Personal Essay: Land Acknowledgments Fall Short in Honoring Indigenous People

Fall forrest
Photos courtesy of Summer Wilkie

Let’s begin by acknowledging the land.

If you want to sincerely acknowledge the land, go to it. Put your hands in it. Put your feet in it. The soil is alive. The microscopic communities in the soil remember all who lived here. They shaped one another.

Go to the forest where you can find one, or a prairie or a creek. We’re lucky to have little green places all throughout Fayetteville. Here’s where you can acknowledge the land, away from walls and doors and concrete and lawns.

The purpose of a land acknowledgement is not to acknowledge the land though. You’ve likely heard of the concept of a Land Acknowledgment statement. Increasingly shared as an opening for events and on websites of woke institutions, these statements are meant to communicate solidarity with the injustices of Indigenous people. The device can range from moving to perfunctory.

As a Native American person, it’s sad that simple acknowledgement of stolen land and centuries of erasure feels like progress. It is, but these statements can cause some very uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when poorly worded or in certain contexts.

As a Native American student at the University of Arkansas and an on-and-off Fayetteville resident of seven years, a land acknowledgement doesn’t begin to address the lack of representation of Native people in Fayetteville. Until action is taken to identify and empower Indigenous people, accurate history is taught, and land-based justice is carried out, a land acknowledgement statement feels mostly empty and alienating.

At the University of Arkansas, Indigenous people played a part in our establishment and legacy. The Osage ceded most of the Ozarks to the U.S. government in 1808 with the understanding that they would be protected and allowed to hunt and reside on the remainder of their territory, but within 60 years of the ratification of that treaty, the Osage were confined to a small reservation. Their population had declined drastically due to the systemic slaughter of their primary food source, the American bison, and disease. Outright fraud and cruel treatment allowed for settlers to move freely into present-day Fayetteville including Cherokee people seeking opportunity and refuge from the violence and land theft in the east.

Slug on a tree

Today Arkansas’s first people, primarily the Osage, Quapaw, and Caddo Nations, endure as federally recognized tribal nations in Oklahoma where they were forced by the United States government. While every land acknowledgment at the University of Arkansas at least mentions these nations, their people continue to live the consequences of upheaval and genocide.

A Board of Trustees policy was established in 1985 to waive out-of-state tuition to these and a few other tribes with history in Arkansas, but no formal agreement or invitation has ever been extended to these tribes to come back to Arkansas for school. We don’t have relationships in place with their Nations to recruit students. Their history is not a required course for college students here. Our research agendas are not benefiting these Nations. Native American students don’t even have so much as a room on campus designated for their use.

I hope you can begin to understand why a Native American student at the University of Arkansas might be irritated more than honored when their class begins with a compulsory land acknowledgment statement or they stumble across one on a website.

One thing you’ll rarely hear mentioned in a land acknowledgment at the U of A is the fact that with the removal of the people from their ancestral land, they were forced to abandon sacred ceremonial sites to be pillaged by European settlers. Personal collections of artifacts amassed from the original looting of sacred sites throughout Arkansas and some in Oklahoma eventually wound up in the University of Arkansas Museum collection. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act meant some items were returned to descendants, but many remain in the museum’s collection. Arkansas’s Indigenous people can come to school here without ever even knowing about the beautiful pieces of art created by their ancestors currently on a shelf behind closed doors.

Museum staff made steps toward improving outreach to Native American students recently. I’m hopeful new and lasting partnerships can raise awareness about Indigenous history in Arkansas and enrich our campus and begin to heal wrongs done to Arkansas’s First People. However, as long as the narratives related to those objects remain in the hands of academia, stripped of their cultural significance and separated from the context provided by their descendants and the larger historical narrative, the collection is simply contributing to the institution’s passive erasure and continued cultural genocide of Arkansas’ First People.

Tribal governments should be empowered as much as possible to care for, share and research their own cultural artifacts at the University of Arkansas and in general. A starting place might be to share all existing academic research related to the artifacts and make sure future research is guided by or in collaboration with the descendants. Land-based justice in this area would be reconnecting people with their ancestors’ sacred sites from where the artifacts were stolen. The onus is on the university to build the necessary relationships and programs to reconnect Indigenous people with their sacred objects and places where the tribal government does not have the resources to do so.


Investigating the origins of the land granted to the State of Arkansas by the federal Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant College Act, reveals an appalling connection between the U of A and exploitation of Indigenous people throughout the country. About 10.7 million acres of Indigenous land across the continent were seized and granted to states for the creation of colleges. In Arkansas, almost 150,000 was given to the state and in turn sold to raise the principal endowment of the University of Arkansas. These profits are on the school’s ledger today.

The land sold to found our university was coerced and stolen from tribes in nine states including many parcels taken from Californian tribes who faced genocide into the late 19th century. An alarming 80 percent of California’s Indigenous people were killed, with the state funding the murder of Indigenous men, women and children. A few of the Indigenous Nations and Bands from California whose land theft brought us the University of Arkansas are the Pomo, Miwok, Shoshone, Diegueno, Tejon and the Round Valley Indian Tribes (Yuki). 

Ultimately the parcels making up our land grant were taken from more than 140 tribal nations and bands. Researchers partnered with High Country News to publish an extensive article and open source database making it possible to identify each individual parcel of land received by the university through the Morrill Act and specify the treaty or transaction resulting in the cession of land. This information makes it easier than ever for the university to identify every tribal band and nation whose land directly benefited the U of A for inclusion in a land acknowledgement, but how can the university compensate Indigenous people for the incalculable wealth that continues to accumulate from that original endowment, and through technology and research made possible from that original land grant? Something more tangible is required to begin the reconciliation process.

To borrow a concept from the Black Lives Matter movement, passivity is complicity. The University of Arkansas continues to benefit passively from the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous people, and land acknowledgements without action to back them up are beginning to reek of privilege. Due to the lack of awareness, we need to keep making and revising the acknowledgments, but they’re not enough and land isn’t all that was taken.

Our thousands-year-old oral, place-based knowledge continues to be arrogantly discredited by academia. Education became a violent means of control and assimilation and continues to be a traumatic experience for many of our young people. Our languages and the unique perspectives held within have been nearly extinguished. Not to mention our health. Land is a good place to start though. These issues are all connected to land.

The land isn’t a stagnant thing and its value isn’t only monetary. Land is a complex system of life. The ecosystems are always changing. They hold the shape of we who manipulate them and a record of terrestrial and cosmic influence. The influence of contemporary humans is crude and harsh. We are a young society, those of us here now. The influence of those who came here can still be seen, to Northwest Arkansas, to Fayetteville, those who shaped the land and whom the land shaped.

They acknowledged the land. They communed with the land. Their descendants are knowledge keepers, and we need action to restore connections and recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to this land. We all return to the land eventually.

Summer Wilkie
Summer Wilkie

Summer Wilkie is a Cherokee graduate student at the University of Arkansas. She serves as the Student Coordinator for Native and Indigenous People at the U of A's Center for Multicultural and Diversity Education.