At Bates, there is a question about the efficacy and ethicality of including a land acknowledgement at events and to open ceremonies. According to Northwestern University, a land acknowledgement is defined as “a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.”
While there may be some use in acknowledging that Bates is an institution grounded on Native land, there are also problems that come with using such a statement to unburden and relinquish responsibility for Bates’s role in colonization, settler colonialism and subsequent wrongdoings.
Dr. Kristen Barnett, a professor of American Studies at Bates, spoke about the problems with having a land acknowledgement specific to Bates. According to Barnett, “Until we address some of the historical tensions and we have the relationships to actually create an ethical land acknowledgement, then we don’t deserve one.”
Land acknowledgements are typically used to show respect for Indigenous communities of now colonized land. However, some land acknowledgements fail to acknowledge that the land and the country is still home to Indigenous communities. Professor Joseph Hall of the History department at Bates sees a land acknowledgement as a potentially useful first step for Bates to address its own issues pertaining to the occupation of Wabanaki land.
Hall says that while having a land acknowledgement may be an important first step for Bates, it does not come anywhere near absolving Bates of its wrongdoing and responsibility. For Hall, “a land acknowledgement is an acknowledgement of a problem, not an addressing of a problem.”
Skye Brown ‘23, a Native American student at Bates, also believes that a land acknowledgment is not nearly enough. “A land acknowledgment is great and all, but I hope the Bates community continues the conversation about oppressed Indigenous people. Years of genocide won’t be wiped away or forgotten because a plaque was made telling us that our land belongs to us—we already know that.”
This is part of what makes a Bates land acknowledgement so problematic for Barnett. While a land acknowledgement may convey good intentions, it also may serve to unduly exempt Bates of blame and responsibility. What is really meaningful is not simply making a statement about respect towards Indigenous communities, but actually taking action to build connections.
“There’s a lot of people with really great intentions,” Barnett said, “but if you don’t do anything to actually move towards that, including shifting them in reflection of where we need to be in our ongoing, increasing understanding, good intentions are meaningless.”
Barnett also explained the problem with Bates not having enough meaningful connections with members of local Indigenous communities and the potential to take advantage of land acknowledgments. “I think that there is potential harm in the repetition of land acknowledgements in that it signals to our students that we’ve done work that we haven’t done…Recognizing that you are on Native land is part of a step, but when it just becomes performance it has the potential to perpetuate harm.”
In lieu of a complete land acknowledgement for Bates, Barnett has crafted a land acknowledgement that speaks to the occupation of the land of the Androscoggin River, which is the ancestral homeland of the Wabanaki peoples. However, in this she writes that “a proper land acknowledgement will come as a result of institutionalized efforts toward relationship building between Bates and local tribes to determine how they want to be represented, and determine how as Bates we best speak to, and of, those whose land we occupy.”
Barnett contends that as of now, Bates’ faculty does not have enough of a connection with representatives from tribes in the community to partake in the acknowledgement process. “The institution needs to be building that relationship rather than relying on individual relationships of faculty and staff. When you can go to an administrative office and say ‘I want to do this work and I wanted to consult with the tribes, who is the contact person for this tribe?’ and there is a contact for that, that’s when you get a land acknowledgement.”
Ultimately, while having a land acknowledgement may be a desirable step for Bates, many argue that it should be earned through action and representative of those it speaks of to avoid becoming empty words and a token gesture. To earn a land acknowledgement, Bates as an institution needs to participate in community building and direct action and make sure that any land acknowledgement that would be used is representative of the Indigenous communities it addresses.
Until Bates can do this, Barnett believes a land acknowledgement would be unrepresentative and unmerited. “How can you speak to somebody and about them if you don’t know them?”