This is the first article in our new Beyond Land Acknowledgment series. Read our thoughts on Indigenous land acknowledgment and why we created this series here.
In our recent reflection on land acknowledgment, we wrote, “If you’re contemplating writing a statement, we encourage you to commit the bulk of your writing time to outlining the concrete ways that you plan to support Indigenous communities into the future.” Before creating an action plan to support Indigenous people and nations, however, it’s important to analyze what you’re already doing. Are any of your current behaviors causing harm to Indian Country? If so, it’s possible to change your habits to prevent future damage.
We’ve outlined a few starting points for carrying out a self-assessment to consider the impact of your actions. We encourage you to revisit these questions and also devise additional questions for yourself throughout your journey to work in solidarity with Native nations.
Are you appropriating Native culture?
Cultural appropriation is a form of modern-day colonization and oppression that directly harms Indigenous communities. It causes confusion for Indigenous people seeking to learn about their culture and identities. If you’re looking to take meaningful action to support Indigenous communities, it’s important to first examine whether you’re inadvertently appropriating Native culture and causing harm.
To help you do this, let’s first start by defining cultural appropriation. We love author Maisha Johnson’s definition: “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Cultural appropriation involves profit, too. Members of the dominant culture almost always have the ability to profit off of what they’ve stolen, providing no compensation to those from oppressed cultures.
Are you hiring Native artists and entrepreneurs?
If you regularly contract with creatives and entrepreneurs, take a look at your hiring history. Have you hired any Native contractors in the past? More broadly, how about Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) contractors? Our unconscious biases impact the hiring decisions we make. We tend to hire people who look like us and remind us of ourselves. Are you guilty of this?
If your contractor list is predominantly white, it’s time to reset your course. Diversity in design benefits everyone. And, by hiring Native artists and entrepreneurs, you not only direct your dollars to Indian Country, but you also help combat Native invisibility and contribute toward the narrative change movement.
Are you voting against Indian Country?
By this, we mean, have you stopped to examine how your local lawmakers and candidates are voting on issues impacting Indian Country? Indigenous people are working hard to increase Native political representation and combat invisibility. Sadly, many political representatives do not give Indigenous issues the time and attention they deserve. It’s easy to assume that a particular candidate supports Indigenous causes, but oftentimes, this isn’t the case.
Ignoring a lawmaker’s voting record on Indian Country can cause harm to Native nations in your area and around the country. Before you head to the polls, do some basic research. What issues are important to the Native nations near you? Does your candidate have a platform on Indigenous issues? Can you identify any news articles mentioning that person’s interaction with Native nations? If you can’t find that information, ask them! And, for lawmakers already in office, check their voting record. How does their voting record align with Native nations’ priorities?
Are you putting Native communities at risk while on vacation?
It’s not only important to respect Native sovereignty and sacred sites during your adventures, but it’s also imperative to ensure that you’re not putting Native nations at an increased risk for COVID-19 through your travels. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.
Nick Martin, the author of a piece on road trips and their impacts on Indigenous communities during COVID-19, advises, “The absolute least any colonizer can do is go out of their way to ensure that they don’t put the people, whose traditional homelands will be just another page in their scrapbook, at further risk.”
If you absolutely must route near or through a Native nation, respect all travel-related guidelines, such as Tribal checkpoints. (Learn about how Native nations have used their sovereignty to create Tribal checkpoints here.) When purchasing groceries and supplies, wear an effective mask and avoid stopping in towns that border Native nations, if possible. When planning your trip, ask yourself if your route or any of your planned activities could result in you potentially spreading COVID-19 to Native communities.
Are you adventuring responsibly?
Have you noticed that outdoor activities have surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic? Before you set out on your next adventure, take a moment to consider whether your planned itinerary respects Indigenous sacred sites and Native nations’ sovereignty. For example, some Native nations allow access to popular landmarks located within their boundaries but require that non-Tribal citizens register, pay a fee, and follow a set route. Other nations have used their sovereignty to declare certain places off-limits to non-citizens.
Educate yourself about any rules that may be in place, and do not, under any circumstances, disrespect Native nations’ directives. They’ve put these guidelines in place for a reason: it’s usually because they want to protect fragile ecosystems and/or ensure that their members have access to sacred sites. Sadly, time and time again, outdoor adventurers knowingly break the rules and harm Native nations.
For colleges and universities
Are you ignoring how your institution has harmed and continues to harm Indigenous communities? More and more colleges and universities are adopting institution-wide land acknowledgments. But, academia also has a long history of harming Indian Country. Without thoroughly examining their relationships with Native nations and making an action plan to correct past wrongs, educational institutions’ land acknowledgments ring hollow.
Colleges and universities should take a hard look at how they’ve interacted with Indigenous communities and people in the past. The University of Minnesota recently launched a new three-year initiative to investigate its history with Native nations and educate the general public on racial justice. They plan to partner with local Native nations to create an archival report detailing past wrongs. This is a great first step toward taking action to meaningfully support Indian Country. Any effort should also include a detailed plan for making reparations moving forward.