,” he added, “and now we’ve reduced their footprint to two small land reservations in Colorado.”
Like other U.S. universities, the CU system statement does not use the word genocide, but it does acknowledge “the painful history of ill treatment and forced removal that has had a profoundly negative impact on Native nations.”
The Native Governance Center, a nonprofit based in Minnesota run by and for Native people, provides tips for creating an Indigenous land acknowledgment statement, including using appropriate language: “Use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by colonizers.”
CU Denver issued its own statement, the Auraria Campus Land Acknowledgment, that recognizes the genocide of Indigenous peoples. It was written by Gracie RedShirt Tyon, director of American Indian Student Services. Chancellor Michelle Marks and other university leaders over the past year have read the statement at the beginning of campus events, including town halls and last month’s Future Fest.
Ronquillo understands why people are afraid to use the word “genocide,” even if it applies to Indigenous populations that were decimated. He’d like the statement to serve as a first step for “university leaders to be clear and bold … that we support our Native students in their educational pursuits and recognize any resurgent generational trauma related to how they navigate the world as Indigenous persons.”
One thing Ronquillo likes about CU’s statement is that it acknowledges Native contributions to education. “I would praise the university where they speak specifically about the contributions of Native people in various fields,” he said. “That component is so critical because of a false narrative that our Native communities were simply primitive,” he added.
Are Statements Enough?
Some people argue that land acknowledgments are empty gestures or symptoms of academic political correctness. The Native Government Center writes, “Land acknowledgment alone is not enough.”
But Ronquillo is optimistic. He views land acknowledgments as a first step in correcting history to acknowledge the importance of different groups. He points to Japanese Americans during World War II, to the descendants of slaves, to Armenian Americans who emigrated due to the Armenian genocide.
“Any time we can call attention to these communities’ contributions is good for the population at large—it assures that we don’t ignore the variation in the American fabric,” he said.