Land Acknowledgment? What Could Go Wrong?

At a recent (unnamed) store that is part of a larger company, I found myself standing in front of a sign that held a land acknowledgment.  Below it were a few items produced by Urban Native Era, an indigenous clothing brand.  Normally, I don’t advertise commercial products, but I’ll make an exception here. The Land Acknowledgment was for the Susquehannock People, a group that was living at this place at one time.  What struck me as curious was that only the Susquehannock were mentioned.  Are they the end all and be all for a Land Acknowledgment?

You can look up Land Acknowledgments in Wikipedia, which will tell you the what, but not the why.  There is some other on-line literature about Land Acknowledgments out there, but I will tender my own “why.”  The history of our country and of Pennsylvania is complicated.  Both have their roots in settler colonialism going back to William Penn and earlier.  We are collectively uncomfortable talking about that history, because it is a story about taking lands belonging to others, usually by treaty, often with little or no compensation; and worse, often with no honest communication of what those political acts meant to the Tribes whose lands were being taken.  Some of that lack of communication could be ascribed to the inherent confusion between two very different world views about land, but some of it seems to be merely convenience on the part of the settlers.

Our history tells us a lot about who we are today.  If we deceive ourselves about our history, we block that road to self-knowledge.  Most of us are currently getting a crash course in America’s history with regard to slavery.  Our being able to grapple with its consequences, including current systemic racism, depends on our being able to acknowledge that what happened happened.  Take the concept of “truth and reconciliation,” often coupled with a commission.  The order is important.  It is truth first, then reconciliation.  Without truth, without acknowledging the true history, there can be no self-understanding and therefore no reconciliation.

Getting to truth and reconciliation takes time and work.  You don’t click your heels three times and find that all is well.  We elected Obama and promptly decided that racism had ended.  Mission accomplished.  Land Acknowledgments are baby steps toward truth in history, literally the very least an organization can do to move the conversation toward a fuller discussion of our collective histories.   I think they should be encouraged, but only as a first step.  But if it is the only step, then it becomes performative.  If it is to be used as a first step to meaningfully excavate our histories and get to truth and ultimately reconciliation, some effort should be put into being accurate with that acknowledgment.  Again, the Internet offers us a smorgasbord of examples for specific instances, and some generic rules for creating a Land Acknowledgment.  Like any good reference book, the Internet is useful, but not complete.  People need to do their homework.

What are the ground rules for a Land Acknowledgment?  OK, it needs to point to Indigenous Peoples.  But which ones? If not all of them, which ones?  The above-referenced store had chosen the Susquehannock Peoples, having gone to a reputable web site that provides such information.  What we know about the Susquehannock is that they moved into South-central Pennsylvania around 1550 AD, having likely migrated from the upper Susquehanna River Drainage in what is now New York.  John Smith of Jamestown fame most likely met with members of the Tribe in 1608. Archaeology and history of the Susquehannock have them living near the Susquehanna River for the next 100 years.  By 1700, members of the Susquehannock had settled at Conestoga Town, living there until 1763, when the inhabitants of the town were massacred by the Paxton Boys.  OK, so Susquehannock Peoples were here. Check. Is the Land Acknowledgment complete and accurate? Are we done?

Another way to approach the question is in current government-to-government relations between Federally recognized Tribes and the US government.  Tribal consultation is a key element of Section 106 consultation, and it the responsibility of the Federal Agency to figure out which Tribes may have interest in a Federal Undertaking.  PennDOT/FHWA has accumulated a list of 8 Tribes that have ancestral interest in this area on which the store sits, including members of Shawnee, Cayuga, Delaware, and Tuscarora descent.  As these groups were here, do we not also acknowledge them?  

The full list of Federally-recognized Tribes is below:

Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma
Cayuga Nation 
Delaware Nation, Oklahoma 
Delaware Tribe of Indians 
Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma 
Seneca-Cayuga Nation 
Shawnee Tribe 
Tuscarora Nation

A third way to approach the question is to go back to the original land transfer.  On October 11, 1736, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora Chiefs transferred this land to John Penn, Thomas Penn, and Richard Penn, proprietors of Colonial Pennsylvania.  The specific wording of this deeding made it clear this was a no holds barred transfer of land:

…and therefore do acquit & forever discharge the said proprietaries, their heirs, successors & assigns…

…have given, granted, bargained sold Released and Confirmed, and by these presents Do, and every of them doth give, grant, Bargain, sell, release and Confirm unto said proprietaries…

…And all the Right, Title, Interest property claim, and demand whatsoever… TO HAVE & TO HOLD the said River Sasquehannah, and the Lands lying on both sides thereof, and the Islands therein contained, hereditaments and premises hereby granted and Released or mentioned, or intended to be hereby granted and Released, and every part and parcel thereof, with their & every of their Appurtenances…

These lands were acquired by the proprietors. The language of the deed was clearly written by lawyers, and not Tribal lawyers.

Payment for these lands consisted of:

I don’t want to undertake a 12-days of Christmas accounting, but considering that perhaps 2,500,000 acres were transferred (based on a visual of the Genealogical Map, in comparison to the 1,200,000 acres of the Walking Purchase), it doesn’t seem the payment balanced the transaction.  Does the (approx.) £1,700,000 worth of the land in 1736 balance the 1736 prices of the above trade goods? The biggest single ticket item, the guns, might have cost around £3 each, or £135. A hundred hatchets at 2 shillings per would run £10, and so forth.

As understood by the Penns, it was a land transfer.  Considering this area was not inhabited by any of the 5 Tribes (Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora) at the time, were they ceding lands that they did not occupy, or taking trade gifts from the Penns?  Susquehannocks are not mentioned in the deed.  Should a Land Acknowledgment include these 5 Nations, especially as this particular land deed is the official one? Should it exclude the Susquehannock Peoples?  Does it change the specifics of the Land Acknowledgment, from land occupied by to land controlled by, to a misunderstanding, to what?

We could go on, but I think what we have so far is a store (perhaps) trying to do the right thing, going to the Internet, and finding a reputable website whose query returned the Susquehannock People to the question of what Indigenous Tribes were present.  There are no more Susquehannock People to talk with about this Land Acknowledgment. Local settlers massacred them 250 years ago.  

The actual history is much more complicated.  And, we haven’t even gotten into pre-Contact Tribes that occupied this area for thousands of years, such as Shenks Ferry or Clemson Island Cultures.  What does seem clear is that acknowledging only the Susquehannock Peoples flattens the story to the point where the act of acknowledgment appears incomplete and possibly performative.  If this is an effort to start a discussion of the truth of that location, they have just begun to begin. I would invite said company to do more work to enrich the actual history of their store location, and share that story.  They could certainly start by reaching out to all 8 Tribes who have already made their Land Acknowledgment.  Baby steps can matter.

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