There is a new ritual that I have witnessed recently and perhaps now have participated in, called land acknowledgement. It usually occurs at the beginning of an event, especially those sponsored by a university or cultural organization, and involves naming the Native peoples who lived on the land where the event is taking place. For example, if I were holding an event at my home, I would probably acknowledge the Ute people and maybe the ancestral Puebloans, though the acknowledgement rarely goes back that far into pre-history. The reason to acknowledge the land is to recognize and identify those people who lived and died and shaped the land where we live and work and play today. While some find this ritual a way to start righting the wrongs of Native American conquest, I find it a bit inadequate. While I have nothing against recognizing our ancestors on the land, I believe it would be more effective if it helped to connect today’s residents to the land. Perhaps even acknowledge the land itself and its other residents, such as animals and plants.
I realize there is a big difference between my neighbors (I have more deer neighbors than people) and those found on the University of Arizona campus. But in the timeframe of land acknowledgment, there would be more animals and plants than people living in downtown Tucson. Even the Native Americans themselves are altering their land references. The Zuni mapping project is identifying places by their Zuni names not only for cultural reasons but to identify the natural resources of the place. For example, Ft. Wingate has a Zuni name that means Bear Springs, which is much more useful to the current Zuni residents as a potential water source than remembering a conquering military man.
If I were to do a land acknowledgement for my home, I would probably skip the address assigned to my house, as it links it to an imaginary county boundary and the post office that delivers our mail (a rather quaint relic in this time of mobile digital communication) and recognize some of the people who lived here before me. I live on what is known as the “Leslie Place,” which refers to the most recent settlers of this township. But who else to recognize?
Because the Utes and other people who moved across this landscape seasonally did not build permanent structures it’s difficult to confirm they were really here and deserving of acknowledgement. Same goes for the herds of deer, elk, and even buffalo that moved through this landscape. Should they be penalized because they lived here without leaving their mark on “my land”?
If I were to map my land, I would follow the waters and identify my home as located at the head of an intermittent creek that flows directly into the Dolores River. Not Cahone Creek, which flows west and eventually joins the San Juan River. Or as the place where the elk herd resides before the winter solstice but not long after. If I were hosting a gathering of plants instead of people, would we acknowledge this land as the place with the deep red soil where the Cahone bean grows?
I also wonder what I need to do to be acknowledged with this land. Something as intentional as burying my ancestors’ bones here or as inadvertent as losing an earring? Should you acknowledge the place where you were born or the place where the bones of your ancestors are scattered?
Personally, I would prefer to acknowledge the beauty of the land and perhaps that is what we are doing by acknowledging the Native peoples who lived in harmony with the land for generations. Like the Navajo acknowledge walking in beauty as living in balance with/on the land. Naming places that instruct us on how to identify and manage and enjoy a beautiful place would build a deeper connection to the land than a litany of mispronounced tribal names.
In keeping with my food theme in the column, I propose we acknowledge the plants and animals (both native and introduced) that grow well in the place such as Holly-wood, Doe Canyon, or Blueberry Hill. You get the idea. Although I think we don’t need any more Deer or Bear Creeks. I challenge you the next time you find yourself daydreaming through a formal land acknowledgment ceremony to enhance the list of people and cultures by adding some plants and animals and landforms that connect you to that place. May the beauty of the Dolores River inspire many future generations of people and animals and plants to live and grow and prosper in this place. Ho!
Carolyn Dunmire lives and gardens in Cahone, Colo. She placed first in the arts and entertainment/food criticism category in the recent Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies competition. (See article on Page 13.)