After a quick search of my email history, I discovered that it was about 5 years ago when people who work in universities began commonly listing their preferred personal pronouns in email communications and syllabi, a trend which has now rapidly spread across the corporate world and social media.
While the stated purpose of explicitly naming one’s pronouns is to foster inclusion and tolerance, the practice actually performs two unstated functions. The first is to compel compliance from those who might not be willing to cooperate with the increasingly complicated lexicon that grows out of the pronoun wars. The paper trail generated through daily institutional interaction (which frequently indicates preferred pronouns) is used to force dissidents to comply. If you “misgendered” someone and that person wishes to file a formal complaint with the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, it is a great boon for their case if they can prove you were aware of their preferred pronouns by showing email communications where they made their preferences clear to you.
The second unstated purpose of listing one’s pronouns is to signify one’s membership in the priestly castes of university life: those intellectuals who, by mastering a complex vocabulary that eludes the grasp of regular people, demonstrate their superior respect for human dignity and their deeper concern for the many marginalized communities in the racist, fascist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynous hellscape some people still insist on calling “America.” The ways that this group indicates their status among the clerics of social justice often parallels the performative aspects of religious sacraments. Naming pronouns when introducing oneself takes on a formalized, ritualistic character that is akin to making the sign of the cross at the end of a prayer. It serves to signal one’s profound devotion to a particular way of understanding the world.
Recently, though, the growing banality of naming pronoun preferences has created a problem for the clerisy of academic wokeness: once everyone is identifying their pronouns, doing so can no longer demonstrate your moral and intellectual superiority. Put differently, the common people – non-academics who really don’t have the critical-theoretical perspective to understand the catechisms of the cult to which they unwittingly claim to belong – have stripped away the means by which the true believers of the intelligentsia established their status among the elite. Thus, a new strategy for indicating one’s membership in the priestly class had to be devised.
That new strategy has now arrived on most college campuses, so you can expect to encounter it in Nike’s advertising before too long. Imported from countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, where Postcolonial Theory is more prominent than in the US, Weapon X in the rhetorical arms race that pervades academic wokeness has reached American shores: it is called the “Land Acknowledgement Statement.” As was the case with preferred pronouns, examples are most commonly found in formal textual documents that circulate within institutional contexts. Needless to say (to borrow some vocabulary from the woke themselves), the Land Acknowledgement Statements are rather “problematic.”
So, what is a Land Acknowledgement Statement? According to the University of Connecticut’s website, it is “a formal statement that recognizes and respects Native peoples as traditional stewards of lands. The statement highlights the enduring relationship between Native peoples and their traditional territories.” Generally speaking, these statements consist of a few sentences, placed at the top of a university syllabus or read at the beginning of an academic presentation, which “acknowledge” that the land on which the institution sits was once in possession of Native American people, of one tribe or another.
Some examples of these statements are in order, then.
At Queens University, a syllabus for Psychology 251 (Developmental Psychology) begins “Let us acknowledge that Queen’s [University] is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. We are grateful to be able to live, learn and play on these lands. To acknowledge this traditional territory is to recognize its longer history, one predating the establishment of the earliest European colonies. It is also to acknowledge this territory’s significance for the Indigenous Peoples who lived, and continue to live, upon it and whose practices and spiritualities were tied to the land and continue to develop in relationship to the territory and its other inhabitants today.”
At the University of Texas, an Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion invited all faculty to include the following statement on their Engineering (!) syllabi: “I/we would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on Indigenous land. Moreover, I/we would like to acknowledge and pay our respects to the Carrizo & Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Tonkawa, Comanche, Lipan Apache, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, Tigua Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas, here on Turtle Island.” While the inclusion of the statement remains a “suggestion” for faculty, opting out of such a suggestion from a Dean would certainly raise some eyebrows at any public university today.
We cannot properly understand this new trend without asking why it is suddenly necessary to make such statements. After all, almost everyone already knows that any land in the modern-day United States was probably controlled by Native Americans at some point. This is not new or obscure knowledge. What gives?
The fact that these statements imply a moral duty to acknowledge facts that are already well-known is a primary indicator that the Land Acknowledgement Statements are performing some function beyond merely “acknowledging” land ownership. One covert purpose is to put students on notice as to which worldview and ideology will be privileged in a given course. By immediately drawing an audience’s attention to “historical injustice” in a context of, say, a chemistry class, the instructor signals to students that they are in a space where the politics of grievance will be honored and encouraged. Further, the Land Acknowledgement Statement serves to compel a certain penitential attitude that is a prerequisite for the functioning of “critical pedagogies.” By clarifying that the university is a beneficiary of a program of cultural violence, Land Acknowledgement Statements make it clear to students that they are “complicit” in this legacy of violence and exclusion merely by matriculating at the school in question.
But beyond the ways that these statements enforce a particular politics and preemptively deter classroom dissent, and beyond the fact that they represent a kind of virtue-signaling that marks one’s belonging to the intellectual elite, there are a number of problems with this trend. First, consider how the statement from University of Texas names no fewer than ten tribes before concluding the sentence with an embarrassed “etcetera,” which acknowledges “all the [other] American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands”. The truth of the matter is that any piece of land in the modern-day United States was likely held by various native tribes over the course of the Pre-Columbian era and the early American republic. In other words, we can’t even be sure who needs to be “acknowledged” for the land: much of the information is lost to history. Further, the very fact that any given territory was under the control of various tribes over time indicates that the same strategies that European-Americans used to take these lands from native peoples (war, colonization, broken treaties, buying and selling, etc.) were regularly employed by native peoples themselves prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Even more troubling, though, is the way the Land Acknowledgement Statement imposes decidedly Western, capitalist notions of ownership and property upon Native Americans, who, in many tribes, viewed their relationship with the land in ways that starkly contrast our attitudes today. Around 1885, Crowfoot (Chief of the Blackfeet) explained that “We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore, we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us” (emphasis added).
Massasoit Sachem (leader of the Wampanoag confederacy) is reputed to have asked “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all.” Similar quotations from other tribes are not difficult to find. Although these ideas were not shared by all tribes, this ambivalence toward private property and a symbiotic relationship with the land are two of the characteristics that academics often cite as proof that the Native Americans’ ethical sensibilities were superior to that of the Euro-Americans, then and now.
Thus, by “acknowledging” the native claims to a piece of land and implying that these claims supersede and negate the claim that modern local and federal governments make upon the territory, the Land Acknowledgement Statements erase the very particularities of Native American cultures that these academics purport to honor and preserve. In short, the non-Native academics speak on behalf of the people whose dignity they claim to uphold: by appropriating the right of those people to speak, they inadvertently inflict the very sort of cultural violence that they profess to abhor. If, as Massasoit said, anything that modern Americans call “property” is “for the use of all,” why, exactly, should anyone be obligated to apologize for using it? The Land Acknowledgement Statements thus rewrite the Native American ethos by defining it in terms of the same values and attitudes that animated the systematic destruction of tribal life by the colonial powers.
On the other hand, Land Acknowledgement Statements create a concerning problem within Western constitutional law. Consider, for example, that the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the seizure of property from American citizens without warrant. This constitutional protection only extends to legally owned property and, crucially, not stolen property. With every new Land Acknowledgement Statement, an institution reiterates and normalizes the idea that it has no lawful right to maintain that land and, should the right circumstances arise, may find it seized from them unreasonably though legally and without constitutional protection. Notice that Land Acknowledgement Statements therefore carry the profoundly subversive potential to undermine the Fourth Amendment without repealing it and without changing a single word in it. This presents a glaring danger.
The lessons here are twofold. Recall that the primary purpose of these statements is not to do justice to the victims of historical oppression but rather to signify one’s affinity for the performative rituals of academic wokeness. The first lesson, then, is that the intellectual elite who fetishize the tragic stories of marginalized groups in America are less interested in redressing those sufferings than they are using them to maintain their membership in an elite group that is far removed from the plight of the “Other” (as they might say).
The second lesson is a darker one; one that the progressive left would do well to learn. Enamored as they are with the postmodern tradition of critical theory which they name-check when “speaking truth to power,” they miss one of the central insights of postmodern philosophy: that one can never get outside the network of power to speak truth to it. In their enthusiasm for condemning or humbling the entities that they identify as culturally-empowered ones, they forget that any gesture like a “Land Acknowledgement Statement” is itself an exercise of power. Through their attempts to honor the culture of historically-marginalized groups to which they do not belong – trying to create a space for those cultures to speak on their own behalf – they only end up speaking for them. In this way, they reenact the same legacies of privilege and appropriation that they disdain. So much for checking one’s privilege.