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Know the West

So you want to acknowledge the land?

Some notes on a trend, and what real justice could look like.

Let’s begin by acknowledging the land. If you want to sincerely acknowledge the land, go to it. Put your hands in it. Put your feet in it. The soil is alive. The microscopic communities in it remember everyone who lived here; they shaped one another. Go to the forest, or to a prairie or a creek. We’re lucky to have little green places and public spaces. This is where you acknowledge the land — away from walls and doors and concrete and lawns.

But the purpose of a formal land acknowledgment is not only to acknowledge the land. These statements, increasingly shared as openings for events and on websites, are meant to communicate solidarity with the injustices experienced by Indigenous people. Land acknowledgments can range from perfunctory to profoundly moving, and when they are poorly worded or produced in certain contexts, they can cause uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for Indigenous people.


It is sad that the simple acknowledgment of stolen land and centuries of historical and cultural erasure feels like progress. For Indigenous students at the University of Arkansas, our institution’s recently adopted land acknowledgment doesn’t even begin to address the lack of representation of Native people in northwest Arkansas. Until action is taken to identify and empower Indigenous people, land-based justice is carried out, and inaccurate history is no longer taught in schools, a land acknowledgment statement feels mostly empty — even belittling and alienating.

It is sad that the simple acknowledgment of stolen land and centuries of historical and cultural erasure feels like progress.

Indigenous people played an unintentional part in the establishment and legacy of the University of Arkansas. The Osage ceded most of the Ozarks to the United States in 1808 with the understanding that they would be protected and allowed to hunt and reside on what remained of their ancestral territory. However, only 62 years after the ratification of that treaty, the Osage were confined to a reservation in what the United States then called Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. Their population had declined drastically due to disease and the systematic slaughter of their primary food source, the American bison. The outright fraud and cruel treatment experienced by Native people allowed settlers to move freely into Fayetteville, some of them Cherokee people seeking opportunity and refuge from the violence and land theft in the East. Many more Cherokee passed through Fayetteville during their own forced removal.

Today, the region’s First Peoples, primarily the Osage, Quapaw and Caddo nations, endure as federally recognized tribal nations in Oklahoma, where they continue to rebuild after centuries of systemic injustice.

While every land acknowledgment at the University of Arkansas mentions these nations, their people, families and communities continue to live with the consequences of two centuries of upheaval and genocide. A board of trustees policy was established in 1985 to waive out-of-state tuition for citizens of these tribes and a few others with a history in Arkansas, but no formal agreement or invitation has ever been extended encouraging their young people to return to Arkansas for school.

The university does not prioritize building the relationships it needs to recruit Native students from these tribes. Indigenous history is not a required course. The university’s research agendas do not benefit the nations; Native American students don’t even have a room on campus designated for their use.

I hope you can understand why Native American students might feel more irritated than honored when their classes begin with a compulsory land acknowledgment statement, or when they stumble across one on a website.

Parcels of the Pomo Nation’s historical territory in Northern California were among those taken to establish the University of Arkansas.

Land acknowledgments rarely mention the fact that when Indigenous people were removed from their ancestral land, they were forced to abandon sacred ceremonial sites. These sites were, and still are, pillaged and ruined by colonial settlers. Personal collections of “artifacts” amassed from looting sacred sites in Arkansas and Oklahoma eventually wound up in the University of Arkansas Museum Collection. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required that some items be returned to the tribes’ descendants, but many remain stored in the museum’s collection.

Indigenous students can attend the university without ever even knowing about the beautiful art and cultural heritage created by their ancestors and currently shelved behind closed doors. Museum staff have started working to improve outreach to Native American students, and I’m hopeful that new and lasting partnerships can raise awareness about local Indigenous history and begin to heal the injustice done to First Peoples. However, as long as the narratives remain in the hands of academia, stripped of cultural significance and deprived of an accurate historical narrative, the collection simply contributes to the institution’s continued erasure of the original residents and their descendants, in a kind of cultural genocide.

Tribal governments should be empowered to research, care for and share their own cultural objects at the University of Arkansas and elsewhere. Universities should share all existing academic research related to these objects and ensure that future research is guided by or carried out in collaboration with tribal institutional review boards. Achieving environmental, cultural and social justice requires reconnecting contemporary Indigenous people with the ancestral sacred sites from which the objects were stolen. The onus is on universities to build the relationships and programs needed to reconnect Indigenous people with their sacred objects and places when tribal governments lack the resources to do so.


High Country News investigated the origins of the land granted by the federal Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant College Act, in its “Land-Grab Universities” story (March 2020), which revealed the appalling connection between the establishment of the University of Arkansas and other institutions and the forced dispossession and continuing exploitation of Indigenous people throughout the country. Nearly 10.7 million acres of Indigenous land were seized and granted to states for the creation of colleges. In Arkansas, almost 150,000 acres were given to the state and then sold to raise the principal endowment for the University of Arkansas. These profits are represented in the university’s financial profile to this day.

The land sold to establish the university was taken by fraud or force from tribes in nine states, including California, where many parcels were stolen from tribes who faced genocide into the late 19th century. According to Benjamin Madley’s book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, an alarming 80% of the Indigenous inhabitants of California were killed, with the state funding the murder of men, women and children. Among the nations and bands from present-day California whose land benefited land-grant universities are the Pomo, Miwok, Shoshone, Diegueno, Tejon and Round Valley Indian Tribes (Yuki).

Something tangible is required to begin the reconcil-iation process.

The parcels in the Arkansas land grant came from more than 140 tribal nations and bands. High Country News partnered with researchers to publish an open-source database that makes it possible to identify each individual parcel of land and the treaty or transaction that granted its cession. This information makes it possible for the university to identify every tribal band and nation whose land directly benefited it. These communities should be included in any land acknowledgments, but more importantly, the university should begin the work of compensating Indigenous people for the stolen wealth from that original endowment, as well as for any advancement made possible from the original land grant.

Something tangible is required to begin the reconciliation process.

To borrow a concept from the Black Lives Matter movement: Passivity is complicity. The University of Arkansas and other land-grant institutions continue to passively benefit from the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous people, and land acknowledgments without any attempt to begin reconciliation reek of racism and privilege. Given the lack of awareness about Indigenous people and history, institutions and organizations should continue to create and revise land acknowledgments, but they should also acknowledge that their statements are not sufficient.

Our lands aren’t all that was taken from us. Our place-based knowledge and lived experience, grounded in thousands of years of oral tradition, continue to be ignored by academia. The educational system was a violent and coercive means of social control and assimilation, and it has been a source of trauma for many of our young people. Our languages and the unique perspectives held within them are nearly extinguished. Even where we can still access them, our foods, medicines and waters are depleted or polluted, undermining our physical, emotional and spiritual health. These issues are all connected to land.


The land isn’t a stagnant, inanimate object, and its value is not solely monetary. Land is a complex system of life. Ecosystems are always changing; they hold the shape of all who manipulate them and retain a record of terrestrial and cosmic influence. The influence of contemporary humans is crude and harsh. We are a young society — all of us who are here now. The influence of those who were here for thousands of years before us can still be seen in the landscape. They shaped the land, and they were shaped by it. They acknowledged the land. They communed with the land. Their descendants are knowledge keepers.

We need action to restore these connections. We need action to restore Indigenous rights to the land. Action is the form of acknowledgment needed to support the rights and well-being of Indigenous people.

We all return to the land, eventually.   

Summer Wilkie, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation from Baron, Oklahoma, is a University of Arkansas alumna and currently serves as the university’s student coordinator for Indigenous people. Follow @summer_wilkie on Instagram. The Native Governance Center has published a guide for land acknowledgments. Acknowledgment of inequity is a step toward antiracism. This story originally appeared on the website Arkansas Soul. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.