“Indigenous people have suffered from injustice and broken treaties which have left us with broken promises; bad health conditions; limited resources and land; and high rates of alcoholism, substance use and suicide. Acknowledging this and making a commitment to make changes … is very important for the future of Indigenous peoples’ existence – and we are all part of that.” –Trennie Burch
Land acknowledgements are getting real.
The custom dates back for centuries. But in Denver, they started up in earnest last year as a response to growing calls for all institutions to publicly recognize that this land was not, in fact, made for you and me. Unless you happen to be a member of one of the Indigenous native tribes that have stewarded this land for millennia.
Taking a moment at the start of public gatherings to re-state this irrefutable fact was seen as a step toward creating a more equitable society. And empathic cultural organizations, understandably, have been most responsive to the call – to the point where pretty much every performance now begins with some terribly awkward (and usually White) person listing off a roster of displaced tribes in a task that can come off as forced, perfunctory and not entirely sincere.
“We acknowledge that we are standing on the ancestral lands of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute and Lakota nations. Now … please silence your cell phones, visit our snack bar at intermission and remember … the taking of photographs is punishable by death.”
That’s so early 2022. Land acknowledgements are quickly becoming much more than that.
To open last week’s CinemaQ Film Festival, social-justice organizer Mimi Madrid wondered why it took 157 years for Colorado to finally revoke a state proclamation that until last year called for and encouraged the killing of Native Americans in Colorado. At Biome, a new local art biennial, co-founder Ricardo Baca invoked the slaughter of at least 150 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. Before the opening performance of the disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company’s current production of ”The Rocky Horror Show,” Artistic Director Ben Raanan’s acknowledgement extended to all who were forcibly brought to this land and enslaved against their will.
Of late, these land acknowledgments are becoming far more specific, visceral statements that are increasingly being delivered by speakers who share a bloodline back to those forcibly removed tribes. This new approach is making for much more urgent and authentic moments that invite deeper dialogue, education and understanding.
And in many cases, they are simply electric to watch. One recently drew a standing ovation.
“It is imperative to note that the practice of declaring a land acknowledgement does not stand alone,” said Trennie Burch, a member of the Southern Ute Tribe who wrote the acknowledgement that Madrid read at CinemaQ. “It is an exercise to elevate real histories and stories that have been systemically hidden, ignored and generally left out of our education systems.” Land acknowledgements, she added, should be used in tandem with trauma-informed activation, reparations, inclusion and justice initiatives.
Burch and Madrid are the co-founders of Fortaleza Familiar, a wellness center serving Latinx queer, trans and Two-Spirit young people – that’s a term that embraces the long history of sexual and gender diversity within Indigenous cultures.
Most every land acknowledgement formally recognizes that the land we now call Denver was unjustly taken from various native tribes before Western colonization. But organizations are quickly realizing the opportunity to make much more of an impact with their land acknowledgments. Burch’s statement, for example, includes this:
“I would like to acknowledge that all tribal nations were subjected to genocidal atrocities by way of massacres, natural-resource theft, food-system manipulations, sacred-site desecrations, child theft and forced assimilation via the U.S. government boarding-school system, including the legacy of Fort Lewis College and the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School.”
And if you don’t know what she’s talking about, the hope is that you will ask. You’ll learn that a school was opened in Grand Junction in 1887 for the forced assimilation of Native American children. That if those students ever spoke their native language, they would be beaten. That if they ran away, they would be chased down by posses. That at least 20 children are believed to have been buried there under still unexplained circumstances.
Grasslands: Using art as the message
Baca is the founder of Grasslands, a journalism-minded content marketing agency that is deeply rooted in local culture, history and creating art. Baca and Jason Diminich launched Biome: A Queen City Biennial as a celebration of fine art through community, inclusivity and exhibition.
The land acknowledgment Baca read at the most recent Biome event starts with an undeniable historical fact: That peaceful members of the Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho and other native nations – hunters and gatherers, farmers and traders – were forced away by White settlers in the 1850s and ’60s.
“And some of those settlers were U.S. soldiers who in 1864 surprised and murdered, in cold blood at least 150 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne people residing on a reservation 180 miles southeast of Denver,” Baca says in his land acknowledgement. And because those tribes were in peace talks with White officials at the time, they had every reason to believe they were under U.S. protection, a Congressional committee later found. Still, a massacre ensued that counted mostly women, children and the elderly among its victims, and those entire nations were ultimately relocated out of Colorado.
Land acknowledgements don’t mean a whole lot of you don’t know the stories behind the land. And for Baca, former pop music and marijuana editor at The Denver Post, the message is in the mural that greets visitors when they enter Grasslands at 100 Santa Fe Drive.
“We offer this important education and serene respect in the form of a painting,” said Baca. It is called “Un Abrazo” (“An Embrace”), by famed artist and Metropolitan State University Professor Carlos Frésquez, who calls his mural “a wall with a tongue; it speaks to one and all.”
Baca calls the mural, in essence, “a visual land acknowledgement.” It’s a long, horizontal painting based on a Cheyenne serape design that lines what was once the bar at a watering hole called Orlie’s. The painting, Baca says, “embraces all who walk into Grasslands via the education of this land’s original inhabitants.”
Phamaly: The meaning is the mission
Over at Phamaly Theatre Company, a committee set to work on a land acknowledgement statement two years ago and came back with something bigger that incorporates the company’s overall mission. “We read it not only before every performance but before everything we do, including rehearsals and board meetings, Managing Director Sasha Hutchings said, “because we want everything we do to be grounded in that reality.” She even calls it that – “a grounding statement” – just one component of the company’s larger anti-racism work.
Among other things, the Phamaly statement acknowledges the enslaved, the disenfranchised, the marginalized – “all people who have had rights denied, and who have fought to have rights restored.” Most important, though, it connects the dots between the forced removal of native peoples and the reason for Phamaly’s existence as a place where disabled artists have a home.
“We acknowledge the people who created Phamaly as a place where … humans of all identities could work to advance our shared humanity,” the statement reads. It further afforms the company’s commitment to honor its founders by always acting from a place of “respect, bravery, boldness, curiosity and love.”
What it is not meant to do, Hutchings says, is make anyone listening or reading feel shame or guilt.
“The way I look at it, this is our history – good, bad or ugly – and we have to make space to acknowledge that continually as we make art,” Hutchings said. Because art, she added, “creates a space for people to confront uncomfortable things.”
None of which is worth the paper it’s written on if any company’s land acknowledgment is seen as a merely performative gesture.
“But this is not performative,” Hutchings said. “This is who we are.”