What's Wrong With Official Indigenous Territorial Acknowledgements?

September 2018

At universities today, it is becoming common for individuals to recognize indigenous traditional territories in their emails, course outlines, and presentations. This is presumably because it is believed to be an important way to achieve “reconciliation” between indigenous and non-indigenous people. By stating that Mount Royal University (MRU) “resides on the traditional lands of the Niitsitapi, Blackfoot Confederacy and the peoples of Treaty 7, which include the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations”, for example, it is argued that we can take the first step in “decolonization”.

It’s one thing for individuals to include statements of recognition in their private work, but now they are also being used in connection with official university business. It is assumed that there is widespread agreement with making these declarations, when this has not been demonstrated. In fact, advocates are so sure of their position that there has been no attempt to show why these declarations should be made. The Executive Committee of General Faculties Council of MRU, for example, recently decided to impose a territorial acknowledgement on the body because, in the words of the President David Docherty, it was “the right thing to do”.

This is a very dangerous way to proceed for two reasons. The first is that making any political statement on behalf of a university is entering into difficult territory because this is a place where people come together to discuss what our values should be. To presume that all members of a university share a political position is to disregard that the university is a community of scholars who are supposed to follow arguments and evidence. Making dictates that all should accept a particular political statement is an anti-intellectual move that should be resisted at a university.

Second, formal statements about acknowledging indigenous traditional territories is particularly disturbing, as this has not been subjected to any critical analysis. It is not even clear what adopting such declarations mean. Are they just symbolic intimations that mean very little – a public relations exercise to make it appear that administrators, staff and faculty are concerned about indigenous marginalization? Or, are they intent on actually responding to what indigenous activists are demanding? If it is the latter, and not the former, we should analyze how these declarations are perceived by indigenous proponents and see if we are in agreement with these expectations. For, if we are not in agreement, the declarations will be resented as a manipulative “hollow gesture” intent on making indigenous people complicit in their own oppression.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) “Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples & Traditional Territory” maintains that “[a]cknowledging territory shows recognition of and respect for Aboriginal Peoples”, which is supposedly essential for “establishing healthy, reciprocal relations”. It is also noted, however, that declarations should be embraced by those who utter them, and not just be repeated unthinkingly, as this is obviously patronizing. According to CAUT, declarations should not be “made before getting on with the ‘real business’ of the meeting; they must be understood as a vital part of the business”. How, therefore, are declarations intended to serve this purpose at universities?

Although CAUT does not provide much guidance on this, it does refer readers to an article – “Unceded Territory” in Megaphone Magazine – so that they can gain a better understanding of “what meaningfully acknowledging First Peoples entails”. The article outlines a number of possible interpretations of territorial acknowledgements. In addition to the vague “recognition” and “respect” rationale, noted above, there is the contention that they are “an admission that the land we stand on belongs to those who lived here before colonization…”. One indigenous activist, Audrey Siegl, is even quoted as stating that she perceives acknowledgements as being “tokenism” and “empty words” designed to “pacify” since they don’t involve consulting with indigenous peoples on property sales within their territories. “Acknowledging traditional territory”, in her view, is a recognition that the land was illegally obtained, implying that compensation is owed to the original inhabitants. Sarah Hunt, an indigenous professor at UBC, argues in the article that acknowledgements should be about “settlers on this land figur[ing] out what their responsibilities are” and their “obligations to the people who first inhabited this land…”. Non-indigenous people should be thinking about how they can be a “good guest”, according to Hunt, which includes “support[ing] existing local struggles” and “indigenous self determination in the longer term…”.

These various interpretations raise a number of concerns for post-secondary institutions. First of all, it should be recognized that the declarations are not just assertions of fact; they are political statements that make assumptions about how indigenous and non-indigenous people should relate to one another. They encourage people to see things in terms of “original inhabitants” versus “settlers”. “Settlers”, who sometimes have been in an area longer than the designated “original inhabitants”, are supposed to be thankful for being allowed to be a “guest” on the territory, and should act accordingly. In a university this is a cause for concern because it encourages aboriginal people to oppose the airing of views that are perceived to indicate that one is not an “ally”. This is an anti-intellectual stance that goes against the commonly held Enlightenment view that the university is a public space where all people come together, as equals and without consideration of their ethnic background, to exchange ideas and pursue the truth.

Some members of the university community also will have political problems with the land acknowledgements if they don’t think the most important variable in human conflicts is original occupancy of land. Socialists, for example, would argue that labour is the important variable, as they assume that the primary source of conflict in society is between those who own the means of production and non-owners who are forced into an exploitative relationship to earn their livelihood. If we are going to recognize anyone, they would argue, it is the construction, factory and maintenance workers who devoted the labour that made Mount Royal University possible. The contention that the land “belongs” to indigenous people seems to indicate that indigenous people “own” various resources for which non-indigenous workers are obliged to pay rent. Socialists would oppose this argument on the basis that they think we should publicly own resources and then use the surplus generated for socially beneficial purposes. Indigenous people, for example, use all sorts of services, just like other Canadians, and the provision of them necessitates a reliance on the productive activities of others. Furthermore, there are significant divisions between wealthy indigenous elites and the marginalized members of indigenous communities. The “original landowners” designation obscures these political realities and entrenches the power of indigenous privilege-seekers.

Besides, it is widely recognized that many non-indigenous ethnic groups encountered terribly oppressive conditions on these lands. Asian people, for example, were brought to Canada as cheap labour. In building a particularly treacherous section of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Calgary and Vancouver, thousands of these workers died. Even today, non-indigenous visible minorities – cleaners who often don’t even belong to a union – are the most exploited members of a university. The making of political statements that single out indigenous groups as specially oppressed raises questions about why others are being ignored.

It is also important to consider that indigenous people often moved to various areas in what is now Canada pushing other indigenous groups out, and acknowledgements of territory gloss over this complicated history. For example, “Blackfoot Confederacy” is used as an ahistorical term in the various declarations at MRU. The Blackfoot Confederacy, however, originally included a group – the Gros Ventre – that was pushed into the United States by its more powerful indigenous enemies. Similarly, in the Arctic, the Thule exterminated the Dorset. To talk about “traditional territories” is to distort our understanding of history. We can object to these circumstances now, but the only way to come up with a just solution is for all of us to figure out democratically what should be produced and how it should be distributed.

Advocates for territorial acknowledgements assume that public recognition – and presumably the legal wrangling and eventual payments that will be justified on this basis – will be beneficial for aboriginal peoples. This, however, is a questionable assumption of “neotribal rentierism” – the particular form of production, ownership and distribution demanded by indigenous activists and their “allies”. Neotribal rentierism in this country emerged in the 1970s when lawyers and consultants working for indigenous organizations convinced governments to offload the responsibility for the indigenous population in what was called “nation-to-nation” relationships. The incorrect use of the word “nation” lent credence to the idea that small, isolated and dependent kinship groups could develop an “economic base”, form civic political institutions and take over responsibility for education, health and housing. Transfers were justified on this basis, and then circulated unequally within stratified indigenous groups (neotribes). The notion that indigenous people are the “original occupants”/”owners” of the land is the main legal strategy for justifying these transfers.

The idea that indigenous people are “landowners” who should receive various transfers (“rent”) on this basis, however, acts as a justification for the continuing isolation and marginalization of many indigenous people. A focus on “land”, rather than encouraging participation in economic processes, legitimizes indigenous ties to unviable areas and continues dependency on productive members of society. It leads indigenous people to see themselves as separate groups with special grievances that must be continuously atoned for, preventing any common basis for collective struggle against oppression. In addition, a large proportion of the transfers that are obtained are diverted to lawyers and privileged segments of the indigenous population. This means that even if infusions of large amounts of money would be helpful to uneducated and marginalized indigenous people, this money will not be going to those who need it most.

Although there are some people in universities who think that settler-indigenous relations are the way to view politics, I suspect that many will just shrug their shoulders and say “what’s the harm?”. The harm is that this is an anti-intellectual attitude that is not treating indigenous people as equals. Well-intentioned people are just going through the motions without thinking through what this means, and what the implications will be. This prevents honest engagement with indigenous people as contributors to actual conversations at the university. Indigenous people should not be patted on the head and used as official mascots affirming non-indigenous virtue.

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with individuals making political statements recognizing indigenous peoples’ traditional territory. It is a mistake, however, for a university to make official declarations that assume that all faculty, staff and students agree with these pronouncements. If universities are going to make these statements, they should expect that dissenters will also publicly oppose these assertions when declarations are made on their behalf. By leaving these declarations up to individuals, honest positions, rather than coerced hollow gestures, can be expressed.