‘Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism

These statements relieve the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.

A photo collage of a map of the Mid-Atlantic and a photo of a native village in South Dakota.
Culture Club / Getty; mikroman6 / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

In David Mamet’s film State and Main, a Hollywood big shot tries to shortchange a set hand by offering him an “associate producer” credit on a movie. A screenwriter overhears the exchange and asks, “What’s an ‘associate producer credit’?” The big shot answers: “It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.”

The practice of “land acknowledgment”—preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served—is one of the greatest associate-producer credits of all time. A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim? Anyway, you are not getting your jewels back, but now you have documentation.

Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these—I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.

Thanksgiving relies on a cartoon version of the settlement of the Americas, focusing on a moment of concord between victim and génocidaire. Land acknowledgments are similarly confected to stroke the sentiments of mostly non-Indigenous audiences—this time by enabling their preening self-criticism.

Earlier this month, Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference began with a land acknowledgment so bewildering to viewers that it went briefly viral. But it was not abnormal among statements of this sort. The emcee acknowledged that the company’s headquarters, one square mile of land outside Seattle, was “occupied by the Sammamish, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snohomish, Tulalip, and other coast Salish people... since time immemorial.” She noted that the tribes are “still there” but offered no connection between the past and today. Few if any of the baffled viewers would deny the historic presence of these peoples amid the sacred groves that later produced PowerPoint and Clippy, the Microsoft Word mascot. But in the absence of context, the effect of this parade of names was to suggest that for thousands of years the Indigenous peoples were crammed onto the Microsoft campus uncomfortably like canned salmon, doing who knows what, until Bill Gates arrived in the late 20th century to turn them into programmers.

Maybe it is a victory for Indigeneity to have the name Muckleshoot even mentioned at a Microsoft conference. By far the most common defense of land acknowledgments is that they harm no one, and they educate Americans about a hidden history that took place literally where they stand. Do they not at least do that?

No, not even a little. It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. What do members of the acknowledged group hold sacred? What makes them unique and identifies them to one another? Who are they, where did they come from, and where are they going? The evasion of these fundamental questions is typical. The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper. Nor does he make any but the most general connection between the event and those people, other than an ancient one, not too different from the speaker’s relationship with the local geology or flora.

At ceremonies and events in my home city of New Haven, Connecticut, I have heard acknowledgment that we are on “Quinnipiac land.” This statement is never accompanied by mention of the basic fact that the Quinnipiac all but ceased to exist as a people more than 150 years ago, and there is no currently recognized Quinnipiac tribe. I suspect that few in the audience know this, and that few of the speakers do. (There is an “Algonquian Confederacy of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council.” Its leader, Iron Thunderhorse, is currently in prison in Texas for rape, and projected to be released in 2051, at the age of 107. He is half-Italian, was born William Coppola, and according to a legal filing by the Texas prison authority, was not listed as Native American on at least one of his purported birth certificates.)

Some people argue that land acknowledgments are “gestures of respect.” I’m not sure one can show respect while also being indifferent to a people’s existence. The statements are a counterfeit version of respect. Teen Vogue put it well, if unintentionally: “Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.” A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the “easy way” is just as cheap as it sounds. Real respect occurs only when accompanied by time, work, or something else of value. Learning basic facts about a particular tribe might be a start.

Most of these acknowledgments are considered (by the speakers, anyway) moral acts, because they bear witness to crimes perpetrated against Native peoples and call, usually implicitly, for redress. If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come. (Cartoon history serves this purpose well; reality, less so. Do you acknowledge the Quinnipiac, or the tribes they at times allied with the English to fight? Or both?) The acknowledgments never include any actual material redress—return of land, meaningful corrections of wrongs against Indigenous communities—or sophisticated moral reckoning.  Nor is there an “easy way” to reckon with this past. In the early 1600s, as many as 90 percent of the Quinnipiac were wiped out, along with other coastal Native Americans, by chicken pox and other diseases imported by Europeans. How does one assign blame for the spread of disease, hundreds of years before anyone knew diseases were something other than the wrath of God? (Does China owe Europe reparations for the Black Death, which came, like COVID-19, from Hubei? Or should China take two Opium Wars and call it even?)

Without time, work, or actual redress, the land acknowledgment that implies a moral debt amounts to the highwayman’s receipt. “To acknowledge Indigenous homelands and to return those lands are related, but the former alone allows for rhetoric without further action,” Dustin Tahmahkera, a professor of Native American cultural studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. If Microsoft truly felt bad about the location of its offices, it could move its operations to soil less blood-soaked. (There aren’t many such places, alas.) Not every Microsoft conference needs to be an announcement of a real-estate deal. But if Microsoft is going to acknowledge a debt, it should also pay it.

If the practice of land acknowledgment persists, it should do so in a version less embarrassing to all involved. I would propose restricting such acknowledgments to forms and occasions that preserve their dignity and power.

Follow these rules, and object to any land acknowledgments that violate them:

  • The acknowledgment should reveal a specific relationship between the event and the people who are acknowledged. Boilerplate language is an insult.
  • It should not smell of self-congratulation, either by the speaker or the institution. If it makes you look good, you are doing it wrong. Note that one form of self-congratulation is pedantic self-criticism.
  • If the acknowledgment calls for restitution, it should specify the reasons for the restitution and the means for making it. If you think land should be given back or other payment made, say so. Venture a magnitude of the repayment and explain why. Even the highwayman’s receipt lists the jewels and coins taken.

These reforms in land acknowledgment would leave plenty of cynicism to go around—nearly all warranted, I think. Land acknowledgments are a classic culture-war issue, Nick Estes, an American-studies professor at the University of New Mexico, told me via email. They can be “a pantomime of caring or outrage mostly by professional class elites and educational institutions.” Meanwhile, he asked, what of “the real issues facing Indigenous peoples—housing, employment, child removal, generational poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, police violence, racism, and erasure; in other words, real colonialism”?

Land acknowledgments are just words, and words can distract from real issues, in particular the ultimate one, which is Native American tribal sovereignty. But some words are honest, even loving, and others are hollow and nauseating. As an American, and as a once and future member of an audience at ceremonies and events, I would be thankful for more of the former and fewer of the latter.