By Sarah Brill, Science and Technology Editor
It is not a new concept that America was founded through the bloodshed and tears of the Native American people. Throughout history, this community has been undermined and underfunded by the government despite having native roots to this land. As we have progressed as a society, there has been more recognition of native people and their land. For example, many companies and universities state on their website what land their property is on, something which our university has not done. In order to gain more insight into the concept of land acknowledgment, I reached out to Summer Wesley, a Native American from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, with a few questions of my own about native land acknowledgment.
As an Ingenious person, why do you think it is necessary for people, especially large corporations and universities, to acknowledge the Indigenous land we are on?
Land acknowledgements are a first step in reducing Indigenous erasure and towards coming to terms with the ongoing colonization that we currently live under. Therefore it is important for institutions to acknowledge the people whose land they are on but they cannot and should never stop there. Additionally, there need to be real steps towards turning the current tide, to include not only immediate information to their audience with regards to ways that they can help or assist those communities as well as actively evaluating the internal dynamics of their institutions in order to create equity and accessibility to such marginalized communities. Failure to take those steps reveals their land acknowledgments to be merely performative and ineffectual.
How can we go about honoring the land we are on in a respectful way and pay tribute to the tribes that might have once established roots there?
The best way to honor the land is to use it in a sustainable manner. In my culture, we use the same word, “okla,” for both land and people. The two cannot be separated. We belong to the land and have responsibilities to it. Institutions that wish to honor the Nations whose lands they are on should start by honoring the land, and also reach out to those people to find a way to benefit them. There is no one-size-fits-all solution where that is concerned, as each of our communities are different and have unique needs, so it is important that members of those communities lead the way. Unquestionably, each institution has an ethical obligation to strive to benefit the Nation whose land they are occupying.
When a large corporation or university does not honor the land the building(s) is on, how does that make you feel? Why?
The conduct of an institution speaks about their character. Failure to meet their minimum ethical obligation of respecting the land and honoring the occupied peoples reveals their colonial nature, which makes them fundamentally unsafe institutions for individuals from marginalized communities.
What else can, specifically universities, do to better understand the importance of both honoring indigenous land and respecting it?
Universities need to understand that this is not an academic exercise that they can legitimately claim to approach from a sterile, objective position; one allowing them to observe, absent obligation to make fundamental changes. In reality, universities are tools of colonization that suffer from the same structural inequities as most institutions in this society. The barriers to accessibility to students within marginalized communities are well documented. Furthermore, universities often employ individuals that harm our communities. Sometime this is through their work, through fraudulently claiming to Indigeneity, or even a combination thereof — a good example being my alma mater, who gave a pretendian (the word we often use for frauds that pretend to be Native) professor tenure for publishing a book in which she admits that she is not Native, yet spends much of the text arguing why she should be entitled to that identity anyway. Unfortunately, she is not the only known pretendian employed there. Enough writing on the harms caused by such frauds already exists, so I won’t belabor the explanation. However, the reality is that universities have an ethical obligation to honestly evaluate the role they play in the ongoing colonization process and take decisive steps to change that or else their professions of “honoring” are hollow.
With our university not acknowledging the land all campuses are located on, we as an institution are lacking a sense of mindfulness and of ethical obligation. Nearly all universities in the New York City borough have acknowledged the land their university is built on by adding a separate page to their website outlining the territories on which they are built. Yeshiva University, I call upon you to do your civic duty. As Jewish people we know the concept of being kicked out of our homeland well, as illustrated throughout our history. Here the Native American people have been forced onto small reservations lacking government funding; the least our university can do is acknowledge the land:
Both the Wilf and Beren Campuses are built upon the Munsee Lenape land. In 1669, the Munsee and Esopus tribes attacked the Dutch colonizers settling their land, but failed. The Munsee were then forced to move and settle near the Delaware River, but later on, they headed west towards Ohio.
Knowing what land our school, graduate school, or workplace is built upon will help us better understand the Native American people and the war crimes committed against them. To live in the shadow of ignorance is not a path which most people take, and it is one that I hope our school does not, as the concept of living in exile holds so near to us.