Acknowledging Land and Indigenous Peoples

In many parts of the world, a history of colonialism has meant that a culture promoting exploitation and extraction displaced an indigenous culture. Often the indigenous humans of a place had a locally well-adapted culture that honored and cherished the land, with practices and beliefs that made them well-integrated participants in local ecosystems.

For Novasutras gatherings in places with such histories, it can be both instructive and healing to include some acknowledgement of the land and the people who lived there in prior centuries.

Land acknowledgements are an honest and historically accurate way to recognize the traditional [peoples and]… territories of a place. They can be presented verbally or visually: think signage, short theatre presentations or simple spoken-word greetings. According to Anishinaabe-kwe Wanda Nanibush, the first curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), land acknowledgements have one goal, regardless of format: They commemorate Indigenous peoples’ principal kinship to the land—and the fact that we have not and cannot be erased from her, our collective first mother. “They’re a starting place to a change in how the land is seen and talked about,” she says. “[They] help redefine how people place themselves in relation to First Peoples.”

Selena Mills, “What are land acknowledgements and why do they matter?”

For instance, the local Novasutras chapter in Santa Cruz, California attempts to always include an acknowledgement of their gathering on lands of Awaswas-speaking peoples. Sometimes, for small gatherings and in personal practice, “May all beings on the lands where Awaswas was spoken abide in agaya and ubuntu,” is simply included as part of our opening of sacred space in Calling the Corners, between the wishes for those in the local watershed and those in the larger coast redwood and coast live oak bioregions. In longer introductions to events, we make mention of the history of enslavement in the California Mission period, the genocidal efforts of Gold Rush settlers, and the loss of much traditional knowledge and language as a consequence. We express gratitude for the current efforts of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to restore some of their culture and preserve sacred sites. The Amah Mutsun are the descendants of the Awaswas and Mutsun-speaking peoples who were taken by the Missions at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista (part of the Ohlone language and cultural group, of the amazingly diverse indigenous peoples of California).

The Amah Mutsun are leading an effort to prevent a traditional ceremonial site called Juristac from being destroyed by a sand and gravel quarry.

For larger events with time and teamwork to plan, efforts should be made to reach out to representatives of local indigenous people, ideally supporting one or more of them to participate and offer their own introduction to their traditional homeland. If this cannot be arranged, it is important to take a bit of time to learn about the indigenous people of the lands you stand on, so that you can include something about them (especially their current work) in your land acknowledgement. A good place to start in many parts of the world is the territorial map at native-land.ca (North America, a.k.a Turtle Island, and Australia are the best mapped so far). The Native Land team has also put together a teachers’ guide for using their map, and a brief guide and additional resources for territory acknowledgement. Whose Land is a Canada-focused app; their website includes video discussions of land acknowledgement from people of different cultures in Canada.

Those of us who are recent settlers, or descendants of historic colonizers or enslaved people brought to distant lands, can learn important things about appropriate ways to act with integrity in our local ecosystems by learning more about the indigenous peoples of the land. The vast majority of indigenous cultures include a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge, along with their own expressions of and commitments to promoting agaya and ubuntu in their homeland.

Who are the indigenous people where you live? What do you know about them? How might they have understood and expressed agaya and ubuntu through their traditional practices and beliefs? How are they engaged in protecting their land and culture now, and how might we become better allies and accomplices in this work?

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