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It has become fashionable for some academics at some universities in North America to place at the end of their email signatures a nod to the Indigenous land that their institutions now occupy.

Some concerned faculty write a statement of their own. Others—I think this is a better option—compose their statements in consultation with local Indigenous leaders. Still others simply adopt the land acknowledgement language sanctioned by the universities where they work.

The official land acknowledgement at my university, developed in consultation with First Nations House and the Elders Circle, reads:

I (we) wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

The University’s webpage that houses the Acknowledgement goes further than the statement itself: “Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” What is our responsibility regarding this “present participation”? In other words, how could we make sure that such a land acknowledgement avoids what Louise Erdrich, in her novel Plague of Doves, calls “sentiment instead of justice”?

I argue here that if we, as non-Indigenous yet justice-oriented actors, are willing to acknowledge that we occupy the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples, and if we admit that our occupation fits within patterns of ongoing colonialism (“present participation”), then what we are really talking about is a violation of sovereignty.

In my own case, I have previously written in favor of recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples by honoring treaties. But in practice, I haven’t generally acted as if Indigenous peoples should exercise sovereignty over their native lands. For instance, before I travelled to Canada for my post-doc position, while I did not reach out to any Indigenous nations, I was in extended correspondence with the Canadian government about my ability to work in Canada. When I went to the airport, I remembered my U.S. Passport as well as several other governmental documents: my work permit, my Offer Letter from the University, and so on. Before I travel to academic conferences in the United States, by great contrast, I do not first write to the Indigenous nations on whose ancestral land the conference is to be held. When I go to the airport, I do not bring my Passport or supporting documents. In these ways, I assume that the sovereignty of the land on which I am soon to give my academic paper belongs to the U.S.

My assumption is as correct as a matter of legal fact as it is incorrect from the perspective of an ethics calling for corrective justice, such as the Lakota People’s Law Project’s call to return the Black Hills to the Lakota.

It is high time we non-Indigenous academics recognize in practice the sovereignty we assert in our email signatures (or at other times, another prominent one being before we give our “radical” conference papers, deconstructing sovereignty and so on). “American Indian representation is not difficult,” Nancy Mithlo argues in her recent book Knowing Native Arts: “Google the tribe and call the representatives.”

The Covid-19 crisis can be understood as a suspension of many of our professional habits. When this crisis lessens, we can re-start our professional lives in different ways. If all of the recent discussion about decolonizing the university is to amount to more than hot air—if it is to be more than a metaphor, to borrow an incisive formulation—then one step that follows from listening to repeated (because unheard) Indigenous claims is to recognize in practice the sovereignty of Indigenous nations, just as we acknowledge the sovereignty of the countries we travel to in conferences across the Americas.

A first objection to my argument is that phoning the representatives of a nation for permission to attend an academic conference on their lands falls well short of remediating the harms of state-sanctioned genocide. A second objection is that land acknowledgements and getting permissions from nations will bolster the legitimacy of universities’ claims to the land on which they sit, such that everyone can just go back to business as usual. (Isn’t this why universities have web pages dedicated to acknowledging, but certainly not repatriating, land?) A third objection is that my argument suggests an unhelpfully guilt-ridden project, an attempt to exculpate the sins that unknown settler ancestors may or may not have committed. I will respond to these objections in turn.

The first objection is correct: simply phoning representatives is not enough. It is also true that simply adding an acknowledgment to an email signature is not enough.

The second objection adds another good point: in some cases, highlighting that our jobs are part of ongoing occupations of Indigenous land is nothing more than the newest hip virtue signal—in this way, acknowledgement remains an end point and not a starting point.

Together, these thoughtful objections worry that, just as a way of critiquing racism becomes popular if it does not threaten the holdings of a dominant population (what Barnor Hesse calls “white sovereignty”), so too does this way of criticizing colonialism gain popularity because it calls for a ritual acknowledgement, rather than seriously responding to a demand for corrective justice concerning land.

But that both these modes are insufficient does not mean that they are worthless.

If we assume that land acknowledgments are made in good faith, then both the acknowledgement and getting in touch with Indigenous nations are part of stepping-stone practices toward recognizing sovereignty in broader ways, including defending native voting rights and petitioning our governments to honor treaties.

The metric of sufficiency for universities and academics trying to change their practices should not be whether actions are in accordance with webpage standards sanctioned by the university’s extremely well-paid administrators, who are often themselves masters of the respectable, but immaterial, gesture.

Indeed, following Audra Simpson, we could say that the stories universities tell about themselves mirror the stories settler-colonial nation-states tell about themselves: that they are beneficent and for the public good. These are not stories that reflect what Simpson calls “complicated beginning, forceful beginnings.” Official land acknowledgements tend to be written in a passive, sanitized voice. “This land was once lived on by other people; it is now where we work.” These are tales without villains, tales that erase force.

The question of whether our reparative work is sufficient, then, should be decided by the communities we claim to have a responsibility to—in this case, Indigenous peoples.

In our correspondence around what became this essay, Mithlo described to me her own orientation: while she finds “an exposure of the academy” helpful for liberatory practices in general, she says that her own projects “are very organic and come out of a community need.” Her work, first and foremost, is “about being of service to community.” Following Mithlo, I ask: To what extent are our land acknowledgments, our exposures, part of a larger conversation with the communities we claim to serve?

The third objection hinges on how this responsibility is framed. If responsibility is understood in the standard sense of liability, then I might not have any responsibility for the occupation of lands once belonging to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Further, on this legal-liability model, there might be a statute of limitations for raising claims, such that too much time has passed between the crime and the demand for just compensation.

This objection implicitly calls into question Mithlo’s central claim in Knowing Native Arts, that “the American Dream… is built upon the death and dispossession of Indigenous peoples and their homelands.” It separates current demands for compensation from an acknowledged previous dispossession of Indigenous peoples. In short, this objection assumes that colonization is a thing of the past and not an ongoing process.

I have three responses to this third objection. The first is that our travel as academics relies on oil production. Recent resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline has indicated, as the then Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II put it in 2016, that “the tribes always pay the price for America’s prosperity.” In other words, success in our academic careers relies on violating treaty rights and often uses resources taken in violation of land and cultural rights; and in this way, we, in our professional lives, participate in contemporary injustices against Indigenous peoples.

Archambault’s statement leads to my second response: that to reject the claim that contemporary “success” across the Americas is built on Indigenous dispossession is also to fail to listen to the claims of many Indigenous leaders. As the Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo recently titled an op-ed in The Guardian: “This is my message to the western world – your civilization is killing life on Earth.”

Of late there has been much discussion of banning the Confederate flag. There has been considerably less discussion of the fact that the U.S. flag, each time it is flown today, makes a claim to sovereignty. “The white sharp-pointed designs on the blue represent the many territories conquered,” James Welch writes in his novel Fools Crow.

If we take these claims seriously, then we must acknowledge that Indigenous dispossession is an ongoing practice, that the terrain of our everyday lives is made up of layers of complicated, forceful history, as Terrance Guardipee’s ledger art maps teach so poignantly.

These “layers” of history—what the journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat calls “one apocalypse on top of another”—present a context that, for me, demands a sense of responsibility different from our predominant, and insufficient, modes.

My third response, then, is that there are ways to think about responsibility beyond the legal-liability model. We can also make clear to whom and to what we consider ourselves responsible through our daily practices. Considered from a decolonial angle, this sense of responsibility looks backward to see what historical and colonial patterns we still participate in, and it looks forward in order to enact relationships in ways different from the historic patterns, here Indigenous dispossession.

Such a conception of responsibility is particularly demanding in that it stays in contact with and recognizes the statements of those it claims to serve.

Some would still contest the premise that the original inhabitants of a territory have a claim to it in perpetuity. This is a problem international law runs into: U.S. legal theory struggles to make sense of historical injustices, having only weakly developed ways to relate arguments based on historical land ownership to contemporary claims to land. Concepts such as “native title laws” have tried to bridge this gap in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Canada and the High Court of Australia.

The goal of native title jurisprudence is to reach a point of “reconciliation” between a state and what it refers to as the Indigenous “population” that lives within its boundaries—not “people,” because “people” would allow for a claim to self-determination and potential secession, while a population is simply something to be managed.

But the law moves slowly, and often only in response to shifts in customs and to popular mobilizations. So in what is left of this short essay, I want to pursue an argument different from whether or not customary Indigenous practices should be title-generating (even though I think they should).

One way to defend Indigenous sovereignty that is not premised on original inhabitation of land is to recognize both that Indigenous cultural practices contribute to the beauty of differences in the world and that those practices are threatened by settler and capitalist encroachment on Indigenous land. The latter recognition quickly leads to a politics that demands an end to that encroachment so as to preserve to former, which is to say a politics that recognizes Indigenous sovereignty, that honors treaties. The way that appreciating something as beautiful calls you to protect it against threats is one way, as Rose B. Simpson argues in the exhibit Hearts of Our People, that “aesthetics reminds you how to be in the world.” And to be clear: for most of the readers of this essay, this learned being in the world looks less like gobbling up and storing bio-diversity and more like conducting sit-ins at the banks that fund the culture-threatening extraction.

Understanding land acknowledgements and email signatures at their very best, they signal a desire, in Mithlo’s words, “to creatively manifest a different reality.”

This is a reality different from treating Indigenous land as little more than sites of resource extraction. Honoring treaties and upholding “native title” in our practices demonstrates an ethics that does not take its cue from the slow politics of law, but instead lives out today, not before its time but much too late, a commitment to a more beautiful world.

Benjamin P. Davis is the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.

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