Tribal Territorial Acknowledgements

Territorial acknowledgments have now become commonplace at most university functions at OSU. I have heard from many that the practice now is in nearly all universities in the US and Canada. Many municipalities also practice Territorial Acknowledgements.
There is something gratifying about the idea of a territorial acknowledgment, that is until one sits through an acknowledgment and it is delivered by someone reading from a slip of paper. There is usually no emotion, no true information passed along when this occurs. A student described this as just another PC checkbox to be completed.

I have wondered what they are meant to do? Do people at an event truly get any greater understanding or feeling of honoring native people through an acknowledgment? I have sat through events and the acknowledger has read the statement and mentioned the Kalapuyans and realized I am likely the only Kalapuya person in the room, also perhaps I am the only person who knows what that means. It is like the folks giving acknowledgment or the department, or the school, or the university, assumes that people know what it means to give an acknowledgment. That there is a level of understanding in the university community suggesting that everyone is well aware of the need for acknowledgment. That may be the case in departments like Ethnic studies or Anthropology, or even History, but can we assume this for the whole university community?

Recently, I gave a short talk on a panel to faculty about the need for Native studies. The people in the room clearly wanted to learn more and were interested in the prospect of more training so they could offer classes. It occurred to me that these people, many, likely do not know basic information about Native studies much less about the history of the local tribes. It’s the same situation for many teachers in public schools. Do we assume that if Native curriculum is available they can just begin teaching it? Generally, most teachers know very little about Native peoples and so teachers are nervous to teach a native curriculum which they are completely unfamiliar with. Let’s hope they get some training in Native studies.
I really wonder about all this. I was of the opinion that it was incumbent on the University to then provide an avenue for further information about the tribe they are acknowledging. That perhaps the acknowledgment could refer people to “more information online.” And, that folks would then naturally begin to research about the Kalapuyans and other local tribes, something which teachers have very little time to do. A website of Information about the local Kalapuyans, hosted by the university, would be a good thing to have regardless.

Then this morning I was listening to a Native discussion podcast from 2016 where the hosts were talking about the need for governments to tell indigenous communities they are sorry for the past treatment of indigenous peoples, so that the horrendous acts of the past can begin to be put behind us and we can then begin to work on the solutions and reparations for the treatment of indigenous peoples. This discussion reminded me that this process has not yet occurred in Oregon, that one of the worst things for Native peoples is the outright “invisibility” and “silences” in society toward what happened in our history. We were written out of history as living peoples, and very little has been acknowledged about genocide, the kidnapping of children to boarding schools and to foster care and adoptions, of forced religious conversion, of starvation and abuse, of the loss of languages and culture, loss of lands, poor health care, poor nutrition, and so many more problems.
Many of these problems still go on today, and are perhaps are worse than ever before, considering the recent issues of Missing and Murdered Indian Women, the fight for clean water and clean environments, and fights over rights to fish and hunt. In Oregon we have struggled over the Jordan pipeline in Coos Bay, Nestle taking water on the Columbia, Coal transport down the Columbia, nuclear waste being stored near a reservation, the loss of salmon populations, Klamath fight for sovereign rights for in-river flows for the fish, tribal rights to repatriate native remains of Kennewick Man, and the project to get native curriculum in our public schools (SB 13).

None of the above-mentioned issues of the past or present are truly addressed with a land acknowledgment. At OSU the acknowledgment is supposed to be a responsibility of university as a land-grant institution to acknowledge the people they got their land from. Perhaps so, but what is ignored are the nuanced details of the history of tribal removal, of settler racism, and of the need to make more land available to white settlers and only white settlers, all of which made Kalapuyans strangers in their own lands. It was illegal for the Kalapuyans to return, and if they happened to return to Corvallis the police would be called and they may be jailed and taken back to the reservation. This forced relocation is documented in federal letters.

None of this history the land acknowledgment addresses. It appears to me, land acknowledgments are sidestepping the many issues of the removal of the tribes and their loss of all rights, and then the continuous racist treatment of the tribes for at least 170 years in Oregon. There is no true apology for this from the university or the State, no clarity of the fact that these issues are part of the history of Oregon and that native peoples were absolutely treated racially and poorly for many years by white Americans, many of whom were enriched by free land and nearly free farm labor from native peoples. There is no acknowledgment that the land in the valley, which is prime farmlands, was largely created by the Kalapuyans during their millenniums of using fire ecology to manage and enrich the valley environment. There is also no acknowledgment of the history of racist treatment by past anthropologists at the university who stored human remains for decades. This is an issue I was involved with directly in the 2000s in my role as Cultural department manager at Grand Ronde and was part of the solution back then. This issue continues to cast a shadow over the university from the perspective of the tribes.

Apologies may seem hollow, but they are a step towards a full acknowledgment of the ills of the past, and they can begin new discussions about how all peoples in Oregon can move forward together. Native people are not really separate peoples in Oregon with different rights, they are citizens of the state and country and they deserve to have their histories acknowledged just as much as the history of colonization of the territory are represented. To continue to not acknowledge that tribal history is Oregon’s history is to continue the “segregationist” and racial policies of the past. There is a place for Territorial Acknowledgement if it is connected to the acknowledgment of tribal historical issues as well.