What is the Purpose of a Land Acknowledgement

It’s hard to believe that there are only a few months left in the semester! This month is Native American Heritage Month, so we wanted to start off with a conversation about one of the most underrepresented communities in higher education - particularly Native women who are simultaneously marginalized by sexism and colonialism. Read below for quick comments about how higher education recognizes (or erases) Indigenous peoples, the experiences of Native people in higher education, and what you can do to change your approach/perspective on Indigenous issues in higher education. Don’t forget to check out the First Nation’s Educational & Cultural Center for more information for IU events and initiatives around the Native community at IU!

Reflect: What is the Purpose of a Land Acknowledgement?

An increasingly common practice in higher education and many academic associations is to begin gatherings with land acknowledgements, discussing tribal connections to the area upon which the group is meeting. However, land acknowledgements often imply that the genocide and forcible removal of Indigenous peoples is a thing of the past; in reality, settler colonialism continues to affect Native tribes, leading to disparities in access to affordable food, housing, healthcare, and education, as well as on-going loss of culture (like language). Land acknowledgements that only frame Indigenous history and experience as a thing of the past, as something tied to land alone, erase the lived reality of Indigenous people and their cultural beliefs of what “land” truly means. If you are thinking about doing a land acknowledgement, ask yourself how you are framing Indigenous history. Are you offering a chance for their history and stories to be told? Are you sharing resources to learn more about and support existing Indigenous peoples? For more conversation about this issue, read Dr. Len Necefer’s article in Outside.

Learn: What’s it Like to Be Native in Higher Education?

Only 19% of traditionally aged 18-24 year old Native American students are enrolled in college, decreasing in recent years, with most Native students enrolling in a public institution (PNPI, 2020). This rate is compared to the 41% of the overall U.S. population of the same age. In more recent estimates, less than 100 Native students are enrolled at all IU campuses, in total. At the faculty level, psychology has the highest rate of representation in the top 50 departments - at 1% without any full professors - and only six fields have any full Native professors (chemistry, computer science, astronomy, physics, biological sciences, and earth sciences); there are no Native faculty members of any rank in the top 50 departments of mathematics, mechanical engineering, economics, political science, and biology (Nelson & Madsen, 2018). Comparatively, IU employs 28 Native faculty and staff, in total, for all of its campuses -with only 4 faculty members on the tenure track (2 of whom are full professors). For Indigenous people in higher education, their experiences are affected by historical legacies of exclusion, bias, and stereotypes. This bias and invisibility also intersect heavily with other identities, particularly for Indigenous women (Keene et al., 2017). While Indigenous women are beginning to view universities as safer, microaggressions and discrimination continue to exist (Bronwyn, 2011). Microaggressions against Native women within Non-Native universities vary, including people challenging their knowledge around Native experience/culture, being perceived as hostile when challenging erasing narratives around higher education, and the romanticization and homogenization of Native people (Shotton, 2017). Native women who enter academia often report feeling joy in their intellectual and teaching positions, however these joys are accompanied by the challenges of isolation, tokenization, and gendered/racial bias (Tippeconnic, 2008).


  • Examine your Settler Moves to Innocence: There are many ways that people currently avoid, distract, or detract from their relationship to settler colonialism, known as settler moves to innocence (Yang & Tuck, 2012). A few of these moves pop up all over the workplace and in higher education. For example, settler nativism avoids complicity by claiming native ancestry without any cultural connection (“But I’m 1/16th Cherokee!”). Colonial equivocation – using the concepts of colonialism/decolonization/etc. vaguely – and free one’s mind and the rest will follow - making no change in one’s behavior following the “decolonization” of one’s mind – attempt to signal a shift in consciousness that does not inherently translate to liberation. Question others who use these tactics (listed in greater detail in the above link) as a means to avoid confronting their relationship to settler colonialism.
  • Check your language: There is a lot of language throughout the workplace that appropriates Indigenous culture. For example, it is common for people to call a gathering “a powwow” or to say that something that is low priority is “low on the totem pole.” You might be tempted to call someone you idolize your “spirit animal” or describe someone acting irrationally as “off the reservation.” These phrases, and many others that can be found in this article by Kapitan (2020), trivialize the cultures and histories of Indigenous people, contributing further to negative stereotypes about the lives of Native people.
  • Reframe how you view Indigenous peoples Most people have a deficit view of Indigenous life that removes the agency of self-definition from Native peoples and treats them as an “at-risk” community (Yang & Tuck, 2012). Ask yourself how you replicate this narrative in your approach to Native students or colleagues, such as asking one Native person to speak on behalf of the rich and diverse Indigenous community. A few ways to celebrate Indigenous people in resistance to this narrative is by sharing the voices/works of Indigenous people regularly and respectfully incorporating Native values in your workplace/classroom (such as community; Waterman & Linley, 2013). Fish & Nyed (2018) offer a great perspective on how we can reframe/change the many spaces and services of the university to better support Native students and can be translated to the workplace.