Recognitions of land intended to honor indigenous peoples too often do the opposite

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By Elisa J. Sobo, San Diego State University; and Michael Lambert and Valérie Lambert, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Many events these days begin with land recognitions: serious statements acknowledging that activities are taking place, or that institutions, businesses and even homes are being built, on land that previously belonged to indigenous peoples.

And many organizations now require employees to incorporate such statements not only at events, but also in email signatures, videos, programs, etc. Organizations provide resources to facilitate these efforts, including pronunciation guides and video examples.

Some land reconnaissance is carefully constructed in partnership with the dispossessed. The Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle describes this process:

“The elders and tribal leaders are the experts and knowledge holders who have generously shared their views and advice with the Burkes. Through this consultation, we co-created the Burke Land Recognition.

This acknowledgment reads as follows:

“We are in the lands of the Coast Salish people, whose ancestors have resided here from time immemorial. Many indigenous peoples thrive in this place, alive and strong.

Land Grants have been used to start conversations about how non-Indigenous people can support Indigenous sovereignty and advocate for land repatriation.

Yet historical and anthropological evidence demonstrates that many contemporary land recognitions unwittingly communicate misconceptions about the history of dispossession and the current realities of American Indians and Alaska Natives. And these ideas can have negative consequences for Indigenous peoples and nations.

This is why, in a move that surprised many non-Indigenous anthropologists for whom land recognition seemed to be a public good, the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists asked the American Anthropological Association to officially suspend land recognition and the practice. related to the welcoming ritual, in which native people open conferences with prayers or blessings. The break will allow a working group to recommend improvements after examining these practices and the history of the estate’s relationship with Native Americans and Alaska Natives more broadly.

We are three anthropologists directly involved in the request – Valerie Lambert from the Choctaw Nation and President of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists; Michael Lambert of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and member of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists; and EJ Sobo, board member of the American Anthropological Association, responsible for representing interests such as those of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists. We would like to shed more light on this indigenous position, not from the association’s point of view, but from our point of view as academics.

“What was yours is now ours”

No data exists to demonstrate that land recognition leads to measurable and concrete changes. Instead, they often serve little more than public gestures of well-being signaling ideological conformity to what historians Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder have called – in the context of efforts for diversity, fairness and diversity. inclusion of higher education – “a naïve, leftist, paint-by-numbers approach” to social justice.

Take, for example, the mention in many acknowledgments of a time when indigenous peoples acted as “stewards” or “custodians” of the land now occupied. This and related references – for example, to “ancestral homelands” – relegate indigenous peoples to a mythical past and fail to recognize that they owned the land. Even if unintentionally, such assertions tacitly assert the putative right of non-Indigenous people to claim title now.

This is also implied in what is not said: after recognizing that one institution is on the ground of another, there is no follow-up. Plans are almost never articulated to make land. The implication is: “What was once yours is now ours.”

Moreover, in most cases these statements fail to recognize the violent trauma caused by the theft of land from indigenous peoples – the death, dispossession and displacement of countless individuals and collective suffering. The aftermath of these traumas are deeply felt and experienced in Indigenous communities.

But since non-Indigenous people are generally unaware of this trauma, recognition of the land is often seen by Indigenous peoples as denial of this trauma. This perspective is reinforced by a tendency to view indigenous peoples as part of prehistory, suggesting that the trauma of dispossession, if it has occurred, has not happened to real or fully human people.

Additionally, land recognition can undermine Indigenous sovereignty in ways that are both insidious and often incomprehensible to non-Indigenous people.

For example, non-native people tend to seek a local “native” affirmation of their recognition performance, such as hosting a blessing conference or a welcome-to-country ritual. Such rites often feature the voices of people who, in the words of Indigenous studies scholar Kim TallBear, play to be Indians, that is, those who have no legitimate claim to an Indigenous identity. or to a sovereign nation status but which present themselves as such.

Sovereignty and alienation

The appropriation of the identity of Native Americans and Alaska Natives by individuals who are not members of sovereign tribes, called “suitors” by Native Americans and Alaska Natives, is endemic. Iron Eyes actor Cody, for example, has built a decades-long career there despite his Italian heritage.

Demographics suggest suitors outnumber true American Indians and Alaska Natives by a ratio of at least 4 to 1. In some cases, suitors persist in their claims in the face of clear documentation. on the contrary.

When non-natives allow suitors to exercise authority over land recounts and blessing ceremonies, it irreparably harms sovereign Indigenous nations and their citizens. The most threatening message conveyed by these acts is that Native American identity is a racial or ethnic identity that anyone can claim through self-identification. This is not true.

Native American identity is a political identity based on the citizenship of an indigenous nation whose sovereignty has been recognized by the United States government. Sovereign Native Nations, and only those nations have the power to determine who is or is not a citizen, and therefore who is and is not an American Indian or an Alaskan Native.

Anything less would undermine all of Indian law, destroying tribal sovereignty. As Rebecca Nagle of the Cherokee Nation explains in “This Land,” American Indians and Alaska Natives would effectively cease to exist.

And so, especially when perpetuating misunderstandings about indigenous identities, poorly done land recounts are understood by indigenous peoples as the final blow: a definitive apocalyptic vision of a world in which indigenous sovereignty and rights to land fail. will not be recognized and will never be claimed. really existed.

Respect and restoration

Land recognitions are not detrimental, we believe, if done in a manner respectful of the indigenous nations claiming the land, accurately recounting how the land moved from indigenous to non-indigenous control, and chart a course for to follow. to repair the damage caused by the process of land dispossession.

What many Indigenous people want from land recognition is first a clear statement that the land is to be returned to the Indigenous nation or nations that previously held sovereignty over the land.

It’s not unrealistic: There are plenty of creative ways to take remedial action and even return land, such as returning America’s national parks to the appropriate tribes. Therefore, land recognitions must reveal a sincere commitment to respect and strengthen indigenous sovereignty.

If a recognition is awkward and triggers uncomfortable conversations rather than self-congratulation, it’s probably on the right track.

Elisa J. Sobo is Professor and Chair in Anthropology at San Diego State University. Michael Lambert is Associate Professor of African Studies and Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Valerie Lambert is President of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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