Land recognition & decolonizing UMBC

This blogpost was a collaborative effort between all members of the Women’s Center staff team. A majority of this post was written by student staff members.

Today is Indigenous People’s Day. Some may continue to claim this as “Columbus Day” but to celebrate Columbus is to celebrate colonialism, mass genocide, racism, and the (both historic and modern) oppression of Native Americans and all of the indigenous people.

To honor Indigenous People’s Day and the community it centers, the Women’s Center is sharing how we try to honor and acknowledge the Indigenous roots of our area, the land that UMBC occupies, as well as the long history of universities benefitting from the violent seizure of Native lands. 

In doing so, we would like to start by sharing the land recognition statement that we use (with thank yous to the Office of Equity and Inclusion, Dresher Center, and Dr. Ashley Minner from American Studies for sharing the newly official* land recognition statement with us, as well):

UMBC was established upon the land of the Piscataway and Susquehannock peoples. Susquehannocks ceded this land and, over time, citizens of many more Indigenous nations have come to reside in this region. 

For those residing in the area: this is not our land; we occupy it. Colonialism has long undergirded systemic violence faced by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

We humbly offer our respects to all past, present, and future indigenous people connected to this place.

*as this blog was being written, UMBC released an official land recognition statement that is linked here

Full disclosure: as the Women’s Center has learned more about Indigenous peoples, our land recognition statement evolves. We also recognize that a simple statement is not enough. Land recognition can simply be a performative step of solidarity, so that is why we seek to learn and build on this work. And also why we hope you’ll read on.

What is land recognition and why is it important?

A land recognition is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as the traditional stewards of a region. It recognizes the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous people and their traditional territories. 

Recognizing the land where we reside is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on. It’s a process of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial (in spite of the notion that Indigenous people are a purely historical population/that Native Americans “don’t exist”). Land recognition is also a way of respecting Indigenous people’s inherent kinship beliefs when it comes to the land as these beliefs were restricted and stigmatized for so long.

Ultimately, land recognition is a process of:

  • addressing invisibility
  • honoring Indigenous peoples
  • raising critical consciousness
  • building affinity to create alliances                    

How have universities benefitted from the expulsion and exploitation of Indigenous peoples?

In order to explain how specifically universities have benefitted from colonialism, we look to the 19th century and the oft lionized President Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which freely distributed “public domain lands” (scare quotes explained below) to universities as seed capital for the creation of “land-grant universities” or LGUs (more appropriately called, “land-GRAB universities”). These lands then raised funds for fledgling colleges, or LGUs, across the nation. The land gifted through the Morrill Act was land seized or ceded by Native Americans to the US government. Although many treaties were created in order to legally and officially exchange land ownership, almost all of these treaties were products of coercion and exploitation of the continued systemic degradation of Indigenous people.

Text from Morrill Act and data from LandGrabU.org

Once the government gifted these land parcels to institutions of higher education, the lands were then either sold to speculators to generate university endowments or universities became speculators themselves on the lands given to them. 

All told, the land-grabs, when adjusted for inflation, were worth about half a billion dollars. 

Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, “Land-Grab Universities,” High Country News (2020)

In other words, it’s not enough to recognize the land that universities are built on; we must also recognize the land from which universities build a significant profit. In fact, the grants were as big or bigger than major cities, and were often located hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their beneficiaries (this is exemplified by our very own University of Maryland; more below). 

Campuses in the US are inherently built on stolen land, but they are also built by stolen land. 

To see how your college or university directly benefits from land grabs, you can see Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone’s interactive map of the United States and the way the Morrill Act parceled away Indigenous lands.

A university to highlight (in the case of the University System of Maryland) would be the University of Maryland, which, as you can see via Lee and Ahtone’s data, benefitted from 1,456 Indigenous land parcels across the US totaling 202,971 acres.

It can be difficult to imagine how big that much land is, so in terms universities might particularly appreciate that’s:

  • 156,132 football fields
  • 37,587 Capital One Fields (with a combined capacity of 37,587,222 people social distancing at 5 square feet)
  • 152 UMD College Park campuses 
  • 406 UMBC campuses
  • 3.5 Baltimores

Tribal nations who originated on this violently ceded land include the Chippewa, Ottawa, Kansas, Great and Little Osage, Oto, Missouri, Sioux (Wahpeton and Sisseton Band), Sioux (Medewakanton and Wahpekuta), Chippewa of the Mississippi and Lake Superior, and the Omaha.

Are land recognitions enough?

No.

As we said at the top, land recognition, if not backed by research and a commitment to learning, is performative activism at best. So… what can we do?

Well, we can’t fix the history of land-grab universities. Unless we not only give back stolen land (land which is now used for grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, entire neighborhoods, baseball stadiums, and cemeteries among other things), but commit to reparations, we can’t fix anything. As Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy is quoted: “The more work that we do with decolonization and reconciliation, the more you start to realize there is no reconciliation without the return of stolen land.”

The more work that we do with decolonization and reconciliation, the more you start to realize there is no reconciliation without the return of stolen land.

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

The first step to doing better, is by acknowledging and understanding this history. This is a teeny tiny step, but it’s a step. The information above is by no means complete and it is also mostly from the two-year reporting of Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone of High Country News. You should read the full article here.

Beyond reading and learning (many more resources below), the Women’s Center student staff has also generated some good ideas that we’re ready and willing to share.

Suggestions for going beyond land recognitions

For UMBC in particular:

  • Conduct outreach toward the Piscataway Conoy tribe through their Tribal Council and discuss how to make a more readily available path to higher education for those who we owe our campus to 
  • More research on UMBC’s Indigenous student populations, especially in differentiating American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN), Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI), and other Indigenous students
  • Address the alienation Indigenous students may feel rather than simply asking them to participate in “diversity” initiatives. 
  • Implement a Land Recognition policy for all school-funded events
  • Include a Land Recognition on all UMBC affiliated websites (we are one step closer as of today with an official UMBC land recognition statement)
  • Whenever possible, discuss how programming, curriculum may relate to Indigenous people and their history and interests
  • Structure classes to allow students to explore non-normative pedagogies such as those informed by Indigenous cultures and scholars
  • Redirect profits made from Indigenous land to supporting the education of indigenous students
  • Going beyond awareness of the injustice and actually doing work to challenge the injustice. This means working with the Piscataway Conoy Tribal Council to understand their specific wishes on this. 
  • Work with offices like Initiatives for Identity, Inclusion, and Belonging (I3B) and/or the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) to create intentional space for Indigenous identifying students on UMBC’s campus
  • Support, amplify, and create platforms for Indigenous voices
  • Create large-scale events, campaigns celebrating Indigenous People’s Day
  • Highlight and encourage research that identifies the inequities Indigenous students face 

Generally speaking

  • Research! Get your stories from Indian Country Today, High Country News, Native Lens, or other Indigenous media platforms
  • Learn about Indigenous studies through more than just a historical lens
  • Whenever possible, discuss how programming, curriculum may relate to Indigenous people and their history and interests
  • Structure classes to allow students to explore non-canonical pedagogies such as those informed by Indigenous cultures and scholars
  • Redirect profits made from Indigenous land to supporting the education of indigenous students
  • Ask Indigenous students what they need to be best supported 
  • Create more programming that specifically centers Indigineity 
  • Support Indigenous organizations by donating your time and/or money
  • Support Indigenous-led grassroots change movements and campaigns
  • Commit to returning land (local, state, federal governments around the world are currently returning land to Indigenous people)
  • Support, amplify, and create platforms for Indigenous voices
  • Create large-scale events, campaigns celebrating events like Indigenous People’s Day and National Native American Heritage Month (coming in November!!)

Resources:

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