If you’ve been to an art, cultural, sporting, civic or academic event at some point in the past few years, chances are, you’ve heard a land acknowledgement. They always seem to start the same way (“We acknowledge that the sacred land we’re on is the traditional territory of. . .”) and they always mention “Turtle Island” (generally accepted to be North America, but some Ojibwa acknowledge it as being the entire world). They frequently involve someone stumbling over the name of a First Nations group and the word “wampum” (beads that were used for a variety of purposes, including at one point, currency). More often than not, someone is reading this acknowledgement word-for-word from a pre-written script off of a printed page.
Land acknowledgements came to the forefront in 2015 when 94 calls-to-action were made public in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report. The group is now known as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). These calls to action span across health, language, culture, education, child welfare and more in order to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” In this context, land acknowledgements are necessary to honour the original occupants of a land. As Canadians, it is our role to recognize and respect the original occupants and caretakers of the land, particularly as their beliefs and traditions were suppressed for such a long period of time (and arguably, still continue to be).
Today, land acknowledgements are increasingly common, partly because government funders require them to be made as a condition of receiving funding. Some funders go so far as to provide word-for-word acknowledgements that organizations can utilize when making the remarks. However, this discourages discussion about the content of the acknowledgement and ultimately becomes inauthentic. It also devalues the work of the land acknowledgement by providing the information and not having the artists or organizations learn about the treaties and nations of the original settlers and governance systems of the land they are on. Indigenous people have a principal kinship to the land that we reside on, and this fact will not, and cannot be erased. This is an uncomfortable notion for some, but creating dialogue around this fact and the rights of Indigenous people to land is critical to an authentic land acknowledgement.
It is one thing to acknowledge the land on which we are on; it’s another, and much more in the spirit of the calls to action, to discuss what being on that territory compels us to do. This may require an unscripted acknowledgement; this may require us to reflect (uncomfortably) on a position of privilege; or it may require reflection and questions about who the groups are that are the traditional keepers of the land, and how others benefit by living and working on traditional territory land. In doing so, the response will be highly individualized to each organization and each artist, but only by acting, instead of acknowledging, can we really move forward with truth and reconciliation.
The most impactful land acknowledgement I’ve witnessed was done by mistake. An organizational leader came out at the start of the performance, cards in hand and began to read. He stumbled over the name of one Indigenous group, then another, before he paused and sat down on a stool. At that point, he stopped reading the cards and confessed that if he could not even properly identify and name the groups that he was trying to acknowledge, that anything he could say or do on stage that evening would be meaningless towards reconciliation. He then publicly promised the audience that he was going to take the time to educate himself as a first step, and challenged everyone in the audience that evening to do the same. He left the stage with his head down and clearly shaken while the audience sat in silence. While his call to action was a simple gesture, this acknowledgement was powerful in its authenticity and recognizing that the statements made were a starting point on a longer journey. Whether he actually fulfilled his vow to learn more on the original occupants of that land, truth and reconciliation, I don’t know- but I like to think so.
As arts leaders, we are challenged to not only recognize the facts contained within land acknowledgements, but to also provide our audiences with additional context and inspire them to engage with it outside of our artistic activity. Organizations wouldn’t produce a show without notes or context, and many already use their platform to engage audiences in social issues or encourage greater reflection in the hopes that it will be a powerful experience long after the moment has ended- why should a pre-show land acknowledgement be held to a different standard?
Audience members also have a responsibility. Land acknowledgements are a step- and sometimes the first step- towards education and raising awareness. But this is only one part of a much larger process. Only when we take action towards truly understanding the implications and ramifications of these acknowledgements and take steps towards meaningful change will we be heading towards reconciliation.