Submitted by Rob Hill, Inclusive Instructional Design Specialist

Over the last several years, many higher education institutions and other organizations have adopted land acknowledgments. A land acknowledgment is a statement at the outset of an event or presentation that states the Indigenous people(s) who once (and often still do) lived on the land the host organization is situated on. For example, The Art Institute of Chicago presents the following land acknowledgment as a sub-section of its About Us page:

The Art Institute of Chicago is located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations. Many other tribes such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox also called this area home. The region has long been a center for Indigenous people to gather, trade, and maintain kinship ties. Today, one of the largest urban American Indian communities in the United States resides in Chicago. Members of this community continue to contribute to the life of this city and to celebrate their heritage, practice traditions, and care for the land and waterways.

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), “Acknowledging territory shows recognition of and respect for Aboriginal Peoples”. The land acknowledgement thus recognizes the importance of serving Indigenous people, who are part of our community. It also highlights the history of the land Harper and other North American institutions of higher education occupy.

In describing their land acknowledgement, Northwestern University adds, “It is within Northwestern’s responsibility as an academic institution to disseminate knowledge about Native peoples and the institution’s history with them.” The Harper College community might think similarly. Because we are committed to educating our communities, we should educate on the history and cultures a land acknowledgement refers to.

Developing a Land Acknowledgement

To acknowledge the land Harper is on, it is important to learn the history of the land and how Indigenous people have been in relation with it. To gain a better understanding of that history and those relationships, it is vital that Harper work with local Indigenous communities. That work should be ongoing: instead of simply asking Indigenous people to work with the college to write a statement, the college should consider how it is building and maintaining relationships with local Indigenous communities. The importance of building and maintaining relationships is especially true given the tumultuous and violent history of relations between the United States and Indigenous nations.

The Native Governance Center makes several other recommendations for developing a land acknowledgements that should be considered at Harper, including:

  • Refer to important aspects of Indigenous life locally, including people and the history of the land
  • Learn how to correctly pronounce names
  • Use “past, present, and future tenses” to emphasize that Indigenous life is ongoing now and into the future, not simply part of the past.
  • Offer a land acknowledgement for reasons beyond ticking a box or “because everyone else is doing it.”

The Land and the History: Some Noteworthy Aspects

Chicagoland occupies the land of the Council of the Three Fires: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi; Peoria; Sioux; Kickapoo; and Miami peoples. What is now Chicago was once a site of trade, healing and relationship building between Indigenous nations.

The Treaty of Chicago of 1833, between the United States and the Council of the Three Fires, forced the removal of many Native peoples from this area and the Midwest generally. This precipitated the Potawatomi Trail of Death and the seizure of land from Indigenous peoples. The treaty was one of several that the United States initiated as part of a centuries-long encroachment upon Native land.

The schooling system in the United States, relevant because of Harper’s position as a community college, included institutions that forced assimilation onto Native children. These boarding schools, hundreds of which ran in the US, operated by the federal government and Christian churches. The boarding school program lasted over a hundred years from the 1860s to the 1970s, and was founded on the premise that Native people were “uncivilized” and needed to be stripped of their customs, language, and culture to assimilate into “proper” society. Children were taken from their homes and faced abuse at the schools on top of the cultural violence inflicted.

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 stripped many tribes of federal recognition and the funding that went along with it. The federal government pushed Natives affected by the new policy to relocate to cities in an updated assimilation attempt. Chicago was one such city many Native people came to. Although the federal government offered some funding to displaced individuals, such funding was insufficient for many and failed to manage obstacles such as employment discrimination.

One Version of a Land Acknowledgement

As many Native scholars and educators have argued, a rote, pre-packaged land acknowledgement can lose its meaning and turn into a “checkbox” of sorts – something an individual says to start an event that performs a modicum of equity without striving for anything substantive. Thus, the following land acknowledgement is offered as one option that the author, a white settler-colonial, developed as part of a larger process of reflection.

Harper College is on the traditional and continuing homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi; Peoria; Sioux; Kickapoo; Miami; and other peoples. The Chicago metropolitan area was the site of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which forced Native people westward, including the Potawatomi Trail of Death, as part of the federal government’s ongoing violent removal of Native people. Today, the Chicago area is home to tens of thousands of Native people across many cultures, and who are among our colleagues, students, and community here at Harper. I offer this land acknowledgement in the spirit of reconciliation and to remind us as educators of our roles to serve all of our students, respect and engage with the knowledges and cultures that past educators sought to destroy, and seek to better understand how our history has shaped where we are today.

The land on which Harper was built.

Acknowledging the Land Harper Is On

Suggestions for the College

  • Individuals at the college might begin to incorporate land acknowledgements of their own as they familiarize themselves with the history of the land, violence against Native peoples that occurred here, and how the college is implicated in ongoing harm against Indigenous people and Indigeneity. In presenting land acknowledgements, it is important to ask oneself, why am I doing this land acknowledgement? For whom?
  • The college should build partnerships with Native organizations and peoples. One such partnership could include consultation or residency by an Indigenous person or group that can result in a more substantial land acknowledgement that represents not only history but how the college will serve Indigenous communities in the present and future.
  • If the college does engage in the formal development of a land acknowledgement, it should be accompanied by material support for Indigenous communities and Indigenous knowledge, and should be part of an ongoing effort to build and maintain relationships; developing a land acknowledgement should not be a one-off process.

Further reading