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).
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