Philosophy instructor, recreational writer, humorless vegetarian.
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‘Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism

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In David Mamet’s film State and Main, a Hollywood big shot tries to shortchange a set hand by offering him an “associate producer” credit on a movie. A screenwriter overhears the exchange and asks, “What’s an ‘associate producer credit’?” The big shot answers: “It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.”

The practice of “land acknowledgment”—preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served—is one of the greatest associate-producer credits of all time. A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim? Anyway, you are not getting your jewels back, but now you have documentation.

Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these —I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.

[From the May 2021 issue: Return the national parks to the tribes]

Thanksgiving relies on a cartoon version of the settlement of the Americas, focusing on a moment of concord between victim and génocidaire. Land acknowledgments are similarly confected to stroke the sentiments of mostly non-Indigenous audiences—this time by enabling their preening self-criticism.  

Earlier this month, Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference began with a land acknowledgment so bewildering to viewers that it went briefly viral. But it was not abnormal among statements of this sort. The emcee acknowledged that the company’s headquarters, one square mile of land outside Seattle, was “occupied by the Sammamish, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snohomish, Tulalip, and other coast Salish people... since time immemorial.” She noted that the tribes are “still there” but offered no connection between the past and today. Few if any of the baffled viewers would deny the historic presence of these peoples amid the sacred groves that later produced PowerPoint and Clippy, the Microsoft Word mascot. But in the absence of context, the effect of this parade of names was to suggest that for thousands of years the Indigenous peoples were crammed onto the Microsoft campus uncomfortably like canned salmon, doing who knows what, until Bill Gates arrived in the late 20th century to turn them into programmers.

Maybe it is a victory for Indigeneity to have the name Muckleshoot even mentioned at a Microsoft conference. By far the most common defense of land acknowledgments is that they harm no one, and they educate Americans about a hidden history that took place literally where they stand. Do they not at least do that?

No, not even a little. It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. What do members of the acknowledged group hold sacred? What makes them unique and identifies them to one another? Who are they, where did they come from, and where are they going? The evasion of these fundamental questions is typical. The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper. Nor does he make any but the most general connection between the event and those people, other than an ancient one, not too different from the speaker’s relationship with the local geology or flora.

At ceremonies and events in my home city of New Haven, Connecticut, I have heard acknowledgment that we are on “Quinnipiac land.” This statement is never accompanied by mention of the basic fact that the Quinnipiac all but ceased to exist as a people more than 150 years ago, and there is no currently recognized Quinnipiac tribe. I suspect that few in the audience know this, and that few of the speakers do. (There is an “Algonquian Confederacy of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council.” Its leader, Iron Thunderhorse, is currently in prison in Texas for rape, and projected to be released in 2051, at the age of 107. He is half-Italian, was born William Coppola, and according to a legal filing by the Texas prison authority, was not listed as Native American on at least one of his purported birth certificates.)

Some people argue that land acknowledgments are “gestures of respect.” I’m not sure one can show respect while also being indifferent to a people’s existence. The statements are a counterfeit version of respect. Teen Vogue put it well, if unintentionally: “Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.” A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the “easy way” is just as cheap as it sounds. Real respect occurs only when accompanied by time, work, or something else of value. Learning basic facts about a particular tribe might be a start.

Most of these acknowledgments are considered (by the speakers, anyway) moral acts, because they bear witness to crimes perpetrated against Native peoples and call, usually implicitly, for redress. If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come. (Cartoon history serves this purpose well; reality, less so. Do you acknowledge the Quinnipiac, or the tribes they at times allied with the English to fight? Or both?) The acknowledgments never include any actual material redress—return of land, meaningful corrections of wrongs against Indigenous communities—or sophisticated moral reckoning.  Nor is there an “easy way” to reckon with this past. In the early 1600s, as many as 90 percent of the Quinnipiac were wiped out, along with other coastal Native Americans, by chicken pox and other diseases imported by Europeans. How does one assign blame for the spread of disease, hundreds of years before anyone knew diseases were something other than the wrath of God? (Does China owe Europe reparations for the Black Death, which came, like COVID-19, from Hubei? Or should China take two Opium Wars and call it even?)

Without time, work, or actual redress, the land acknowledgment that implies a moral debt amounts to the highwayman’s receipt. “To acknowledge Indigenous homelands and to return those lands are related, but the former alone allows for rhetoric without further action,” Dustin Tahmahkera, a professor of Native American cultural studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. If Microsoft truly felt bad about the location of its offices, it could move its operations to soil less blood-soaked. (There aren’t many such places, alas.) Not every Microsoft conference needs to be an announcement of a real-estate deal. But if Microsoft is going to acknowledge a debt, it should also pay it.  

[Read: How to acknowledge a shameful past]

If the practice of land acknowledgment persists, it should do so in a version less embarrassing to all involved. I would propose restricting such acknowledgments to forms and occasions that preserve their dignity and power.

Follow these rules, and object to any land acknowledgments that violate them:


  • The acknowledgment should reveal a specific relationship between the event and the people who are acknowledged. Boilerplate language is an insult.
  • It should not smell of self-congratulation, either by the speaker or the institution. If it makes you look good, you are doing it wrong. Note that one form of self-congratulation is pedantic self-criticism.
  • If the acknowledgment calls for restitution, it should specify the reasons for the restitution and the means for making it. If you think land should be given back or other payment made, say so. Venture a magnitude of the repayment and explain why. Even the highwayman’s receipt lists the jewels and coins taken.

These reforms in land acknowledgment would leave plenty of cynicism to go around—nearly all warranted, I think. Land acknowledgments are a classic culture-war issue, Nick Estes, an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico, told me via email. They can be “a pantomime of caring or outrage mostly by professional class elites and educational institutions.” Meanwhile, he asked, what of “the real issues facing Indigenous peoples—housing, employment, child removal, generational poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, police violence, racism, and erasure; in other words, real colonialism”?

Land acknowledgments are just words, and words can distract from real issues, in particular the ultimate one, which is Native American tribal sovereignty. But some words are honest, even loving, and others are hollow and nauseating. As an American, and as a once and future member of an audience at ceremonies and events, I would be thankful for more of the former and fewer of the latter.

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istoner
2 days ago
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This articulates my own discomfort with the way these things are done at my school.

My sense (based entirely on attending one talk on land acknowledgements for MinnSCU schools) is that they don't feel as insulting and empty to native students/staff/faculty as they do to me. I wish I could see a broader range of interviews, or even some decent polling, of Native Minnesotan/American views of land acknowledgments.
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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At the Shadow's Edge

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Shaped like a cone tapering into space, the Earth's dark Shaped like a cone tapering into space, the Earth's dark


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istoner
3 days ago
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Awesome picture that vividly illustrates how much bigger the earth is than the moon.
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Three Guilty Men Almost Weren’t Tried

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The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery will not get away with it. Yet the most surprising aspect of the trial is not the verdict, but the fact that the trial happened at all.

On Wednesday, a Georgia jury convicted Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and their friend William Bryan of felony offenses after the trio chased down and then shot Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, in February of last year. The men claimed that they were attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest,” having suspected Arbery of being behind burglaries in the neighborhood, an accusation they had no evidence to support.

The three men were not even arrested until May. The district attorney, Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case because the elder McMichael had been an investigator in her office. Johnson was later indicted for her actions in the Arbery case—allegedly preventing police from arresting the three men for Arbery’s killing. Video of the aftermath obtained by The Washington Post showed that Arbery was still alive when police first arrived but that “officers did not immediately tend to him and showed little skepticism of the suspects’ accounts on the scene,” the Post reported.

[Ibram X. Kendi: Who gets to be afraid in America?]

George Barnhill, who took over the case from Johnson, claimed the men had simply acted in self-defense when they chased down the unarmed Arbery, because “at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, [Travis] McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.” In this view of the law, Arbery was at fault for his own death by defending himself from three men with guns who followed him in a truck and attempted to cut off his escape. Barnhill also recused himself—but only after Arbery’s mother complained that he, like Johnson, had also worked with McMichael.

It took video of the shooting going viral, in May of last year, for the men to be arrested. The clip showing Arbery’s death became public a few weeks before the release of the video showing George Floyd being murdered by a police officer. In retrospect, the two share a disturbing connection: The videos contradicted the statements of local authorities that both Floyd and Arbery were responsible for their own deaths. Without the video evidence—and the national protest, outrage, and scrutiny they sparked—neither man’s killers would have seen the inside of a courtroom. It took a series of extraordinary events to force the system to regard their deaths as crimes worth investigating.

The trial itself also proved illuminating. After Al Sharpton showed up in the gallery, Kevin Gough, one of the defense attorneys, said, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here.” Last week, Gough complained about the public atmosphere surrounding the case against his clients, three white men who shot an unarmed Black man. “This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” he said. In her closing arguments, the defense attorney Laura Hogue told the jury, “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Defense attorneys are morally obliged to do their best to work the levers of the criminal-justice system on behalf of their clients. That said, it is notable that the defense team believed this approach was the one that offered their clients the best chance of beating the charges.

The defense successfully struck all but one Black juror from the pool. The team argued that the three men were executing a “citizen’s arrest” under a Georgia law that has since been changed, and insisted that McMichael had acted in self-defense against Arbery. “It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life-or-death situation,” the younger McMichael testified. “And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”

If it sounds ridiculous to say that chasing someone down while armed is an act of self-defense, and then to claim you had to shoot the person you were chasing, because they tried to defend themselves, recall that this was precisely the conclusion the local authorities initially reached.

The jury ultimately found the defense’s arguments unpersuasive, and the evidence against the defendants overwhelming. But had it been up to the folks in charge in Glynn County, the jury never would have seen that evidence. To say the system worked in this case is like saying your car made it home—after your entire family had to get out and push it miles down a dirt road.

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istoner
6 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Welcome to Mars! Frequently Asked Questions

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Shouts & Murmurs by Nicky Guerreiro and Ethan Simon: Of course there’s air! Just don’t breathe it. And, with the crazy gravity situation, everyone can dunk!
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istoner
15 days ago
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"Look, we could go back and forth all day..."
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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In a Word

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bafflegab
n. official or professional jargon which confuses more than it clarifies; gobbledegook

This is such a useful word that its coiner actually received an award. Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce, invented it to describe one of the incomprehensible price orders published by the Chamber’s Office of Price Stabilization. His comment, published in the Chamber’s weekly publication Washington Report in January 1952, was lauded in an editorial in the Bellingham [Wash.] Herald, which sponsored a plaque.

Smith said he’d considered several words to describe the OPS order’s combination of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity, and complexity.” He’d rejected legalfusion, legalprate, gabalia, and burobabble.

At the award presentation, he was asked to define his word briefly. He answered, “Multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

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istoner
20 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Steve Albini reflects on his edgelord past

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interesting conversation about privilege and culture from someone with a history of ironically saying shitty things for shock value #
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istoner
21 days ago
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I've struggled to figure out the best attitude to adopt toward Albini's early stuff, the Rapeman album most of all. This interview maybe complicates the question even more.
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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1 public comment
acdha
19 days ago
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“I wish that I knew how serious a threat fascism was in this country. At that time [the 1980s under Reagan], there was a phone-in hotline for the America First committee that you could call; they were on the South Side of Chicago, and it would play a racist diatribe as the phone message. Everyone in our circle was dismissive of those as being these ridiculous country bumpkins. There was a joke made about the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. That’s how we all perceived them — as this insignificant, unimportant little joke. I wish that I knew then that authoritarianism in general and fascism specifically were going to become commonplace as an ideology.”
Washington, DC
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