Sticking the Landing

speculations on land acknowledgments.

A Map of the lands ceded by the Cherokee Indians to the State of South-Carolina at a congress held in May, A.D. 1777; containing about 1,697,700 acres. ca. 1777. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

What do we really make of the rise of land acknowledgments in mainstream North American institutional settings? They have their origins in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights movements of 1970s Australia, and spread most prominently to Canada from there. By the late 2010s, arts venues, awards ceremonies, and the home pages of educational institutions in the United States were adopting them and they now increasingly appear even in corporate settings.

As speech acts, land acknowledgments are ambiguous, not exactly acts at all, and certainly not Acts, capital A, in the governmental or legal sense. They do not directly transform anything materially. They certainly do not redress historical injustices or suffering in any except the most cursory of ways. At best, currently, they are signifiers of uncollected debts, perhaps another kind of political “promissory note,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. called the US Declaration of Independence. They are heartfelt, they can even change consciousness by creating some friction and discomfort. These are not necessarily bad things, but they are not altering the situation on the ground, as it were.

This makes land acknowledgments sound innocuous; at their worst, however, they may be doing something quite troubling: land acknowledgments serve as confessions, they are spoken to release people from the sins of the past while changing nothing in the present or future. They are indulgences. The land acknowledgement becomes in fact a kind of disacknowledgment in disguise.

In this mode, the land acknowledgment becomes something like what Roland Barthes evocatively called “operation margarine.” Barthes noticed how whether in banal advertisements for margarine or much more serious forces of political and institutional power such as the military, the church, or the state, “a little ‘confessed’ evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil.” Barthes’ essay is worth quoting more extensively for how effectively he identified the confounding ways in which acknowledgement becomes a disavowal:

One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established Order and its values, according to this way of thinking, is an illness which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it head-on, but rather exorcize it like a possession: the patient is made to give a representation of is illness, he is made familiar with the very appearance of his revolt, and this revolt disappears all the more surely since, once at a distance and the object of a gaze, the Established Order is no longer anything but a Manichaean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins on both counts, and is therefore beneficial. The immanent evil of enslavement is redeemed by the transcendent good of religion, fatherland, the Church, etc. A little ‘confessed’ evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil.

Confessions are more often for the confessor than anyone else. One wonders, have land acknowledgments emerged most of all for the easing of liberal guilt rather than as declarations or commitments to substantive political or legal transformation for indigenous peoples? After all, if we take land acknowledgments seriously, they propose extraordinary alterations in the political economy of the North American nation-state. They propose nothing less than its end, do they not? To acknowledge that the land was taken illegally and unjustly implies that it should be returned—all of it. Are those who make land acknowledgments ready to do this?

Probably not, but we should remember that any kind of “operation margarine” can backfire. The margarine melts. Inoculations open up new opportunities. Can the verbalized expressions of liberal guilt be harnessed for radical change? Or are they, as Barthes thought, just new, more oily deals, an artificial way for settlers to keep living off the fat of the land?

A deeper, more vexing question emerges too with the superficiality—or maybe even the tricky subterfuge—of land acknowledgments. Do they merely reproduce imperial, colonial, and capitalist ideas of property while purporting to combat them? This question has repercussions for indigenous peoples and settlers alike. After all, indigenous groups fought over lands and places long before Europeans and others arrived. This is no excuse to justify the continued practices of European imperialism into the present and future, to be clear, but it does raise the historical question: whose places are these really? How does one come by ownership of a place by the terms of today’s property rights discourse and practices? Can one belong to the land rather than it belong to them? Is there a different framework of place if we rethink the very meaning and assumptions of ownership and property?

If we treat place with “Western” notions of property rights, there is the opportunity for economic remedy, to be sure, and that could be a good thing, but is it also a devil’s bargain? In that the compensation itself reproduces the very ideological conditions of the exploitation. When land is imagined as owned rather than stewarded, does this merely renew the colonial project? Perhaps the more daring move would be to upend and dismantle the ideological assumptions about land, property, and place. For that, the intellectual history of indigenous ideas of place might prove to be as important as economic redistribution of lands within the existing system of exploitative property rights. Alongside alternative approaches to property, land, and place found in other traditions, even subversive ones from the European context, one might discover a truly transformative way forward. The goal is not to revert ownership, but instead to convert to a more sustainable and just future.

Let me acknowledge—irony noted—that there are many who have studied these questions far more deeply than me. They have grappled with these matters and come up with critiques, ideas, possibilities, ongoing dilemmas. Mine are just one observers’ speculations on the stakes of land acknowledgments, the ways in which they function, their implications, and their potential to do harm or good.

It may ultimately matter less what land acknowledgments achieve than what they initiate. If they are spoken as preface rather than culmination, they might become something less perfunctory, more disquieting, but only if they announce that something must come next. Alone, they do nothing but administer reproach without consequences, and might be doing more damage for that. If they signal in more profound ways that what’s past is prologue, they might get us somewhere.

What are those steps once acknowledgment occurs? That is a question into which we must not land, but leap.

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