What are NYU’s land acknowledgments worth?
These statements are essential when done right, but they are only the beginning of NYU’s obligations to Indigenous people.
October 8, 2021
You may have heard a land acknowledgment for the first time in a history class, at a Student Government Assembly meeting, or at last week’s event for this year’s NYU Reads book: “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The acknowledgment would have informed you that NYU’s main campus is located at the heart of Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people.
While acknowledging the land we’re occupying is a crucial step toward decolonization, Indigenous students, professors and scholars of Indigenous studies emphasize that land acknowledgments are only part of the equation. Without action, they can be counterproductive.
Felicia Garcia, a Chumash alum of NYU’s graduate Museum Studies program, succinctly defines land acknowledgments in a guide on the subject that has been endorsed by several NYU organizations and departments.
“An Indigenous Land or Territorial Acknowledgement is a statement that recognizes the Indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed from the homelands and territories upon which an institution was built and currently occupies and operates in,” Garcia wrote in her guide.
The purpose of land acknowledgements, she explains, is to dismantle narratives that gloss over the existence of Indigenous people. This kind of awareness is important for a university located in New York City, which has one of the highest populations of Indigenous people in the country.
“They are about respecting and recognizing Indigenous peoples, and their relationships to land through the protocols of naming people, elders, ancestors and the times of past to future,” Garcia continued.
For some Indigenous students, land acknowledgments are foundational. Rory Meyers junior Cali Delp, who is Diné, said that hearing them, especially in a classroom setting, is significant to her.
“A land acknowledgment works to dismantle Indigenous erasure, so it brings awareness about the Indigenous people that are still here and the Indigenous people that came before us,” Delp said. “Even such a simple thing as acknowledging Indigenous people works to just do wonders for our community. It’s a starting point, I would say. And it’s very simple.”
CAS junior Saira Coye-Huhn is Yucatec Maya of Afro-Indigenous descent and serves as president of the Native American and Indigenous Student Group at NYU. She said that land acknowledgments can be powerful for non-Indigenous students as well.
“I think taking those first steps and acknowledging our existence and just humanizing us within the classroom can start [the] process for a lot of people of not just educating themselves about Indigenous issues but wanting to educate themselves about Indigenous issues,” Coye-Huhn said.
Andrew Needham, director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, agrees that land acknowledgments are an important educational tool.
“I think they’re a really important starting point because what they do is make apparent the colonial past of North America,” Needham said. “That this is no longer Indigenous land is not just a product of the passage of time; it’s not the product of some natural process. It is because of the violent expropriation of people’s homes. And they should raise uncomfortable questions.”
However, Gallatin first-year Ariana Segovia, who is Yucatec Maya, warns that land acknowledgments can be a double-edged sword. When settlers are unable to engage with their discomfort, giving a land acknowledgment is worse than meaningless — it makes people think they’re off the hook for doing any more work.
As president of their high school’s Indigenous club, Segovia was asked to write a land acknowledgment for their school district. But the school district hadn’t shown any other effort toward helping their local Indigenous communities.
“I didn’t feel comfortable working on a land acknowledgment with local Native communities there because it just didn’t feel right,” Segovia said. “Land acknowledgments were becoming increasingly more about [performativity] and making the white people there comfortable, making the settlers there comfortable, allowing them to get rid of their guilt in a way.”
Segovia argues that these statements ring hollow if they’re not supported by action and accountability.
“I think a call to action is essential in a land acknowledgment [and] some of the history,” Segovia said. “In general, what are they doing right now to work with the Native peoples here? How are you going to promise that it’s going to stay meaningful? What steps are you going to take for that?”
Elizabeth Ellis, a citizen of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and one of the few Indigenous professors at NYU, expanded on this idea in the context of the university.
“I think that the land acknowledgment is one piece of this much larger question,” Ellis said. “What are NYU’s responsibilities, both as an institution that sits on Lenape homelands and then with an Indigenous undergraduate population who does not have a physical space to gather in, anywhere in the university?”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 11 is a chance for NYU to consider these questions. It’s disappointing that, instead of recognizing the holiday, the academic calendar only lists the date as “Fall Break.”
“It’s not even really a break,” Needham said. “It’s a Monday off. ‘Fall Break’ already seems like false advertising. New York City has now called Monday Indigenous Peoples’ Day — and Italian Heritage Day at the same time — so I don’t see why NYU can’t.”
Needham suggested that NYU could treat the holiday like Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a time to reflect and educate.
“I think this is an opportunity for universities to think about colonialism, to think about a colonial past and a decolonized future,” Neeham said. “I think right now it’s an opportunity missed. But it doesn’t have to always be that way.”
Segovia added that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important day for visibility.
“The fact that it is not recognized, it is not mentioned, just adds to the invisibility that Indigenous [students] feel not just here at NYU but in general, just existing in the world,” Segovia said. “So it would be more than appropriate, more than appreciated, at least for me, if it were recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Ellis agreed, pointing out that basic recognition is key to making progress with Indigenous inclusion in academics.
“It’s very hard to convince people that they have to address Indigenous issues, and [that] this is worth covering in a normal class on the environment or social work, if there’s not this perception that there are in fact all of these Indigenous peoples here,” she said. “And what’s really wild about that is on the most recent census, this city has more than 100,000 American Indian people alone.”
Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day and giving land acknowledgments should be more than symbolic gestures; they should be a promise for NYU to do better as an educational institution.
“It’s really easy to say that you’re really progressive but also to ignore Indigenous issues,” Coye-Huhn said. “And that’s a problem, and it’s a common problem.”
Contact Sabrina Choudhary at [email protected]