Map of the US showing overlapping territories of Native American peoples prior to European Contact..

Beyond Land Acknowledgments: From Recognition to Reclamation

Overview

Last year I was in British Columbia and was introduced to land acknowledgments. In short, at the beginning of presentations I attended, it was common to mention the unceded territory previously belonging to First Nations peoples, that we were standing on. It was provocative, and sparked a lot of reflection about myself and my positionality, the land I now inhabit and call home, and the contestations over that land I was presently embroiled in. Since returning home, I have continued down the rabbit hole towards deepening my understanding of the previous inhabitants whose forced and violent removal set the stage in a very literal way for the life I lead now. As I have begun to excavate the deeper history of the geography we call “Queens” alongside my ongoing organizing efforts, I have seen more and more openings for moving our conversation forward today by revisiting the past. And it has been critically important, that this work is not simply about recognizing previous inhabitants, but about engaging their alternative conceptions of land and social relations actively, and working towards decolonizing our thinking and perspectives about the land we inhabit today.

Long Version (TLDR)

Last summer I attended an institute at the University of Victoria in lovely British Columbia, Canada. “UVic”, as its also called, is lush and green. When I was told the climate was rain forest, I believed it. When I was told it was actually much dryer than usual, and getting dryer every year due to climate change, my eyes said “no”, but my mind knew. Its serene quality is most palpable in the Mystic Vale, a ravine you can hike down into directly from campus, where chatter gives way to the humming of nature’s vibrance, and the feeling is otherworldly.

UVic is in the suburbs of Victoria, a small city accessible via a public bus down Shelbourne Ave. You know you’re almost there when the dense greenery starts to thin, and eventually is cleared, giving way to neatly- and discretely-organized rows of streets. These spaces look and feel different, and have different ambitions. One a city and the other a university; one a commercial and business center and the other an institution of higher learning. However, during my time there, I came to see them as more similar than different; as occupying one landscape while occluding another.

At UVic, the Institute kicked off with a land acknowledgement and tribute to the area’s previous, Native inhabitants. Having never seen this before, I was surprised; but over the course of the two weeks I was there, I realized this was common here. Even a faculty member from my university included it at the beginning of their presentation; something I had never seen them do before. I was intrigued.

The city had its own forms of land acknowledgements. There was a totem pole in one of the parks and other references to the region’s “First Nations” – which is how Canadian’s refer to the peoples we in the US call Native Americans or Indians. Taken together, both the university and seaside city were re-positioned in my mind as “second-growth”; as concretized spatial imaginaries and material manifestations that arose after that which was previously there was razed.

My first sensation was that of an imposter. This wasn’t new. As a white person doing housing justice work in New York City, navigating the sensation of feeling like imposter – that is to say entering into diverse group situations with care and intentionality – was becoming second nature. What was different was that this sensation of being an imposter stemmed from being a settler, and a descendant of colonizing and genocidal forces. I had obviously known this, but now it was at the forefront of my mind. It complicated my sense of my own whiteness; it offered a depth I need to acquire to understand better how I fit into the activist and scholarly work I was doing back home. It turned my mind upside down; dumping its contents back out, and trying to make sense of things all over again. Said another way, another round of un- and re-learning ensued.

My second sensation, which I have grappled with a lot in the time since, is about the meaning of acknowledgement. What does it mean to acknowledge First Nations, and the atrocious acts of ancestors, and maintain the land relations and power structures that supplanted the former population? What does it mean for land acknowledgements to take place before events that don’t fundamentally challenge (or even perpetuate) the white, western, colonial gaze, or for cultural artifacts or statues depicting Natives persons to be manifested materially, but decontextualized in space conceived by a white, western, colonial imaginary? What does it mean for these things to become normal features of our environments? What does that do, and for who? And is that enough?

I took these thoughts back with me, back to New York, largely unresolved, mostly unsatisfied with the politics of recognition I felt I had seen in Victoria, and yet more unsatisfied by the seeming absence of any acknowledgement what-so-ever in NYC. Where do I go from here, I thought?

As I continued to organize within the housing justice movement over the last year, my thoughts from Victoria were stirred and provoked ongoing. On the one had, I have heard multiple neighbors whom I love and respect use the word “native” to describe their attachments to the land we call “Queens”. Or citing that they grew up here as ways of legitimizing the claims they make on the land. On the other hand, I increasingly heard other community organizers, who I know more peripherally, speak of the Lenape, who up-until-recently, I knew as the peoples that previously inhabited Manhattan, who used Broadway to traverse the area long before people who looked like me arrived.

And, I have since sought more perspectives out; and am finding lots of amazing work being done by other, mostly-younger scholars, am learning more about their local histories – past and present – and the ways First Nations are working to reclaim stolen lands, and am working through what this perspective can bring to the housing justice movement.

While I am continuing to work through my thoughts, I have temporarily settled on a few ideas worth sharing.

First – housing is often discussed in relation to income and jobs and the formal economy, but more to the heart of housing and the housing crisis we are seeing today is the reality – or the material and social realization of the western, colonial concepts – of private property, land ownership and renting. When we talk about housing, we are really talking about land and land relations. We take this idea of private property for granted, but the land we inhabit has not always been caged and regulated in such a way. These terms invoke specific social relations whereby some of us have access to land, and profit directly from that access, and others of us are impoverished by it. And its not just because of our lack of access to land; but it carries over into our lack of access to food because we must buy it, and to rest and enjoyment because we must sell ourselves as labor to secure it, and to good health and quality of life and stability because our dependency on the broader political-economic structure is sowed through private property relations. And any of us who sign rental agreements, purchase property, broker property deals and more – reproduce these social relations, legitimize, and make them real. Nothing has made this social relationship more apparent to me, than situating the contemporary housing crisis in the longer history of land capture by colonization, genocide, and forced removal.

And relatedly, we could legitimize alternative relations by engaging them; though this process is harried, and needs more consideration.

Second, drawing out this relationship between past and present, as I am starting to do here in this project, must not be taken lightly; a sense of responsibility is baked in. To acknowledge this history is to acknowledge the violence that has made my life here possible – especially as a white woman. Embedded in this point, is my sense of dissatisfaction with the politics of recognition I witnessed in Victoria. A sense that has been deepened by critiques from Native Americans today feel that these momentos often position their ancestors as having died out and thus nullifying their own existence; or paying heed to other false narratives of the past – like the sale of Manhattan – while erasing the current hardships the community faces today, and the ongoing struggles over land and the future that they are embroiled in today.

More than a politics of recognition, we need a politics of reclamation that puts this history to work in real ways that will effect consequences for our individual and shared futures.

Third, I accept that I am still working through much of my understanding and learning about the previous inhabitants of the place I now call home, as well as what my relationship is and can be with these communities and their efforts to secure a better future. The use of the phrase “working through” rather than “thinking through” here is critical in understanding what I mean here. As I use it, it means I will be actively and publicly working to make sense of information and my own thoughts, as I have done here, as I read and learn more about the ongoing lives of these communities. Writing and manipulating information is how I process things, see things, and otherwise make sense of the world. I wade into this humbly, consciously, openly and imperfectly.

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