“Who’s Land?” The Trials and Tribulations of Territorial Acknowledgement

Rowland “Ena͞emaehkiw” Keshena Robinson

During the autumn of 2016, in October, my sister and I, both of us Indigenous Ph.D. students in philosophy and sociology respectively, attended a conference held at St. Paul’s University College, an affiliate of the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, entitled Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges. The summit was part of a broader array of “Truth and Reconciliation Response Projects” that had begun to take place across Canada over the course of the preceding year. These “response projects” were a largely liberal and institutional response to the release in the autumn of 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report[1] on the residential school programme in kanada.

While emerging from a largely liberal institutional context, and perhaps in-spite of those origins, the conference nevertheless saw some incredible keynote speakers, and a number of quite inspirational and informative Circle Workshops on various topics.

One of those circles which has stuck with me, and been the source of much reflection and meditation, was on the subject and practice of Territorial Acknowledgements in both the public and educational spheres. I have written on this before, but in light of my PhD dissertation writing slowly approaching the end of a long tunnel, and having recently completed a term teaching a university course on Indigenous Issues in Canada, I have been reflecting upon them once again.

While many people in Canada are familiar with the practice, for those unaware, or outside, of this national context, the practice of territorial acknowledgement is, in my opinion, relatively self-explanatory: it is the practice of prefacing ones work, writings, talks etc. with a recognition of the land upon which one stands, and in particular of the original people from whom it was seized by the expansion of empire.

For the syllabus of my course, which I created largely from scratch, I placed the following at the top of the first page:

We acknowledge that this course takes place upon the Dish With One Spoon Territory: the traditional lands of the Attawandaron (Neutral) Nation, Anishinaabeg/Anishinabek (Three Fires Confederacy & Mississauga), Rotinonshón:ni Six Nations Confederacy, Wyandot People and the Métis Nation of Ontario. The University of Waterloo and St. Paul’s University College is situated within Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract, land promised to the Six Nations to the British Empire in 1784, which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River from mouth to source.

However, while I myself engage in the practice above, it is not to say that my thoughts on, and relationship to, the practice are uncomplicated. It is some of these complications that I wish to briefly unpack here.

Me, Myself and the Land

I’ll admit that for a long time I didn’t engage in this practice at all. Initially it was because when I first moved to southwest Ontario, which is where I first encountered people engaging in this process, it was most common to see people only recognizing the theft of the Haldimand Tract from the Rotinonshón:ni Six Nations Confederacy. Knowing as I did that perhaps the most ancient residents of the land that became this city were the people of the Attawandaron Nation, my immediate response was that these early experiences with the practice, more often than not performed by white settlers, was Rotinonshón:ni-centric. It wasn’t to say that I thought that we should not be recognizing the peoples, territories and struggles of the Rotinonshón:ni Confederacy, but rather that this quite narrow focus (which primarily flowed from the mouths and keyboards of settlers) buried the Attawandaron, Anishinaabek and Wyandot, and their own relationship to the land and territory.

Related to this was a stance I took up best summarized as: “this is all stolen Indian land, and it should all be returned to us.” I still stand by this. However, there was a certain impression I always got from the Haldimand Tract focus that seemed to place the issue on a plane of being the most pressing, or clearest, example of stolen Indigenous land in the region. In my view, then and now, this narrowing of the plane of dispossession to exclusively the Haldimand Tract is easily a way for settlers to side-step the larger issue that, of course, all of southwest ontario, the broader province, kanada and indeed all of so-called north amerika are, and were, land Indigenous stolen and seized from our Nations by dint of dishonesty, betrayal and genocide, and that it is all in need of decolonization.

However, as I noted already, my relationship to the practice is complex. This can be seen on in my own recognition of the land on this blog. Part of this arose from my learning over the years more and more about our Peoples’ traditional worldviews and how we related to one another as individuals and as distinct, if still at times closely related and allied, nations. In particular, I was helped along this path by my partner, who is a wonderfully brilliant Anishinaabekwe feminist philosopher. In finding out through the microcosm of our life together ever more about the traditional and ancient relations between our very closely related Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak and Anishinaabek Niswi-Mishkodewin Peoples, I found that for myself it was important for to acknowledge that I live in the territory of her people. The Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak and Anishinaabek are old friends and allies (and at times opponents: it was like siblings I guess). Our cultures are virtually the same, we carry the same cosmologies and spiritual cycles, and our languages are very similar. Situated as my nation has been since the beginning of memory on the western shores of Nanāweyah Kaeqcekam/Ininwewi-Gichigami (Lake Michigan), we also maintained old ties to the Iroquoian Peoples of the Rotinonshón:ni, Attawandaron and Wyandot. Additionally, the Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak are one of the source peoples of the modern Michif Nation, along with the Anishinaabek, Nēhilawē, Wolastoqiyik and Lnu’k. So I found it important to recognize those relations as well.

Thus, for myself as a Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak activist and scholar, my own practice of territorial acknowledgement is as much about the recognition of these ancient relations of friendship, kinship and alliance between our Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak, Anishinaabek, Rotinonshón:ni, Attawandaron, Wyandot, and Michif Nations as much as it is about recognition of the relatively obvious fact (as far as we as Indigenous Peoples and Nations see it) that the land was stolen from us by the expansion of white settler sovereign power. We must, and indeed are and have been, rebuilding and renewing these relations as we struggle together for decolonization, the resurgence of traditional culture and the return of our lands.

Settlers and the Practice of Territorial Acknowledgement

On the other side of Indigenous People’s practice of territorial acknowledgement is the growing engagement in the practice by settler and also arrivant peoples[2]. While this may have been for many years a niche practice of certain sectors of the radical left, it has since grown beyond those confines. Indeed, today it is an increasingly common site to see major kanadian universities placing a territorial acknowledgement on their homepages, for business to do so, and for individual class syllabuses to contain one somewhere in their body. Indeed, even at my comparatively conservative, reactionary research institution we have seen the university president giving a territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of new building openings, and even at the start of convocations (though his practice is highly situational and thus inconsistent).

Much of the reason for this has been the tireless work of Indigenous People—in particular the many brilliant and strong Indigenous Sisters I have had the joy of getting to know these past few years—who have struggled and pushed for this practice to become accepted as an ingrained activity. While the local Indigenous women who began this push at first found themselves being called into meetings, conferences, classrooms and places of work to “give the territorial acknowledgement,” they always maintained that what they wanted to do was to educate settler peoples to the point that they would do it on their own, and without the need for further prompting from Indigenous People.

This though does rather a further question, which is why we, as the Original People of this land, should have to recognize the territory in the first place? This is perhaps best summed up a local Gitxsan friend who says, why do people think it is somehow an honour for us to recognize that our lands were stolen? I think he hits the nail on the head, in particular as he directs his comments towards the settlers, perhaps well meaning, who engage in the activity just mentioned of approaching us as the campus aboriginal centre to ask us to open up their conferences, gatherings of meetings with a territorial acknowledgement.

However, in the end their work has paid off to such a degree that now even weddings are seeing an acknowledgement of the territory included in their proceedings!

And this is important for settler peoples to do—that is, if they truly do strive to be something more, and to engage us meaningfully in the process of decolonization. I do not believe that as Indigenous Peoples, scholars, students, activists or otherwise, that it is our responsibility to save white people, to educate them, or to otherwise do this for them. This was always the point of the sisters locally: to give settlers the initial push, so that they can keep the ball rolling themselves. I believe it is very much so the responsibility of settler peoples to acknowledge genocide, acknowledge cultural destruction and to acknowledge theft of the land upon which they stand, and to acknowledge that they, every single one of them, benefits from those crimes in some way. In this I am indebted in my thought to the courageous settler comrades of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, who hold that it is not for Indigenous and Afrikan peoples to save white people (we have our own more pressing struggles), but rather for white people to save white people and bring themselves back into the human family from which they have so long been self-alienated (even as they proclaim themselves the true Human subject of history). Part of this is to speak truth, and the act of territorial acknowledgement is this.

At the same time though I would echo the sisters who spoke at the circle in saying that in engaging in this process that settlers must take leadership on the issue from Indigenous Peoples. As I noted above in discussing why I pulled away from the practice when I first encountered it, this was in part due to the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of it at the time. Again this was not bad per say: it was because of the tireless efforts of the brothers and sisters from the Rotinonshón:ni community on and around the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve (the largest reserve in the region) in publicizing the history of struggle and theft regarding the Haldimand Tract that has put it in a prominent position.

However, this should not have meant that the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract were the only peoples, territories and struggles to be acknowledged. If the settler peoples who I first encountered writing and speaking territorial acknowledgements had taken the time to listen to the regional Indigenous community, and more specifically to sit and take leadership from them, they would have known this. For example, the Anishinabek community of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation is practically right next door to the Rotinonshón:ni at Six Nations of the Grand River. The region also contains several other Anishinaabek communities. This all would have become obvious to settler peoples seeking to acknowledge the territory if they had taken leadership instead of seeking to find their own way.

This is important because while, as I say, the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of the territorial acknowledgement when I first arrived here was not bad outright, it was only a half-measure. Further, in being a half measure it effectively erased the presence of Anishinaabek, Attawandaron, Wyandot, and Michif. In doing this it actually perpetuated settler colonial epistemic violence against those nations.

I am glad to say though that now in the region at the very least the presences and histories of the Anishinabek, Attawandaron and Rotinonshón:ni are all recognized. Even more correct territorial acknowledgements further have come to include the Wyandot and Michif Nations. The point I am trying to make here if that settlers on this, and any other anticolonial/decolonial issue, must take leadership from Indigenous Peoples in terms of form and content. As one of the speakers at the circle noted: “if you want to know whose territory in your area to acknowledge, ask the Indigenous community!”

Territorial Acknowledgement and the Metaphorization of Decolonization

However, even as the practice of territorial acknowledgement spreads throughout white civil society, we must also problematize it to some degree. For example, what does it mean for the president of a university that actively supports israeli settler colonialism, actively opposes the creation of safe spaces for Indigenous and Afrikan students (on the stated belief that the rest of campus is by extension “not safe” [it isn’t safe, but that’s another issue]) and which, through its massive STEM faculties both reaps the benefits of, and trains the intellectual and practical foot soldiers for, the wholesale destruction of our lands and resources to acknowledge that our campus sits on the traditional territories of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabek, Rotinonshón:ni, Wyandot and Michif Nations?

Out of the university arena we might also ask what good is it for a petty bourgeois yoga studio, a long critiqued Mecca of white cultural appropriation and the emptying-out of the ancient spiritual traditions of the peoples of South Asia, to place an acknowledgement on their website that their capitalist private enterprise is situated on stolen Indigenous land? It is difficult for me to look at these sorts of institutional practices and not see bulwarks of capitalism, settler colonialism, antiblackness, and cultural imperialism. I look at them as they acknowledge the territory and I see a movement towards what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang deftly labelled “settler innocence.”

At the individual level, the practice of territorial acknowledgment, at least in my experience, is also quite often coupled with the practice (also a move to settler innocence) which I have chosen to describe as “white confessionalism.” This is the practice of individual settlers proclaiming their ignorance with regards to the processes and structures of settler colonialism, even as it and the benefits of it are all around them; even as they know Indigenous people used to be more numerous; and even as “good whites” have written about and opposed the evils of their kings and countries since Bartolomé de las Casas, and then saying that they are sorry. While it is no doubt genuine on the part of some, by-in-large it has always come across to me as a practice that is deeply self-congratulatory. The true cacophonous insanity in this confessional practice for us as Indigenous Peoples is that we—people who already bear the burden of having managed to survive five centuries of invasion, who carry the inherited trauma, pain and anger over a loss without name, and yet are people who continue to live, to thrive and to struggle for our freedoms against the overwhelming violence of multiple, converging vectors of death that are constantly arrayed against us still—are expected to shoulder these outpourings of settler tears and say “it’s alright, everything is going to be ok.”

For the critic in me (or is it the cynic?), jaded by far too many years chaffing within the institutions of colonialist-capitalist education, not to even speak of the bare life of red life under settler colonialism, I admittedly cannot help but approach these issues with a bad faith epistemology. To be blunt, I think, and I have said this many times over the course of my activist-scholar life, that settlers know the land is stolen, and that, existentially and phenomenologically, this knowledge compromises their sense of integrity, being, and property. Thus, as Indigenous Peoples, we are made to approach a significant mass of people who either already know, knowingly don’t care, or who even directly oppose decolonization, and it is on that plane where the issue and discussion must start. Acknowledgment of territory and confession of one’s colonial sins do not necessarily lead to an ethic or politic that positions decolonization as justice. And, as Indigenous People, that is what is needed, not “we stole it and we feel bad, but let’s keep it effectively the same.”

Related to both practices of acknowledgment and confession is another one—less common but increasingly witnessed in the conference and summit circuit—in which in the same breath of their acknowledgment or confession, settlers move to recognize themselves (and other settlers in attendance) as “guests on Native land.” Indeed, during the audience participation phase of the circle discussion we attended this point was raised by a (presumably) settler person who asked if the women of the panel ever “welcomed people to the territory.” Indeed, they do, both for academic and activist events, such as the recent Black Lives Matter march in the city, when the Blue Sky Singers (a well-known and respected local Indigenous women’s drum circle) welcomed the participants. Not to linger on this point too long, but I want to both make a point here about this practice and also draw a distinction. Firstly, it is qualitatively different when Indigenous people and settlers do this. Unlike the practice of territorial acknowledgement, I do not believe it is the place of settlers, unrequested, to acknowledge that they are “guests on Native land.” Simply put, guests are invited, of course, and one would need to significantly stretch the definition of invitation to include the history of settler colonialism and violent dispossession that it represents.

However, I will say this, as I said above: I do believe white people need to acknowledge the traditional territories that their ancestors first seized from our peoples and nations, and further that, as the descriptive term “settler” implies, they continue to appropriate our lands, and that they continue to act as a garrison population with the goal of holding said land against the people from whom it was taken. While it is not the role of Indigenous Peoples to do this, it is important nonetheless as a first step in their own disalienation to speak truth to power. Acknowledgment of course is also a necessary as a step toward any type of authentic solidarity work. Further, it is important to decouple the “disalienation of the settler” from an attachment to settler futurity, which is precisely what settler moves to innocence seek to protect.

To echo again Tuck and Yang, for it to mean anything of value to Indigenous and other colonized and oppressed peoples, we must recognize that decolonization is not, and cannot be, a metaphor. Simply put, words are a start, but eventually we must move beyond them. Again as Tuck and Yang point out, eventually we are going to have to start talking about the return of land.

So again I ask, “What good is it for a massive capitalist institution steeped in settler colonialism, antiblackness, cultural imperialism and the exploitation of the world’s non-white peoples to acknowledge the territory on which it stands?”

Acknowledgment, Decolonization & White Anxiety

It was mentioned by the sisters leading the circle discussion that one of the most common questions they have received (and I am sure will continue to receive) against the inclusion of a territorial acknowledgement in a syllabus, conference or website is “what does this mean?” The anxiety on the part of white professors, students, administrators, businessmen and indeed the broad settler population is that acknowledging the territory means that the land then must be returned to Indigenous Peoples.

Decolonization is a fear deep at the heart of settler society, and this is manifested in the concurrent push back and resistance to the growing trend of territorial acknowledgement. This dread percolates up from the knowledge—settler confessions to the contrary notwithstanding—of what settler colonialism is, and what it continues to entail for Indigenous People. As the great Black existentialist and Africana critical theorist Lewis R. Gordon once put it:

[T]he white man looks at the [colonized] and wonders when it will all end, but the white man knows deep down that a just future is one in which he himself no longer exists in virtue of his ceasing to function as the End, or less ambiguously, the telos of Man. European Man dreads, then, as Lenin once put it, what is to be done.

This fear though lives not just in the minds of the white capitalist, or the white imperial educator, or the white civil servant. As I addressed during the last burst of my writings in May of this year, that this deep fear, in fact truly a form of existential dread, cuts a deep path clear across the entirety of white civil society. This extends right into those sectors that most explicitly claim to oppose and resist the current dispensation of power relations in society: the radical anticapitalist left.

What has always struck me the most, but which also long since has lost its shock factor, regarding the position of settler anarchists, socialists, and “progressives” in all of this cacophony is that, generally speaking, despite claims to represent or speak on behalf of the interests of, the most oppressed strata of “Canadian” society, these are people who do no land return or other decolonization-oriented work at all. Related to that is the fact that they often have no, or minimal, connection to or relationship with local Indigenous communities, and overall do not understand “decolonization” as anything except an academic or social justice buzz word which has nothing to do with an ethics and politics of actual decolonization.

As I have addressed in previous writings on the subject, the political programmes espoused by these individuals and organization has never entailed a true taking on of responsibility. Indeed, as experience long ago taught me, if you asked them about genuine decolonization, they have all the same canards about how they or their families personally never stole anyone’s land, decolonization is unrealistic/impossible/unjust, etc. Indeed, as I wrote back in May:

Ongoing accumulation by dispossession is so deeply fundamental to the material basis, and attendant ideological outgrowths, of settler society that a call for even a small fraction of the bare minimum of anti-colonial justice—the return of what was taken from us—is interpreted as a clarion call for some kind of white genocide (and in this, the fear of white genocide, the circle between the white left and the white right becomes complete).  Think visions of cattle cars—or perhaps much more aptly: a trail of (white) tears—in which Europeans, euro-Amerikans and other white settlers peoples are shipped off to be reeducated on small, barren portions of land, and through labouring to help (re)build up our societies.

This deep anxiety informs significant portion, if not an outright majority, of knee jerk first world responses to genuine anticolonial/decolonial ethics, politics and theory.

Yet, many of these same people will engage in territorial acknowledgements in their writings, their weekly meetings and their protest marches. This dissonance, between a seeming commitment to decolonization in words yet recoiling away when faced with the reality of what it would entail, stems, in large part, from not taking leadership from Indigenous communities. However, it also stems from how the practices of acknowledgments and settler confession can themselves function, as I said, as moves to settler innocence, or the creation of a toothless movement rooted in the increasingly common “settler ally” politic. Both of these aim in fact at the continued reproduction of the material base of settler colonialism, through the defense of settler futurity, even if the ideology espoused is superficially more multicultural, anticapitalist or otherwise opposed to the conservative, reactionary mainstream of settler society.

Against these white anxieties I offer a different response than that which I often hear or read. Instead of reconciliation, or rather against the liberal conception of it, and as my own take on what reconciliation must mean (in the literal sense of “to make right”), I say this: “yes of course, we do want our land back.” To reiterate what I said in May and quoted above, the return of land is but a “small fraction of the bare minimum of anti-colonial justice.” Our lands are at the very centre of our beings. Everything about us arises from the land: our languages, our cultures, our cosmologies, our ceremonies, our kindship structures, our spiritualties. Everything. Reconciliation, decolonization, territorial acknowledgement, confession: none of them mean anything without the repatriation of our lands to our sovereign nations. Further, it is not for a radical Indigenous decolonization movement to be responsible to notions of settler futurity.

Conclusions: From Territorial Acknowledgment to Radical Decolonization

To bring it back to the subject of this post, and by way of that to begin providing if only a small part of an answer to the questions I have posed, it has long been a fear of mine that the practice of the territorial acknowledgement, within both the petty bourgeois and bourgeois mainstream institutions of power as well as the most ostensibly radical sectors of society, is indeed quite often a move to settler innocence and the transformation of decolonization into a mere metaphor. We must move beyond words and into the actualization of decolonization as a goal and a process. In several of my writings I have set out a list three of my own calls to action for a radical Indigenous decolonization movement. Echoing Tuck, Yang and many others they are:

  1. The repatriation of land to sovereign Native nations; that is, all of the land, not just symbolically and without compensation for the settler population who stole it and who’s continued occupation has been to ensure that it remains stolen;
  2. The abolition of slavery in its contemporary forms, including the carceral continuum of antiblackness, reparations to Afrikan people for kidnapping and stolen labour and the right to control their own communities free of military occupation;
  3. The dismantling of the imperialist metropole, and an end to the parasitism of the imperialist nations upon the bodies of the colonized peoples of the Third World.

Indeed, many of the very same people, organizations and institutions that now engage in the practice of territorial acknowledgement do so without doing anything beyond that to support Indigenous survivance, and more importantly to support Indigenous resurgence and decolonization. This applies just as much to those social actors who would see kanadian and north amerikan society transformed on the basis of a confederation of autonomous libertarian municipalist communes, anarcho-syndicalist industrial collectives or some sort of federated socialist workers’ republic of the Marxist sort, as much as it does to the autocrats and plutocrats of settler colonial capitalism.

However, all of that said, I am extremely grateful for the work of the young indigenous women on my campus and in the community who have pushed this conversation forward, and to all of those people across Turtle Island who have pushed it forward. They have opened space to enable us to discuss the history of colonization and the politics of decolonization where previously precious little existed. I further concur with them that acknowledging the territory is only the beginning of the conversation, not its end.

From here we must continue to push, to continue to deepen the conversation between not only our own Peoples and Nations, but between ourselves and our allies amongst settler and arrivant peoples as well. These movements away from hiding the history of kanadian and north amerikan settler colonialism, of being blind to five hundred years of imperialist settler colonial arrogance and criminality, and instead choosing to acknowledge it, in all of its horror, is most certainly a move in the right direction. So long as we continue to be way of the pitfalls of transforming decolonization into metaphor, and continue to speak truth to power, we will continue to take steps on our path to rebuilding our relations between our Red Nations, and continue down the Red Road of struggle and liberation.

Works Cited

Byrd, Jodi A. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Churchill, Ward. 2004. Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools. San Francisco CA: City Lights Books.

de las Casas, Bartolomé. 1992. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. London, UK: Penguin Classics.

Gordon, Lewis R. 1995. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kesīqnaeh, Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew. 2016a. Indigenous Revengence: The White Fear of Savage Reprisal. https://onkwehonwerising.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/indigenous-revengence-the-white-fear-of-savage-reprisal/

Kesīqnaeh, Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew. 2016b. The Rhetoric of “Self-Determination” vs the Practice of Decolonization. https://onkwehonwerising.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/the-rhetoric-of-self-determination-vs-the-practice-of-decolonization/

Kesīqnaeh, Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew. 2016c. Recommended Reading. https://onkwehonwerising.wordpress.com/resources-for-study/basic-reading-list/

Milloy, John S. 1999. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not A Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1 (1): 1-40.

[1] The entirety of the Final Report can be read online. Further discussion of the subject can be read in Ward Churchill’s Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools (2004) and John S. Milloy’s A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System (1999).

[2] For a detailed discussion of the concept of the category of arrivant and how it is distinguished from both Native/Indigenous and settler please see Jodi A. Byrd’s masterful work on the subject in Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2010).