The Process of Memphis’s Land Acknowledgement: Part 1

Editors note: I relocated this information from a previous page after I realized I needed to have a page with links and general information about what a land acknowledgement is and why we use them.

Originally posted 5-Feb 2019, reposted as it’s own page on 23-July 2019

A lot has been written about the use of territorial acknowledgments. Even when questioning their effectiveness most people still agree that land acknowledgment is a good starting place for honoring the process of truth and reconciliation. The problem is when territorial acknowledgments are both the starting and finishing line for what should be an ongoing process of decolonization and reconciliation.

One of the first steps for this project was to get situated in the history of the land. From there, we wanted to create something that could be shared with others, something that oriented every meeting of minds to our goals. To that end, territorial acknowledgement followed by a self-location exercise (the subject for the next entry) are our most useful and immediately implementable tools.

There are several places to find more information regarding how to create a territorial acknowledgement for your organization. The US Department of Arts and Culture , a grassroots activist movement, recommends a four step plan that might be the most accessible, and what follows here is amended from their recommendations. I encourage anyone interested to download the entire guide, as this is not meant to substitute for it in any way. But since this is a blog about processes, I’ve decided to list the process by which we’re working on this acknowledgment.

Step 1: Identify the traditional inhabitants of the lands you are on now. 

We recognize that we are on Chickasaw territory. This map is a useful tool for identifying Native land in North America.

This land was acquired by the United States through a treaty known as the Jackson Treaty, the Jackson Purchase, and/or the Chickasaw Treaty. I am using the word “acquired” deliberately. There is much to study about the transaction between Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby (with John Overton and James Winchester as well) on behalf of the US and  Levi and George Colbert, Chinubby, and Tishomingo on behalf of the Chickasaw. One consistency across both stories is that Jackson told the Chickasaw that their options were 1.) sign a treaty now or 2.) be forced off the land by the US without compensation. By any measure of the imagination, that is coercion. However, this is an aspect of Memphis history still under research for the purposes of this project, so the word “acquired” remains for the moment.

Whether or not to incorporate the treaty into the acknowledgment is another question. On the one hand, the circumstances surrounding it suggest that it was not an actual agreement between two sovereign nations, but rather one nation acquiescing to another in hopes that it would preserve them. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve the additional legitimacy that inclusion would provide, nor should Andrew Jackson, architect o the Indian Removal Act, be in such a prominent place in what might be the public’s first (and perhaps only) engagement with Native history.  On the other, does not discussing the treaty hurt the spirit of the acknowledgement, and are we squandering an opportunity for educating others?

Step 2: Articulate the acknowledgement in a formal statement that can be used by others

We have a draft that I am happy to share upon request, but until we hear from the Chickasaw Nation regarding the acknowledgment, we won’t be publishing it.

In addition to my question about the treaty, I also wonder about incorporating other populations touched by colonialism?  Should all the peoples (native, settler, voluntary, involuntary) be acknowledged, even generally? This region was violently depopulated (ethnic cleansing) to make way for cotton plantations, and many people were brought into the area by force to work on the land. People continue to travel through Memphis for a variety of reasons. Decolonization is a process that affects all of us, and the University of Memphis is an institution with broad reach.

Step 3: Deliver this to the appropriate parties

To whom? To the president? The board? Staff and Faculty Senate? I’d like to get this completed and implemented sooner than later, but it could also be a part of Memphis’s bicentennial, and part of our push to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and decolonizing Thanksgiving–as starting points.

Step 4: Beyond Acknowledgment–because this isn’t where things end?

How do we proceed, after agreeing to these terms? How does our moment of self-location translate into what kinds of actions we believe we can now engage in?

Shana Dion, assistant dean of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, also emphasizes that these steps must be taken meaningfully, and in conversation with others. She also emphasizes the importance of practice. Practice with unfamiliar terms. With unfamiliar phrasing. But also, studies show us that changing how we do things, and practicing those new methods, can become habits. Through repetition and practice we can retrain our brains to accommodate new modes of thinking and situating.

5 thoughts on “The Process of Memphis’s Land Acknowledgement: Part 1”

  1. Where are we? Senate for the Staff and the Faculty? I would really like to get this finished up and put into action as soon as possible, but it could waffle game also be a part of Memphis’s bicentennial, and part of our push to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and part of our push to decolonize Thanksgiving – all of which could serve as starting points.

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