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Carleton adopts land acknowledgement drafted by the City of Northfield

“Northfield was founded in 1855 —  8 years before Minnesota exiled Dakota people from the state and during a period when coercive and sometimes deceitful treaties dispossessed Dakota people of nearly all of their homelands. Carleton was founded 3 years after Dakota people were exiled; St. Olaf was founded 11 years after.” — Professor Meredith McCoy, from a slide in her presentation for the Human Rights Commission  

On September 14, at Carleton’s virtual Opening Convocation, President Steven Poskanzer welcomed back the campus community and kicked off the academic year with a brief speech.

“I’d like to begin with an acknowledgement of the land on which Carleton stands,” Poskanzer said. “Over the course of the past year and a half, a task force in Northfield, led by the City’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) and with active participation from both Carleton and St. Olaf, has been working to create a land acknowledgement statement for the city and its major institutions and community groups. Carleton endorses this effort as well as the proposed statement that we now intend to use on public occasions such as this, which reads as follows.”

Poskanzer then launched into the statement itself: “We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute band of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who’ve stewarded the land through the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed to the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.” 

Poskanzer continued to read the long version of a statement developed by the HRC, the same group behind Northfield City Council’s approval of a resolution designating October 8 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Recently, the commission asked Professor Meredith McCoy to present on the key aspects of land acknowledgements for the City of Northfield.

McCoy started off with a slide defining what a land acknowledgement is: “A formal statement from a city, province, state, institution of higher education, or other cultural institution that affirms and recognizes the Indigenous peoples of a particular place and their historic, ongoing, and future relationships with those lands and waters.” 

She mentioned that land acknowledgements have become an increasingly common practice in higher education—especially in Canada, which she suggests can serve as a guide. “One of the critiques that used to come up over and over again in Canada is that these become sort of performative statements, where people feel that by standing up and saying their land acknowledgement they’ve now checked all the boxes,” she said.

McCoy highlighted the benefits of land acknowledgements done well: they allow us to ground ourselves in a sense of respect at the beginning of a meeting or gathering, give us a common language around a shared history, underscore that colonialism is not confined to the past and prompt us to begin doing the work of repairing relationships with the Indigenous nations whose lands we are occupying. 

When The Carletonian spoke with her a week after her presentation, she added, “I think there is a fear that somehow building relationships with Indigenous people is different, is unknowable. But I would just ask people to reflect on how you become a good friend or a good neighbor to anyone.”

McCoy continued, “You support that person in their priorities, you show up when they need you to show up, you find ways to amplify their voice when they need their voice amplified, you take a backseat when they need you to take a backseat.” 

She emphasized that “strong land acknowledgements need to think about this process of strengthening and sustaining relationships with native nations” and “should push us to tangible action.”

On campus, Alle Brown-Law ’21, a Fellow with Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), had begun thinking about the possibility of a Carleton land acknowledgement last fall. After hearing Karen Diver, the keynote speaker for the 2019 Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability (UMACS) conference, start her presentation with a land acknowledgement, Brown-Law  began working on an acknowledgement for the CCCE. 

 “At first I had these big, big plans. I was like, ‘I’m going to make a land acknowledgement for the whole school, and as an institution we’re going to make a land acknowledgement.’ And I quickly realized that was a very big thing to say, because if Carleton does anything as an institution, it has to go through so many layers of authority,” Brown-Law said.

Drafting a land acknowledgement for the CCCE “felt a little bit more tangible and reachable,” Brown-Law said. “And I thought, okay, if our office has a land acknowledgement, then maybe we can use this as motivation with which to go forward to the Deans of the College and [President Poskanzer] and all these people and say ‘hey, we think this is an important thing.’”

Around the same time the CCCE was drafting their acknowledgement, the HRC was also working on a land acknowledgement of their own, that they then presented to the Northfield City Council.

Brown-Law went to the hearing and remembers it being a pretty even split between whether the City Council liked it or not. She recounted, “They kind of tabled it and said, ‘we’re going to send it back to the HRC and ask them to work on it a little bit more and address some of these issues that we have with it.’”

The key issue was the statement of ongoing harm. “There were a few council members who were very adamant that that shouldn’t be part of the statement,” Brown-Law said.  She added, “It feels like an attack, right? For some people it’s like, ‘that’s not my fault.’” McCoy also noted that people generally bristled at the idea of ongoing injustices.  

When COVID-19 hit Northfield in mid-March and students were sent home, the Northfield City Council still had yet to approve the statement. However, over the summer, the Tuesday Group—the senior leadership team under the Office of the President at Carleton—decided to endorse the acknowledgement in order to have it available to begin using this fall, when President Poskanzer was to deliver it at Opening Convocation.   

For Brown-Law, the land acknowledgement was an unexpected start to convocation. “You could ask my housemates; I was in a pure state of shock. I was so, so, so surprised because he also said the full statement. He said ‘ongoing injustices.’ So, it wasn’t just a land acknowledgement, he read the whole city-drafted statement.” 

Andrew Farias ’21, CSA president, included the land acknowledgement in his presidential platform last year. He too was surprised by the announcement. Farias recently sent out an email to connect many of the people who have been involved in discussing the land acknowledgement on campus. 

“With President Poskanzer beginning Fall Term Opening Convocation with a land acknowledgement, I really saw this as an opportunity to reignite some of the conversations people across the campus have been having over the past several years,” Farias said.

The text of the acknowledgement has not yet been formally publicized by Carleton, but it has already been added to the St. Olaf website, on their “History and Heritage” page. The St. Olaf Student Government Association formally adopted the statement on April 28.

Joe Hargis, the associate vice president for External Relations and director of College Communications at Carleton, noted that the acknowledgement “will be the official statement we will use at events such as Opening Convocation and Commencement,” and that the campus community is free to use it as well. He added that they are “in the process of creating a webpage that will include the statement and additional information about land acknowledgements.”

In the coming months, events in Northfield and on campus will parallel this progress. On November 10, the HRC will present the updated statement to the City Council for approval. Additionally, the “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit on the 1851 Dakota Land Cession Treaties will open at the Perlman Teaching Museum next fall. 

The opening of this exhibit was originally slated to coincide with this year’s Opening Convocation, but was pushed due to COVID-19. Professor Michael McNally, who helped review the land acknowledgement this past summer, said “we made the decision that we would do a better job if we waited until it was all in person next year, to have a bigger celebration.” 

As he finished reading the land acknowledgement at Opening Convocation, Poskanzer said, “We look forward to the [“Why Treaties Matter”] exhibit, and to fostering greater understanding of and stronger ties with the Dakota people on the land we currently call Northfield. As the land acknowledgement statement decrees, it is both necessary and right to recognize and attempt to rectify legacies of ongoing injustice.”

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