Words without deeds are dead

A reflection on land acknowledgment for Thanksgiving


Two maples along Dry Branch Drive scream, “Red in the morning” for anyone up and driving or walking nearby. Their blood red leaves cling to branches when autumn’s wind and rain have denuded most other trees. This time of year proves the persistence of living things — persimmons, the last of the hardy figs; people braving the supermarkets; Pam’s Promise volunteers putting together pies to raise funds to house women and children. On the local county chatter sites, good people are asking where they can volunteer or donate for community meals.

Thanksgiving marks the official start of Christmas anticipation. The national narrative behind it insists we give it respect in its own right, but the old myth has “tolled farther and farther away from the facts of what we have done” to quote Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry. In “The Hidden Wound,” Berry calls attention to the romanticization of our history and “the wishful insinuation that we have done no harm” specifically against Black and Indigenous Americans.

We might better celebrate the holiday and our history if we understood what “has brought [us] to reside on the land, and to seek to understand [our] place within that history” (Northwestern University) — past and on-going.

Most of us will carve our turkeys, or tofurkeys, and scoop sweet potato casserole — marshmallow or pecan crust? — on lands stewarded by Miami, Potawatomi, Lenape, Piakashaw, Kickapoo, Wea, Wyandotte and Shawnee tribes until a series of disingenuous, inequitable and broken treaties, as well as active military and civic efforts pushed tribes west. From 1795 to 1846, presidents, governors and military leaders made and reniged on shoddy treaties and now only a fraction of the native people of Indiana live here. Only one tribe, the Pokegan branch of the Potowatami, has recognition, and the state has refused to recognize another, the Miami tribe.

Untended wounds fester rather than heal, which is why organizations, from churches to event organizers, have taken steps to acknowledge the history from past to the present moment.You may have heard about land acknowledgments, brief statements that situate the organization or event in its honest position in that place and time. For example the Church of the Brethren, as a religious organization, passed a paper at its 2023 annual conference to repudiate the “Doctrine of Discovery” — a justification of divesting native people out of the right to their land, which was born out of papal bulls in the 15th century that the Supreme Court codified in its 1823 Johnson V. M’Intosh. The Church of the Brethren acknowledged that its properties are on stolen land and called to investigate to which First Nation People restitution should be made as well as determine that restitution.

Land acknowledgements nod to the authentic history, admitting people were pushed off their homeland, that they stewarded the land with practices that protected the soil, water, air and living beings on the land, and that some form of reconciliation is needed. It’s step one of many, a declaration of intent to action, to a holistic, healthy relationship to our land and to our neighbors. It invites us into stewardship and unity with the land and its first caretakers.

“When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us. As you all do,” said Mary Lyons (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe).

Should you, your kith and kin want to make a land acknowledgement during this holiday season, the Native Governance Center encourages the following steps.

Start with self-reflection: Asking why make this land acknowledgment? (If you’re hoping to inspire others to take action to support Indigenous communities, you’re on the right track. If you’re delivering a land acknowledgment out of guilt or because everyone else is doing it, more self-reflection is in order.) What is my end goal?

Next, do your homework. Put in the time necessary to research the following topics to consider and put into your statement.

The indigenous people to whom the land belongs.

The history of the land and any related treaties.

Names of living indigenous people from these communities. If you’re presenting on behalf of your work in a certain field, highlight Indigenous people who currently work in that field.

Indigenous place names and language.

Correct pronunciation for the names of the tribes, places and individuals that you’re including.

Use appropriate language. Don’t sugarcoat the past. Use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by colonizers.

Use past, present and future tenses. Indigenous people are still here, and they’re thriving. Don’t treat them as a relic of the past.

As the Center notes, “Land acknowledgments shouldn’t be grim. They should function as living celebrations of Indigenous communities.”

Finally, just as the saying “Words without deeds are dead,” consider the action that will accompany your statement. You might ask what can one family, one individual do realistically?

If possible, “build real, authentic relationships with Indigenous people. In addition to normal employment and family obligations, indigenous people are working to heal their traumas, learn their languages, and support their nations.” Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask what you can do, the Native Governance Center encourages.

If you can’t learn from Native Americans in your community, learn about the lives of the Native Americans. Read M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Muriel Rekeyser, Louise Erdrich, Natasha Trewathey or Joseph Bruchac. Watch shows like Reservation Dogs, movies like Killers of the Flower Moon and Smoke Signals, among others. Don’t translate Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or any one tragedy or tribe’s story as the story that explains every tribe and time across this huge continent.

Remember and understand displacement and how that plays into land acknowledgment. Land acknowledgment is complicated. Remember that the United States government displaced many tribes from land before treaties were signed.

Consider donating to or purchasing handcrafted arts of native people, especially local tribes. Miikii (Give) to the Miami Nation of Indiana here: https://www.miamiindians.org/take-action

Finally write your statement. Here’s a script that could be adapted: “As we gather and celebrate Thanksgiving/Christmas today, we would like to acknowledge the following people whose land we are on today — the Miami and Potawatomi, Lenape, Piakashaw, Kickapoo, Wea, Wyandotte, and Shawnee tribes. We acknowledge their ancestors Miami, Potawatomi, Lenape, Piakashaw, Kickapoo, Wea, Wyandotte and Shawnee tribes who lived in the territory of Indiana and were pushed out on the Potawatomi Trail of Tears, in wars, and in broken treaties. We acknowledge their connection and desire to live and care for these lands even today. We thank the leaders of Miami Nation of Indiana and the Pokegan Band of the Potawatami Tribe for telling their histories. We will seek ways to support their work and help thrive locally as Indigenous people among us.”

Happy Holidays!


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