Indigenous Land Acknowledgement and the Work of Decolonization

Show Footnotes
This subcommittee was chaired by Theresa Gregor (Iipai/Yaqui), Professor of American Indian Studies, Cal State Long Beach, and ​Gail Kennard, President, Kennard Design Group (KDG) and Commissioner, Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. Its other members were​Julia Bogany (Tongva/Gabrieleno), member and Cultural Consultant, Tongva Tribal Council, and Christopher Hawthorne, Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles in the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. In addition, the subcommittee was advised by ​Cindi Alvitre (Tongva/Gabrieleno), lecturer, American Indian Studies, California State University, Long Beach; Theresa Ambo (San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, Tongva/Gabrielino, Tohono O’odham), Assistant Professor, Education Studies, University of California, San Diego​; Yve Chavez (Tongva/Gabrieleno), Assistant Professor, History of Art and Visual​ ​Culture, UC Santa Cruz; Bruce Durbin (Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel), Supervising Regional Planner, LA County Department of Regional Planning; ​Elisapeta Heta, Senior Associate and Maori Design Leader, Jasmax, Auckland, New Zealand; Rudy Ortega (Fernandeño Tataviam), Tribal President, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Commissioner and former Chairman, Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission; ​Joely Proudfit (Luiseño), Chair, Professor of American Indian Studies and director, California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, California State University San Marcos; Kristin Sakoda, Director, Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture; and ​Alexandra Valdes (Tlingit & Athabascan), Executive Director, Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.

This subcommittee was asked to consider whether the City of Los Angeles should adopt an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement policy. We began investigating this question by organizing a series of listening sessions with Native American scholars, experts, community members, artists, and activists to gather input and perspectives for our recommendations regarding the implementation, application, and institutionalization of such a policy.

We held community forums, via Zoom, on July 7, 2020; July 20, 2020; and September 23, 2020. We compiled a list of contacts from the Indigenous people affiliated most closely with the City of Los Angeles, the Tongva/Gabrieleno/Kizh and Fernandeño Tataviam peoples. We contacted Indigenous scholars and community professionals to provide perspectives and input about land and territorial acknowledgements. We also collaborated closely with members of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission (NAIC). We would like to express our gratitude to those members and in particular to the executive director of the NAIC, Alexandra Valdes. The full list of the names of the individuals with whom we consulted can be found at the bottom of this summary.

Land acknowledgements have been increasingly adopted by institutions, primarily colleges and universities, in recent years. The number of cities, counties, and state governments adopting them has been somewhat smaller but is also growing. One working definition, published by UCLA’s Ralph & Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, notes that 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. For some, an Indigenous Land or Territorial Acknowledgement might be an unfamiliar practice, but it is a common protocol within Indigenous communities in the United States and is a standard practice in both Australia and Canada.”

This is an important point. While institutions outside Indigenous communities may regard land acknowledgements as a relatively novel idea, they are well established within those communities. They are also more common in countries that have done the difficult and extensive work required to create equitable national treaties or other formal arrangements regarding sovereignty with Indigenous groups, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The work that Los Angeles and other cities are now doing to consider the adoption of land acknowledgement policies therefore begins with an effort to understand how they are already operating within the Native context.

The UCLA definition continues by noting that “the terms ‘land’ and ‘territorial’ are not necessarily interchangeable, and the decision as to their use should be specific and local, pertaining to those Indigenous people who are being acknowledged as well as to those legacies and responsibilities of an institution that are also being acknowledged.”

It also says: “Within cultural institutions, these statements can be adopted in various ways. However, it is vital that they be spoken as a verbal statement given at the beginning of programs or events. In addition, they can also be expressed through a text panel or plaque, and an acknowledgement on an institutional website.”01 Los Angeles American Indian Children’s Council, UCLA Ralph & Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, 2004;

In recent years some Indigenous leaders and scholars have explored new or broader models of land acknowledgement. (See the accompanying interview in this section of the report with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy for more on that subject.) These models have tended to emphasize an interest in taking care to avoid land acknowledgements that are perfunctory or rote in favor of more dynamic and adaptable policies. Such approaches include calls to action whereby a Native leader not only delivers a land acknowledgement but also suggests ways that that audience members at an event can contribute financially or otherwise to Indigenous causes, including land return, or act as advocates for better treatment of Indigenous groups by institutions, non-Native governments, or other groups.

An important milestone in the development of land acknowledgements in the state of California was reached in January of 2020, when Assemblymember James Ramos, the first California Native American elected to the California State Legislature, introduced Assembly Bill 1968, the Tribal Land Acknowledgment Act of 2021. The proposed legislation, which has yet as of this writing to become law, would “authorize the owner or operator of any public school, state or local park, library, or museum, or other state or local government building in this state to adopt a land acknowledgment process by which Native American tribes are properly recognized as traditional stewards of the land on which the public school, state or local park, library, or museum, or other state or local government building is located.”02

The language of the bill goes on to note: “The teachings of United States history in schools, museums, and the media have left out the voices of the original nations and peoples. California native people have endured colonial efforts to erase their existence, cultures, religions, languages, and connections to ancestral territories. Despite the importation of the mission system and genocidal action during California’s statehood, native people have maintained their presence in, and stewardship of, their homelands. California is home to nearly 200 tribes. Had the 18 original treaties with California Indian tribes been honored by the state and federal government, California Indian tribes would possess over 7,500,000 acres of land. Today, California Indian tribes collectively possess about seven percent of their unratified treaty territory. Despite federal and state efforts to erode ownership, control, and visibility, California Native American people remain actively engaged in cultural revitalization, resource protection, and self-determination within every region of California. Systematic denial of Native American knowledge, cultural authority, and historical experiences perpetuates the colonial structure of oppression.”

The bill also includes sample language for a land acknowledgement “that could be used within a museum setting.” It concludes with this sentence: “This acknowledgment demonstrates a commitment to beginning the process of working to dismantle the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism.”

There are some particular complications and layers of complexity when it comes to pursuing an indigenous land acknowledgement policy in and for Los Angeles. There are nearly 600 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States, including more than 100 in California. According to the NAIC, the state “is home to more people of Native heritage than any other state in the United States…The City of Los Angeles holds the second largest percentage of Native Americans in the United States, totaling around 54,236 people. Los Angeles County, home to more Native Americans/ Alaska Natives than any other county in the United States, totals around 140,764 people.”03 Yet there are no federally recognized tribes in Los Angeles County.

As a land acknowledgement policy developed by Cal State Long Beach puts it: “The Gabrielino/Tongva/Kizh and Fernandeno/Tataviam people are the First Peoples of the region, their lands were unceded, they did not negotiate a treaty with Mexico or the US government. Today, the First Peoples of Los Angeles struggle every day for their sovereignty.”04

What is more, the particular history of Los Angeles and Southern California has led to not one but multiple erasures of Indigenous history and legacy, at the hands, variously, of Spanish, Mexican and American governments. The very name “Los Angeles” implies that the history of the city, and of the land it occupies, begins with the arrival of the Spanish. And yet, as other subcommittees of this Working Group have observed, these erasures by no means ceased and in certain ways accelerated when Spanish rule was replaced by Mexican and then U.S. governance. As Brenda E. Stevenson, Professor and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at UCLA, observed in a discussion on constructions and meanings of whiteness in Los Angeles, selections from which are reprinted elsewhere in this volume, “When we think about California coming into being, or Los Angeles coming into being, we think about the Spanish Empire, we think about the Mexican Empire, we think about the United States. But there still tends to be more than anything else erasure of Indigenous peoples. I think that's the most invisible group we have in our society.”

We are fortunate that the work of this subcommittee evolved alongside, and benefited from collaboration with, similar efforts at the Los Angeles County level. In June of 2020, the County Board of Supervisors adopted a Countywide Cultural Policy,05 which includes a section “regarding the development and use of land acknowledgements at County public events and ceremonial functions.”06 In addition to our productive work with the NAIC, we are deeply grateful to Kristin Sakoda, director of the Los Angeles County’s Department of Arts and Culture, for her collaboration. It is our hope not only to develop City and County land acknowledgement policies in tandem over the year 2021 and beyond, working closely with the NAIC, but also to see that cooperation stand as a larger symbol of the power of City-County partnerships to reassess and grapple more forthrightly with the region’s past. Such collaboration would also have the benefit, as a gesture of respect, of reducing the potential for redundant or overbearing requests for consultation with Native leaders.

From the start this subcommittee was careful to limit its considerations. We agreed early in our discussions that our goal should be to decide whether the City should adopt a land acknowledgement policy and examine successful models of such policies from elsewhere, rather than to prescribe specific language or other guidelines for the policy itself. It is well beyond the expertise and the authority of this subcommittee to dictate the specific details of any land acknowledgement. We leave that to Native leaders working in concert with the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and City departments in collaboration with the similar efforts at the County level we have already outlined. Nonetheless we think there is value in using this space to support a land acknowledgement policy for the Mayor’s Office and the City of Los Angeles and its departments and offering our support in seeing it adopted.

At the same time, the subcommittee agreed that to have meaning and impact any land acknowledgement for the City of Los Angeles will need to go beyond language and address the issue of how the City might recognize and begin the process of making amends for historical mistreatment of Native peoples. As Alexandra Valdes put it in one of our discussions, “If you’re acknowledging the land then you’re acknowledging the history of what’s been born out of that history: how Native peoples have been treated on this land, and displacement. Without any action to address that, it’s going to fall flat.” This point—that a land acknowledgement policy for the City of Los Angeles, to have genuine effectiveness, must be seen as a first step in a longer process of reckoning and reparation—was raised consistently in our discussions with tribal leaders and scholars. In addition, the group felt strongly that the Mayor’s Office should add a Native staff liaison to the NAIC for Native peoples to have their concerns represented directly in City Hall. The tribal liaison would, thus, ensure that the process and practice to implement the Land Acknowledgement policy is institutionalized and not just memorialized in the City.

In addition, the group felt strongly that the Mayor’s Office should add a staff liaison to the NAIC and Native peoples so that their concerns are represented directly in City Hall.

In our first two sessions, in addition to hearing from local Native leaders about their perspectives on land acknowledgements, we considered and analyzed examples from local and international institutions that are meaningful for the power of their language, the equitable process that was followed to create them, or both. Among the land acknowledgements that stand out, a few are worth noting here.

The first was adopted by UCLA in 2019 and includes three versions, any of which can be used. The most detailed reads as follows: “UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.” This statement is notable, among other reasons, for making a point of recognizing “emerging” members of the region’s tribes. We heard throughout our discussions about the importance of not consigning tribes or tribal culture to the past.

The process by which the UCLA land acknowledgement was developed is also worth studying. The language of the acknowledgement reflects decades of collaboration between the UCLA Fowler Museum’s Curator of Archaeology, Wendy Teeter, “and local Indigenous peoples of Southern California, including the Tongva, Fernandeno/Tataviam, Chumash, Juaneno/Acjachamen, Serrano, Luiseno/Payómkawichum, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Paiute/Nuwu, and Kumeyaay. In the fall of 2018, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block created the position of Special Advisor to the Chancellor on Native American and Indigenous Affairs, appointing Mishuana Goeman (Tonawanda Band of Seneca) to the role. In 2019, professors Goeman and Teeter worked with the Tongva Community to develop this land acknowledgement, which recognizes that UCLA is built on unceded Tongva land.”

We would emphasize the phrase “decades of collaboration.” The process of maintaining a robust and collaborative relationship between the City and Indigenous leaders may include, but will not end with, the adoption of any land acknowledgement policy. A successful policy will instead reflect the health of the larger relationship and the steps the City and County are continuing to take to engage the larger issues related to reparation and supporting the contemporary vitality of Native peoples in the region.

Another model worth noting is the approach to land acknowledgement—and the broader work of decolonization and reconciliation with First Peoples—practiced in New Zealand, the islands known in Maori language as Aotarangi. Following the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, public events that begin with acknowledgement of Maori culture and land are not only expected but marked by an unusual level of specificity, shaped to accompany the specific events of which they are a part.

Finally, for the poetry of its language, we include the land acknowledgement adopted in 2019 by San Diego State University. It was written by Michael Connolly Miskwish (Kumeyaay), a Kumeyaay historian, researcher, and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at SDSU. It reads, in part, “We stand upon a land that carries the footsteps of millennia of Kumeyaay people. They are a people whose traditional lifeways intertwine with a worldview of earth and sky in a community of living beings. This land is part of a relationship that has nourished, healed, protected and embraced the Kumeyaay people to the present day. It is part of a worldview founded in the harmony of the cycles of the sky and balance in the forces of life.”07

After two sessions, this subcommittee produced a series of draft recommendations. We then convened a larger group of tribal elders and experts in land acknowledgement to consider those draft recommendations. This final session, on Sept. 23, 2020, included representatives from the NAIC, the County of Los Angeles, Tongva/Gabrieleno leadership, and other Native leaders and scholars. In all 13 people joined this discussion, 9 of whom have tribal affiliation. They helped us refine and extend our final recommendations, which are as follows:

  1. We urge the City to adopt a Land Acknowledgement Policy. The process of developing such a policy should begin by convening a committee made up of representatives from the Indigenous People of Los Angeles, perhaps with a consultant to facilitate discussions. This committee should be coordinated by or formed in close consultation with the NAIC. Furthermore, we recommend that this work of this committee should:
    • Acknowledge the history of erasure of the Indigenous People of Los Angeles.
    • Recognize the contemporary vitality and struggles of the Indigenous People of Los Angeles, rather than treating the community as a historical artifact or vanished people.
    • Include an apology, or statement of reconciliation, to the Indigenous People of Los Angeles, with clear practices and policies to ameliorate and/or decolonize practices of erasure and exclusion.
    • Outline practices, identified by representatives of the Indigenous People of Los Angeles, about how to build lasting, mutually respectful, culturally sensitive, and beneficial relationships with this community.
  2. We recommend, per the definition above, that the land acknowledgement should be delivered at events hosted by the Mayor, City Council, City departments and commissions, public meetings, groundbreakings for public and significant private buildings, grand openings, sporting events, events at public libraries, etc. Here is one suggested rule of thumb: consider using the land acknowledgement at any event that includes a performance of the National Anthem, flag salute, or recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. A written version of the acknowledgement should also be posted and made visible at culturally significant sites identified by the committee. First Nations of the City of Los Angeles.
  3. We recommend that the City work collaboratively and in tandem with the County of Los Angeles, specifically with the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture and City/County Native American Indian Commission (NAIC), as they develop Land Acknowledgements policy guidance and protocols for the County as part of the Countywide Cultural Policy adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on June 23, 2020. The Countywide Cultural Policy provides that the County will “identify ways to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land at County public events and ceremonial functions and celebrate the contributions of culture bearers and traditional arts practices of diverse communities.”This will provide an opportunity to center cultural equity, utilize an arts and cultural lens, and build on aligned efforts for regional impact in both City and County of Los Angeles. We recommend that the Land Acknowledgement should be delivered by the person chairing a given meeting, an event organizer, or an Indigenous person who is invited to deliver it; however, if an Indigenous person is asked to deliver the Land Acknowledgment, we further recommend that the selected person be incorporated in a substantial or constructive role in the agenda of the event and be compensated for this work.
  4. We recommend the City provide regular orientation on decolonization and the history and culture of the Indigenous people of Los Angeles to City employees by funding curriculum development for employee orientation training about the history, experience, struggle, and resilience of the Indigenous People of Los Angeles.
  5. We recommend that the committee, as part of its work, study effective and equitable models of land return, in the United States and elsewhere, and make specific recommendations about progress toward land return to the Indigenous people of Los Angeles.
  6. We recommend that the committee work with the City’s newly established Racial Equity Task Force to study how City policies have adversely affected Indigenous people and how past harm can be ameliorated, such as an institutionalized permanent staff member in the Mayor’s Office to recommend policy changes and coordinate the kinds of work specified above, i.e. a Tribal Liaison.
  7. We recommend that the committee consider ways to incorporate this policy and larger attention to Indigenous culture and presence in the region into planning for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games; in prominent locations at Los Angeles International Airport; and in major cultural events held in and/or broadcast from the City or County of Los Angeles, such as the Academy Awards, Super Bowl LVI (2022), etc.