Land Acknowledgement: A Trend in Higher Education and Nonprofit Organizations
Thomas E. Keefe
Asst. Professor of Humanities | Head of Liberal Arts
Corresponding information: email@example.com
Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design
An emerging trend among institutions and organizations is the formal recognition of the
traditional custodial relationship between native people and the land. According to Friedler
(2018), a land acknowledgment statement can also raise awareness about histories that are often
suppressed or forgotten.” Formal land acknowledgment may be as limited as recognition of a
historic presence on the land or a more a clear rejection terra nullius and the Doctrine of
Discovery. All land acknowledgment statements, however, share an expression of respect for
indigenous peoples, recognize their enduring relationship to the land, and raise awareness about
marginalized aspects of histories.
Background for the Study
The land acknowledgment movement is particularly strong in several former British
colonies. According to the New York Times (Burke, 2018), the movement has spread across
Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and is moving across the United States. In Canada, for
example, “it is now common to publicly acknowledge Indigenous lands, treaties, and peoples”
(Wilkes, Duong, Kesler, & Ramos, 2017). Dr. Amy Farrell-Morneau of Lakehead University in
Ontario pointed out “nearly every university in Canada has a land acknowledgment statement
(Farrell-Morneau, 2018). In his piece in the New Yorker on September 7, 2017, Stephen Marche
said, “you know a phenomenon has really arrived in Canada when it involves hockey.” Marche
continues, “both the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers began acknowledging traditional
lands in their announcements before all home games last season.” However, the movement is
not limited to higher education but is also trending in nonprofits throughout Canada, the United
States, and other former British colonies.
The Arts Community
In the United States, the movement has spread throughout the art community (Burke,
2018). The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Abrons Art Center, Performance Space
(PS122), the Danspace Project, and Gibney of Tribeca all have a land acknowledgment policy.
Land acknowledgment may be as minimally intrusive as signage in lobbies or a written statement
in organizational brochures or event programs. In other organizations, theatrical performances
begin with a brief verbal land acknowledgment. For example, the standard pre-show curtain
speech at PS122 in New York City states the theater “is situated on the Lenape island of
Manhahtaan (Mannahatta) and more broadly in Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland” (Burke,
2018). The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs have adopted a land acknowledgment policy and
provided resources for others to do as well.
The arts community in the United States has been
at the forefront of the land acknowledgment movement in the United States.
The land acknowledgment movement has spread to other nonprofits as well. In particular,
the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, “held a land acknowledgment ceremony to recognize that
it stands on the traditional homeland of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi tribes” (Hautzinger,
2018). The American Library Association too has a clear land acknowledgment policy on their
website (ALA, n.d.).
Even municipal governments, including Collingwood, California, have
also adopted a land acknowledgment policy (Engel, 2018).
Religion and Land Acknowledgment
As non-Christian religions were not numerically or politically dominant in formative
periods of European-American history, it understandable that the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh,
Zoroastrian, and adherents of other non-indigenous religions have limited positions on land
acknowledgment. Some Christian churches, including the United Church of Christ with more
than one million members, have incorporated land acknowledgment into prayer and gatherings
(Goff, 2017). The First Congregational United Church of Christ on Manhattan, Kansas, has a
clear land acknowledgment statement on the church website.
Additionally, the Canadian UCC
Church, known as the United Church of Canada, has a clear document of land acknowledgment
Episcopal Churches too, such as St. Anne’s Church in Sunfish Lake, Minnesota,
have adopted land acknowledgment statements.
And the Episcopal church in Canada,
specifically the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, has comprehensive resources for land
The Quakers, more accurately referred to as the Friends, even have a national
legislative coordinator who has established a position on land acknowledgment.
But while many
Protestant churches have rejected the Doctrine of Discovery (Miller, 2018), there are
denominations that have resisted land acknowledgment and the rejection of the Doctrine of
Regardless, the land knowledge movement is real, and it is spreading.
Higher Education in the United States and Land Acknowledgment
The movement has spread to colleges and universities across the United States. Small
colleges like Emerson College
in Boston, Goshen College in Indiana,
in St. Louis,
and Seattle Central College
have all adopted land acknowledgment statements.
The University of Indian – Bloomington incorporated a land acknowledgment statement into the
Native American Heritage Month observances in 2018.
Other top-tier institutions have
departmental or institutional land acknowledgment statements as well including Columbia
Michigan State University,
New York University,
University of Illinois,
and the University of Virginia.
In Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,
Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College issued a joint
statement regarding land acknowledgment.
The land acknowledgment movement is spreading
coast to coast, to institutions and organizations, big and small, public and private. Even so,
Wilkes, Duong, Kesler, and Ramos (2017) laments that, “this practice has yet to be considered
as a subject of scholarly inquiry.” Subsequently, a review of the field of literature revealed
limited research on land acknowledgment. In this research, three peer-reviewed articles
(Bradford, 2005; Kantor, 2007; and Wilkes, Duong, Kesler & Ramos, 2017) were identified and
In Colorado, there are four institutions leading the way in land acknowledgment. In
December 2018, Colorado State University (CSU) issued an institutional land acknowledgment
CSU President Tony Frank stated that “for the last two years, students and staff in
our Native American Cultural Center (NACC) and Native American community members have
worked to develop a statement of land acknowledgment – an official statement that honors the
ties that Indigenous people have to the land on which our University operates… [and that] Last
spring, I gladly accepted a recommendation from Native American and Indigenous students that
we adopt the practice of land acknowledgment at university events as a statement of truth,
gratitude, and respect at Colorado State University.”
At the University of Denver (DU) Morgridge College of Education Higher Education
Department, every academic convocation begins, “by first acknowledging that the University of
Denver sits on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, who are the original Stewards of this land.” DU
Higher Education Department continues, “We also wish to acknowledge all other Indigenous
Tribes and Nations who call Colorado home. It is because of their sacrifices and hardships that
we are able to be here to learn and share knowledge to advance educational equity” (DU, 2018).
In December 2017, Tanaya Winder and Hector Ramirez of the University of Colorado
(CU) Upward Bound Program began an initiative to invited CU “departments and eventually the
administration to begin acknowledging Indigenous land in their addresses but also in their email
signatures.” Currently, the CU Department of Ethnic Studies, as well as the CU Center for Native
American and Indigenous Studies, have a land statement embedded on the department and center
that acknowledges, “that the University sits upon land within the territories of the
Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples” and continues, “further, we acknowledge that 48
contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of
Finally, the Fall 2018 graduation ceremonies at the Rocky Mountain College of Art +
Design also included a brief land acknowledgment that RMCAD sits on land that was once the
traditional lands of the Muache band of Ute (Simmons, 2014) and later recognized as common
land of the Arapaho and Cheyenne in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In 1861, the land which
included what would become the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design was taken from the
indigenous people of North America by the Treaty of Fort Wise (Troyer, n.d.). However,
RMCAD and the other three institutions (CSU, DU, CU) are part of the growing national and
local acknowledgment of the original stewards of this land.
There are 15 other four-year institutions of high education in Colorado besides CSU, CU,
DU, and RMCAD. Replicating methods by Wilkes, Duong, Kesler, and Ramos (2017), internet
searches were conducted and then all fifteen were contacted and asked if the institution had a
land acknowledgment statement or if the institutions were considering a statement (institutions
who did not respond were also re-contacted in January 2019). Ten Colorado institutions of higher
learning did not respond.
Peter Han of the Office of the President at the Colorado School of Mines did respond
that, at this time, Mines does not have a land acknowledgment policy. Carol Osborn, Executive
Assistant to the President of Adams State University, similarly responded that ASU does not
have a current policy. Ronald Shape, President of National American University personally
responded and, after emailing further with Dr. Shape’s staff, it was determined that there was
not a current policy, but that the institution was interested gathering more information regarding
the land acknowledgment trend in higher education. Western University’s Bryan Boyle indicated
that Western does not have a land acknowledgment policy. The University of Northern Colorado
also recently responded, stating that the question would be forwarded to the appropriate office
and to expect a response in the near future.
Two state institutions did not respond to the media request for this article were Mesa
University and Metro State University who were all contacted on December 21, 2018. In
addition, eight private colleges and universities were also contacted but did not respond: Lance
Oversole of Colorado Christian University (12/11/18), Colorado Technical University
(12/22/18), Sam Fleury of Columbia College (12/21/18), Ms. Shaults of DeVry University
(12/22/18), Ms. Kochel and Ms. Shively of Johnson & Wales University (12/21/18), Naropa
University (12/21/18), Nazarene Bible College (12/21/18), and Jennifer Forker of Regis
University (12/11/18). It is unclear if the institutions have a policy or not as the media requests
were unanswered. Kantor (2007) refers to the lack of land acknowledgment as the ethnic
cleansing of the ‘unpeopled landscape.’ Indeed, Kantor’s critique of the unpeopled fallacy in the
National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 and the Wilderness Act of 1964 is as relevant as ever.
Nonetheless, Marche (2007) concludes, “acknowledgment is spreading. No level of
government has mandated the practice; it is spreading of its own accord. There is no single
acknowledgment. There are many acknowledgments, depending on where you are in the
country...The acknowledgment forces individuals and institutions to ask a basic, nightmarish
question: Whose land are we on?” And crafting a land acknowledgment statement is not difficult.
Amnesty International (2017) has a simple three-step guide to land acknowledgment: (1) Name
which Indigenous territories you are currently on: (2) Explain why you are acknowledging the
land; (3) Address the relevance of Indigenous rights to the subject matter of your event or
meeting or to your activist work in general. The nongovernmental USDAC (2018) has a similar
three-step process of Identify-Articulate-Deliver.
Melissa Jacob, Ohio State University’s Office of Student Life Multicultural Center,
pointed out that the practice of a formal welcome and territory acknowledgment is an old
tradition Native American culture, particularly when hosting guests and when traveling to
neighboring tribal communities. Jacob (2018) also pointed out that land acknowledgment is
hardly an expensive or intrusive policy. The land acknowledgment movement continues to grow.
Bradford (2005) noted that Native Americans “have inhabited, since time immemorial,
the lands within the external borders of the U.S., [and] remediation of historical injustice is a
pressing issue.” While land acknowledgments might seem like lip-service or national back-
patting to critics, Flournoy (2016) pointed out that the effort is worth it considering the legacy
of marginalized history and rise of the rhetoric of exclusion. Since “reparative justice is hotly
contested on doctrinal, political, and practical grounds… [and] opponents reject the notion of
collective harm and responsibility” (Bradford, 2005), perhaps the least we can do acknowledge
the previous custodians of the land we live, work, and pray upon. We all ought to acknowledge
our history, as we live in the present and look forward to the future.
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Burke, S. (2018). “On this land: Dance presenters honor Manhattan’s first inhabitants.” The New
York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/arts/dance/indigenous-
Engel, E. (2018). “Town council adopts official land acknowledgment statement.” Collingwood
Today. Retrieved from https://www.collingwoodtoday.ca/local-news/town-council-
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