Original People Acknowledgment Practice

“If you’re not mindful of what you are doing, then, you are turning a land acknowledgment into a token. It becomes an empty gesture to ‘honor’ Native people. It becomes this century’s mascot.”

Dr. Debbie Reese

We’d texted the day before about meeting, so I knew she was expecting me. When I arrived, I parked near a few other cars along the edge of the two-lane highway. From this makeshift parking area by the road, the rock walls of the Alii Fishpond were visible. I was excited to meet the friend of a mutual friend who had been championing the restoration of this 15th-century food source as a model of sustainability by revitalizing and perpetuating indigenous knowledge and cultural resources. As I looked around, I didn’t see anyone, so I walked onto the grounds of Ka Honua Momona (KHM) without a second thought. The second thought came later when Noelani both welcomed me with aloha and gently ushered me back to where I had parked my car.

Although I had prearranged the tour of the fishponds through relationship, a core cultural value of mine, I quickly realized this is no substitute for the protocol of Oli kahea (asking permission to enter) and Oli komo (welcoming in) which I was about to experience. This was the first time I participated in a land acknowledgment.

Land Acknowledgment as Ceremony and Reciprocity

The protocol began with me and the other outsiders making our presence known by blowing the Pū (conch shell). Noelani likened it to ringing a doorbell to announce the arrival of your visitation. You wouldn’t just walk into someone’s home without letting them know first, right? “The land,” she explained, “is our home.”

Because none of us visitor-outsiders spoke Hawaiian, Noelani asked one of the KHM volunteers to chant us in with Oli kahea: our ask for permission to enter.

Then Noelani began the Oli Komo, chanting in her welcome for us.

Pa aheahe mai kaolukai i ka holunape o ka lau o ka niu
Noho malie ka aina…

After the chant, we gathered in a circle, or piko, to symbolize the umbilical cord connecting us at our center. She asked us to hold hands, alternating one hand down and one hand up, representing the reciprocity of the relationship we have entered into: one hand giving and one hand receiving. Noelani explained, “This is important for our space because of the tension between Hawaiians and outsiders. It can’t just be a tourist relationship of taking. We acknowledge that reciprocity is important to be in pono (balance).”

We were asked to share our names, who our people are (where we come from) and our purpose for requesting permission to enter this land. Noelani reminded us, “You are declaring who you are. You are telling us: where you’ve come from, who your ancestors are and your intentions for the future generations.”

For us outsiders, she translated the final words of the Oli kahea: “If you come in, come with your aloha.” Noelani continued, “You make the choice. If you are not coming with aloha, stay outside. We really think about that when we talk about Oli kahea… it’s a giving and receiving circle. It’s really important for us that as part of our discussion we would unearth that. In that self-determination we are all healthier.”

Finally, we exchanged Ha: the light touching of the forehead and exchange of breath that acknowledges our ancestors, us and the generations that will come after us.

Traditional and Modern Territorial or Land Acknowledgments

“Our tribal cultural practice of land acknowledgments is based in ceremony or a set process for the ‘outside’ group wishing to acknowledge whose land they wish to visit/stay upon. It is where the outside group acknowledges to the land ‘owners’ that they will abide by the customs/laws/norms and why they cannot or may not be able to.”

Francene Ambrose, Program Manager for the Grand Ronde Tribes

Territorial acknowledgments are unique to that place, that land, that people. They can take hours or days or even weeks as negotiations take place. This back-and-forth often happens between spokespeople who can clearly communicate expectations and show understanding for shared agreements. As Francene explains, “Outsiders would share how many they want to bring upon the land, for how long, and what needs they had and what resources they brought to share.” If a negotiation goes well? “Then a celebration, sharing of a meal and exchange of gifts happens.” If it doesn’t? Well, the outsiders would leave or war would be started.

She continues, “To me, a land acknowledgment is not words to say. It is actions, and sharing that each will respect each other’s needs/wants, each would be afforded recognition of their otherness and respect given. You would research and get to know the people, the culture, and the land with whom you want to visit. Negotiate give and take. All while respecting each other and the process.”

“A territorial acknowledgment, as they have evolved, is sort of a political statement encouraging primarily non-Indigenous people to recognize that they’re on Indigenous land and hopefully do something about it.”

Hayden King

The modern land acknowledgments movement usually consists of reading aloud (or posting) a pre-prepared and formal statement which recognizes the indigenous people local to that land. In its simplest form, it lists or recites the names of the tribe(s) along with the pronunciation. (See our earlier blog post about this practice.) Part of my interest in and commitment to this practice came from a genuine desire to follow the lead of indigenous people at the forefront of this movement as well as a hunger for information I didn’t have, had been systematically denied to me, about the place where I live and the original people who call this land home.

“It is important to understand the long-standing history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history.”

Dr. Debbie Reese

As it was explained to me at the time: modern-day land acknowledgments counteract the invisibility of indigenous people who still live on and steward the land. These statements are meant to honor this work and connection between the original people and the land from time immemorial.

Some land acknowledgments also state how the land is occupied, stolen, and colonized land.

Some land acknowledgments talk about the indigenous people in the present-tense: sharing about current efforts to reclaim and sustain indigenous languages; battles for or recognition of sovereignty and tribal land rights; ways to show up as allies and actively back indigenous leadership.

Some land acknowledgments include requests of participants to learn more, educate themselves about the people whose land they occupy, offer resources to indigenous people to counteract the effects of genocide that has perpetuated the narrative of erasure.

Occasionally land acknowledgments are accompanied by drumming and singing from the local tribe or invocation or prayer by a local tribal elder as ceremony to open a space: workshop, conference, gathering.

Original People Acknowledgment (OPA) Practice

“I, as a member of a local tribe, should not be asked to do a land acknowledgment. You cannot ask someone who already lives in the house, to ask themselves to visit the house that they already live.”

Francene Ambrose

From our first introduction to the increasingly popular practices of modern land acknowledgments I struggled to call the practice we implemented at the beginning of our gatherings “Land Acknowledgments.” Intuitively perhaps and confirmed later by my experience at Ka Honoa Momona, I knew we were not engaging in the intention of true land acknowledgment protocol.

Our intention, though, was no less significant: to disrupt practices, misinformation, and patterns of genocide by drawing our collective attention to the original people of the land we inhabit. In our organization we differentiate this practice by calling it an “Original People Acknowledgment” or OPA. The purpose of these OPAs is four-fold: 1) visibility; 2) disruption of the narrative that genocide was successful; 3) education, and; 4) inviting allies to action.

Depending on the length of our events, which determines both the available time to allocate to this practice and expectations of pre-work for participants (more on that below), our OPA can look quite different. In our shorter events, the OPA is as brief as reading the names of tribes aloud—usually with the names and pronunciations superimposed on a screen shot of the area taken from native-land.ca.

The most immediate ways to disrupt narratives of genocide is to hear and speak the names of people genocide seeks to erase or deny the existence of. Because erasure is a necessary mechanism for genocide, visibility is resistance. We make a simple statement that genocide was not complete and that any of us who are non-Native are living on lands that were stolen. We remind participants that tribes are thriving today and encourage participants to learn about the current day struggles, successes, and celebrations of the native communities on the land where they live.

While there is controversy about how this practice can lack substance and appear performative, we continue to open our events with an OPA practice because: 1) visibility matters, and; 2) the collective acknowledgment that we are living on, working on, and occupying land that is stolen land matters. Check out the responses to “What Does a Land Acknowledgement Mean to You?” from the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Group at Northwestern University.

OPA Preparation and Pre-Work

When we meet with our client planning team to prepare for our longer workshops and programs, one question we ask is if there are individuals from the staff or client community indigenous to the region where we are holding the event. If there are, and they are interested, we meet with them separately to learn what role they might want to have in an OPA: and we follow their lead. During this meeting we ask if they would like to speak about their experience, sharing whatever would be meaningful for them. We are clear, for ourselves, with the client and with them: the intention is visibility and not to educate non-Natives.

If we don’t know in advance whether there are people indigenous to the land where we are holding the event, one person on our team will open with a bit about the history and current community life—having researched ahead of time, ideally drawing from Native resources whenever available. When a member of our team is leading the OPA for a group, we still inquire if there is anyone indigenous to this land who would like to speak at that time. It’s “open time” and without expectation. We try to remind them this time is for them, however they want to use it: not to educate others or to feel pressured to speak.

For our longer events, we assign participant pre-work. One pre-work exercise that is consistent across all our programs is inviting participants to reflect on and research some of the information they would need to know for a traditional land acknowledgment. Some of the questions we ask in our pre-work are meant to make visible that which is often invisible in regards to indigenous land rights and sovereignty.

  • Who are the original, indigenous people(s) on the land where you live?
  • Which tribes of the indigenous peoples in your area are federally recognized? How many tribes in your area are not recognized?
  • What, if any, treaties are in place between these indigenous people(s) and the Federal or local governments?
  • Who are the indigenous people on the land where your ancestors are from?

These reflection activities are designed to deepen learning about and understanding of the history of the land where they live, the original people of that land, as well as bring awareness to their own (dis)connection to land and people. These questions can be affirming for native heritage people and illuminating for non-native heritage people.

Acknowledging Each Other

If we are going to participate in territorial acknowledgment protocols, there is a body of work for non-native people to engage in. How would you answer the questions: who are your people? Who claims you? What land do your people come from? Because of colonization and imperialism, most non-native people in the United States are usually not connected to land or claim connected to land that is occupied and stolen. What does this relationship to land do to our sense of self? Our relationships with native people? The way we answer the question: who are your people?

Despite the fraught nature of land acknowledgments, I’m heartened by the creative ways people are reaching for the core underlying values that territorial acknowledgments are intended to imbue: a sense of mutual respect and agreement to abide by the customs of the host community. These customs have been violated over and over again by non-native people and we must acknowledge the harm. Given the current power imbalances between Native communities and occupying outsiders, this goal is aspirational. But without imagining it and taking the next step, we won’t achieve it.

I’m reminded of the aloha greeting Noelani offered me even as I initially, unaware and yet with assumption and entitlement, trespassed in her homeland. I’m grateful for the guidance she gave me to honor the protocol and engage in ceremony but not stop there. Let’s not stop there.

Specific gratitude to Noelani Lee Yamashita and Francene Ambrose, member of the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes and Grand Ronde Program Manager at Marion Polk Food Share, for their effort to share with me their insights around traditional land acknowledgements and to call me in to be a more thoughtful ally as I embody the intentions of this practice while living on occupied land.

To learn more about the Original People Acknowledgement practice, check out our new Human Centered Gatherings Webinar.