A protester at the Whitney Museum during the "Nine Weeks of Art and Action." Taken with permission on May 17, 2019. (photo Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

You’ve probably heard one. You may have helped craft one. A land acknowledgment is quickly becoming de rigueur among mainstream cultural and arts institutions. An official will stand at a podium and announce: This building is situated on the unceded land of the XYZ people. As if those people are not still here. As if this all happened in the past. He will breathe deeply and continue: We pay homage to the original stewards of these lands. The audience will nod in agreement. As if homage were the same as returning stolen land.

A land acknowledgment is not enough.

Museums that once stole Indigenous bones now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Organizations that have never hired an Indigenous person now admit the impact of Indigenous genocide through social media. Land-grant universities scramble to draft statements about their historical ties to fraudulent treaties and pilfered graves. Indeed, these are challenging times for institutions trying to do right by Indigenous peoples.

Some institutions will seek the input of an Indigenous scholar or perhaps a community. They will feel contented and “diverse” because of this input. They want a decolonial to-do list. But what we have are questions: What changes when an institution publishes a land acknowledgment? What material, tangible changes are enacted?

Without action, without structural change, acknowledging stolen land is what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call a “settler move to innocence.” Institutions are not innocent. Settlers are not innocent.

The problem with land acknowledgments is that they are almost never followed by meaningful action. Acknowledgment without action is an empty gesture, exculpatory and self-serving. What is more, such gestures shift the onus of action back onto Indigenous people, who neither asked for an apology nor have the ability to forgive on behalf of the land that has been stolen and desecrated. It is not my place to forgive on behalf of the land.

A land acknowledgment is not enough.

This is what settler institutions do not understand: Land does not require that you confirm it exists, but that you reciprocate the care it has given you. Land is not asking for acknowledgment. It is asking to be returned to itself. It is asking to be heard and cared for and attended to. It is asking to be free.

Land is not an object, not a thing. Land does not require recognition. It requires care. It requires presence.

Land is a gift, a relative, a body that sustains other bodies. And if the land is our relative, then we cannot simply acknowledge it as land. We must understand what our responsibilities are to the land as our kin. We must engage in a reciprocal relationship with the land. Land is — in its animate multiplicities — an ongoing enactment of reciprocity.

A land acknowledgment is not enough.

To engage with the land on the land’s terms is an act of reciprocity. Reciprocity, rather than recognition, is what the land requires because that is what it has already given. Are you not alive, breathing, because of this land?

The land exists regardless of settler acknowledgment, which can only ever be the first step toward meaningful action. Next steps involve building relationships with that land as if it were your kin. Because it is. 

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Joseph M. Pierce

Joseph M. Pierce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor,...

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  1. Yes! it is not enough and, experienced en masse, becomes more like a secret handshake, a sign of “belonging” the way certain kinds of language can morph from an attempt at clearer meaning to exclusionary jargon. The best land acknowledgment I ever experienced was at an academic conference (where they can quickly become numbing, given session after session, paper after paper, especially if people are standing on the same land). The session was on art and its geological turns and Nicholas Mirzoeff gave a mini-lesson in the history of lower Manhattan, back through human settlement to pre-human eras, and forward again to climate crisis and ongoing extraction. Like your essay: moving, instructive and a call for action.

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