Campus & Community

Transformation and Action: The Importance of Meaningful Land Acknowledgments

Close-up of "Simmons" etched into the Main College Building

Recently, there have been efforts on college campuses to acknowledge the Indigenous land many campuses reside on. Specifically, land acknowledgments have proliferated. Unfortunately, much of the acknowledgment has been only in name. In fact, some Indigenous faculty have expressed regret for their involvement in developing such acknowledgments. According to Two-Spirit Scholar and Activist Harlan Pruden, there are many reasons to acknowledge land: 

Why do we acknowledge land?

  • Offer recognition and respect.
  • Counter the “doctrine of discovery” with the true story of the people who were already here.
  • Create a broader public awareness of the history that has led to this moment.
  • Begin to repair relationships with Indigenous communities, people and with the land.

As Senior Vice President, I thought it was important for us at Simmons to engage this question thoughtfully. Back in the fall of 2018, Simmons hosted a screening of the film Dawnland. Dawnland tells the story of how indigenous children of Maine were taken from their families through false claims of neglect or abuse by the child welfare system. This film depicts the devastating impact of these removals on the children and their families.

Following the showing of Dawnland, I asked the producer and director of the film what an institution like Simmons could do to acknowledge the history of the land our university resides on.  The producer suggested the following land acknowledgment:

"All teaching and learning take place on Indigenous Lands. I am located on Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Massachusett land in 'Ckuwaponakik,' now called New England. The word means the land of the people where the sun first looks our way."

In addition, I spent time reading articles and watching videos that spoke to the complications of land acknowledgments. Too often, these acknowledgments are empty and meaningless. They feel good to the conference or meeting organizers but do little to address the underlying biases and systematic historical oppression suffered by Indigenous peoples — especially when it comes to scholarship, curriculum, and research. 

There are many ways to effectively and meaningfully acknowledge land. At Simmons, we have invested in bringing indigenous organizations, activists, and scholars to campus to educate the community on indigenous issues. Led by the college deans, faculty members across the university are engaged in work to ensure the incorporation of diverse perspectives in the Simmons curriculum and through pedagogy.

Some additional examples of a more social justice orientation and activist-oriented approach to land acknowledgments include:

  • ensure a percentage of proceeds or resources of events are set aside to support indigenous students or organizations
  • establish scholarships or access to scholarships for prospective students from indigenous communities
  • donate/invest in pro-indigenous organizations

In October 2019, OCIE invited Harlan Pruden to speak about intersectionality. As an Indigenous scholar and activist, Harlan Pruden had this advice for us:

"Universities can and should do more than a checkbox in the list of logistics for a meeting. Land acknowledgment should not be a feel-good moment, it should be a moment of transformation and action."

It is my hope that we can continue engaging the question of land acknowledgments thoughtfully at Simmons.

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Debra Pérez, Senior Vice President of Organizational Culture, Inclusion & Equity