While widely celebrated as a progressive step, three enrolled tribal members affiliated with the University of Montana question the effectiveness of land acknowledgements at UM.
Chris La Tray, an adjunct instructor teaching storytelling at UM this semester; Salena Beaumont Hill, the director of inclusive excellence at UM; and Heather Cahoon, an associate professor of tribal governance and policy all agree that land acknowledgements increasingly given at the start of events at UM do not go far enough.
“I don’t think we should do land acknowledgements,” said La Tray, a Metis and Little Shell member who has written about the topic on his subscriber-funded newsletter, “An Irritable Metis.”
He questioned the intention of having a land acknowledgement.
“Why are they doing it?” La Tray said. “Because to me, as a native person, it’s like, ‘yes, this thing used to be yours, it’s not anymore, sorry!’”
The practice typically involves meeting organizers, speakers, announcers and dignitaries acknowledging that they are on Indigenous land, sometimes naming specific tribes as the original residents.
The Associated students at the University of Montana recently enacted its own land acknowledgement.
UM’s land acknowledgment reads “The University of Montana acknowledges that we are in the aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people. Today, we honor the path they have always shown us in caring for this place for the generations to come."
Beaumont Hill, a member of the Apsáalooke from the Crow Nation, said that, at first, she had a positive impression of land acknowledgments and appreciated their existence in multiple organizations on campus. After a while, however, Beaumont Hill started to see the acknowledgments in a different light.
“As time went on, and then I took my role as the director of inclusive excellence, there was talk about things being performative … because you just start reading a statement, and there’s no full understanding behind it. They’re just words after a while,” Beaumont Hill said.
Cahoon, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, agreed with Beaumont Hill’s critique, stating land acknowledgments’ usefulness starts and ends at helping people understand the colonial context of the spaces they occupy.
La Tray, however, didn’t recognize the practices’ usefulness. “I don’t see any real honorable recognition in a land acknowledgment. It’s just a box people check to make it look like their version of ‘thoughts and prayers.’”
Despite his strong opinions, La Tray acknowledges that no one, including him, represents all Indigenous voices on the subject, because no one can do that.
“I’m just one perspective,” La Tray said.
“It’s not like we have this monolithic opinion about how the culture at large relates back to our individual cultures,”La Tray does not want to paint all of UM as performative when it comes to recognizing Indigenous students and contributions. He said it does better than most universities in creating welcoming spaces for Indigenous students.
“I just don’t know what land acknowledgments do to accomplish that,” La Tray said.
The three talked about a problem arising when land acknowledgements become not only the start, but the end of the recognition and attempts at reparation.
“I think as a collective the University could be doing more,” Hill said, “but I think, individually, within departments, within student groups, within different efforts that are around campus I think those things are happening, but we’re not highlighting them.”
As more Indigenous students enroll at the University, not all are qualifying for the Native American Indian Tuition Waiver, something Hill thinks should be addressed.
O’Shay Birdinground, a member of the Apsaalooké tribe and a sophomore studying political science at UM, also wants to see more tuition waivers coming from individual programs for Indigenous students at UM.
“It’s not necessarily on a university system level … it’s individual colleges that are taking the initiative in prioritizing Native American students,” Birdinground said. “That’s something I would like this university to do, given that it does have one of the biggest native American populations in the country.”