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The United States seized more than 1.5 billion acres from Indigenous people between 1776 and 1887, but today, most of that land is held in trust by the government, severely restricting the rights of Native American people. Recognizing the original inhabitants of the spaces we occupy through awareness-building and land acknowledgment practices is only a first step toward equity, but it is an important one.
A new SMS bot developed by Code for Anchorage with information provided by the Canadian nonprofit Native Land encourages land acknowledgment by making it easier for those in the US to learn which Indigenous territories they’re standing on. Just text your zip code or your city and state (separated by a comma) to (907) 312-5085 and the bot will respond with the names of the Native lands that correspond to that region. (The service currently only works for US residents, but may be available for other countries in the future.)
The bot works by leveraging data from Native Land’s interactive map, which tracks Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages. Native Land is a crowdsourced, living resource, updated regularly with feedback from researchers and Indigenous communities, and is also available as an app for Android and iOS.
In the last two weeks, the bot has received more than 500,000 messages, says Brendan Babb, co-captain at Code for Anchorage. The text message medium was chosen because of its “low-barrier for entry” — even those without a smartphone can participate. Babb’s team has also previously created text message bots for realtime bus schedules in Anchorage and election result updates in Alaska, among others.
“As an Indigenous person, what it means to have a tool like Native Land is making that information accessible. It’s a free resource for anyone to use,” said Native Land’s executive director Christine McRae, who is an Omàmìwininì Madaoueskarini Anishinaabekwe (a woman of the Madawaska River Algonquin people) of the Crane Clan.
McRae told Hyperallergic that the organization was founded in 2015 by Victor Temprano, a settler from Okanagan territory, with the goal of “allowing Indigenous people to represent themselves.”
“Native Land and our map, as well as the resources we provide, are always a contact work in progress. We’re always open to adding to or correcting existing sources and including more accurate information,” she said. “We want as much interaction and feedback and involvement of Indigenous people and communities as possible.”
But Native Land’s tools, as well as Code for Anchorage’s SMS bot, should only be a “jumping off point for people to do their own research,” McRae adds.
“Just seeing how successful the SMS service has been and how far it’s already reach, there’s certainly value there,” she said. “But I think the most important part to keep in mind is it’s not enough to do a land acknowledgment or look up the information. What users should be doing is then developing meaningful relationships based on a foundation of respect of Indigenous people. I think what we’re doing is providing the introduction to then allow people to have that conversation.”
The land acknowledgment bot was created in a collaboration between Code for Anchorage and the Anchorage Innovation Team (supported by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.)
UPDATED, 08/21/20, 12:36pm EDT: Some users may have privacy concerns related to sharing their phone numbers with the bot, and some Hyperallergic readers reached out to tell us so via social media, but Babb told Hyperallergic that the phone numbers remain confidential:
We aren’t going to share the phone numbers with anyone else and will start removing them or giving the records unique identifiers and deleting the phone number. We have looked at aggregate data just to get an idea on average how many requests come in from a phone number, which was about 2.9 requests last time we checked. We do log some of the locations requested but are using that to see where we are missing results for regions to help improve the app and also might see overall what areas have been requested and what is the most frequent city queried.