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A controversial land acknowledgment in a class syllabus has Stuart Reges at odds with the University of Washington after administrators chastised the professor for a section they deemed inappropriate, offensive and irrelevant to the content of the course.
For Reges, a longtime computer science professor at UW, the irrelevance is the point.
In an act of protest, Reges broke from the boilerplate land acknowledgment text that UW encourages—but does not require—professors to use as a suggested best practice. He wrote, “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”
Invoking John Locke, Reges essentially argued that Native Americans of the area have no claim to property built out and developed after it was taken from them. But his larger point, Reges said, is about pushing back on a practice that he believes offers nothing but political pandering.
“It seems to me that one of the things people are using this for is to set the tone for a course,” Reges said. “It sends the message that progressive politics are the dominant politics in this course. I dislike that. I wish that we didn’t have politics in courses at all, but if we’re going to have politics, I don’t think that we should be favoring progressive political points of view.”
The University of Washington responded to Reges by offering another section of the class he was teaching—Reges said about 30 percent of his students transferred to that course—and by amending his online syllabus to remove the controversial land acknowledgment.
Reges contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which engaged with UW and accused administrators of violating the First Amendment by censoring the syllabus in question.
“First Amendment rights are not subject to the whims of thin-skinned administrators,” Zach Greenberg, a senior program officer at FIRE, wrote in an email. “Academic freedom cannot flourish if professors fear punishment for offending others with their research, teaching, and expression. Forcing professors to parrot university viewpoints cheapens academic discourse and betrays the university’s mission of fostering open debate.”
The University of Washington has countered by noting there is no university policy requiring a land acknowledgment or specific text that is required to be used for land acknowledgments. UW argued that land acknowledgments are more about principles than politics.
“Commonly utilized land acknowledgements are not politicized statements about land claims or ownership nor expressions of personal viewpoints about land ownership, but are rather statements of fact—the purpose being to acknowledge that the university sits on the historical ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta wrote in an email.
Balta added that “the syllabus for an intro to computer programming course is not the appropriate place or manner for a debate about land acknowledgements.”
That point is one Reges—who openly states his distaste for land acknowledgments—agrees with.
“The director of our school and the president of our university have both said that this is not an appropriate thing to include on a syllabus. It has nothing to do with the course,” Reges said. “And my response is ‘exactly.’ So why is it listed as a diversity best practice and on our list of suggested things that faculty should do to further diversity, equity and inclusion?”
Land acknowledgments—formal statements intended to recognize and respect Native people and acknowledge their presence and historic ties to the land—are often part of conferences and other events, popping up in email signature lines and even Twitter bios. Like the practice itself, controversy around land acknowledgments isn’t new. And Reges, a white libertarian, isn’t the only one speaking up. Some Native scholars have also taken exception with land acknowledgments, particularly when done in ways that they see as clumsy or performative.
Where Land Acknowledgments Go Wrong
Last fall, three anthropologists—two of whom are Native American—wrote a piece about land acknowledgments in The Conversation, arguing that “many contemporary land acknowledgments unintentionally communicate false ideas about the history of dispossession and the current realities of American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
They noted at the time that the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists had requested that the American Anthropological Association pause the practice of land acknowledgments and welcoming rituals in which Indigenous people offered prayers or blessings to open events.
“It felt like their blessing ceremonies were just playing on stereotypes,” said Michael Lambert, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored the opinion piece in The Conversation and is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The American Anthropological Association, he noted, took heed—it formally paused the practice and created a task force to determine how to approach the issue going forward.
“The pause has enabled the creation of a task force, which at the end of this year should recommend improvements after examining these practices and the history of the field’s relationship with American Indians and Alaska Natives more broadly,” letter co-author Elisa Sobo, an anthropology professor at San Diego State University, wrote in an email.
Luhui Whitebear, a professor at Oregon State University; director for the university’s Kaku-Ixt Mana Ina Haws, a Native and Indigenous center; and an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, said that she occasionally sees problematic land acknowledgments, often when colleges are more focused on checking a box rather than making a difference.
“People don’t always understand the reason why and take a deeper look into the history behind land acknowledgments and how they operate within Indigenous communities,” Whitebear said. “So land acknowledgments become statements instead of practice.”
Another area where colleges go wrong is expecting tribes to provide land acknowledgments, said Whitebear, who encourages college administrators to dig into the history of local tribes themselves. While contacting local tribes is a good practice—particularly to ensure that they are represented properly—they shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of the work.
“Right now tribal nations are completely flooded with requests for land acknowledgments. Sometimes they’re not able to reply very fast, because there’s a lot of them,” Whitebear said.
Whitebear stresses that tribes are vastly diverse, so there’s no one-size-fits-all land acknowledgment.
Lambert said there’s no reason to believe that most universities aren’t getting land acknowledgments right—but there are plenty of times when colleges get it wrong. For example, colleges often use land acknowledgments as a proxy statement for environmental concerns and to signal the importance of being good stewards of the land. While he supports environmental responsibility, Lambert suggests that’s a message that has missed the larger point of a painful history of Native land dispossession stretching back for centuries.
Other missteps include writing land acknowledgments in a way that centers Natives solely in the past, as people who were once there long ago, rather than in the present tense, and conducting inadequate research to understand where tribes are located or have historic ties.
“There’s a tendency when a land acknowledgment is done to acknowledge groups that never had any historical connection to the land that the university is on,” Lambert said. “It’s just bizarre.”
Supporting Native Communities
Are land acknowledgments a public relations tool offering mere lip service or an honest effort to uplift Native communities? The answer, Native scholars said, depends on the intentions behind the action and how colleges follow through on a commitment to Indigenous people.
“I know there’s contention about whether land acknowledgments are effective or not, but I’ve also seen them help create changes on campus, because they are the entry point to start bringing up critical issues,” Whitebear said. “I do feel that they have a place, but it can’t be like, ‘OK, I feel better about myself, because I acknowledge this land I’m on.’ That’s when land acknowledgments become problematic—when there’s no intentionality behind it.”
Whitebear points to a number of actions that colleges can take to support Native communities, such as waiving tuition for tribal members and ensuring supports are in place “that help make college more accessible and help students have more success in their journeys.” She also encourages colleges to consider how Native faculty and staff are supported. For example, are Native faculty members on the tenure track or mostly in adjunct positions? Whitebear urges colleges to identify the needs of Native communities and work to address those.
In addition to the steps above, Lambert encourages colleges to develop Indigenous studies programs. He also suggests that they could return land originally owned by Native tribes.
Highlighting the Land-Grab Universities project from High Country News, Lambert points out that numerous universities own property originally seized from Native communities, places where their campus isn’t located, property they came into possession of through the Morrill Act of 1862. That meant Native lands, considered public domain at the time, were snatched up to benefit universities. High Country News found in 2020 that “500,000 acres unwillingly donated by tribal nations to land-grant colleges remain held in trust for at least 12 universities.”
A Path Forward
Back at the University of Washington, Reges intends to continue his fight. Ultimately, he’d prefer that land acknowledgments not be done at all, but as long as they are, he plans to stick with the one he wrote, prompting another likely showdown with university administrators next quarter.
“I have made it clear that I intend to include this land acknowledgment on my syllabus in the spring,” Reges said, adding that “there has been no response from the university.”
The current quarter at the University of Washington started online due to concerns about the spiking Omicron variant of the coronavirus. That gave UW the chance to amend his syllabus, digitally whiting out the offending section. With the next quarter at UW presumably being in person, Reges will hand out his syllabus the old-fashioned way: on paper.
“It’s harder for them to censor pieces of paper,” Reges said.
Though Reges said he hasn’t heard from the University of Washington on his plan to keep pushing his controversial land acknowledgment, a university response to Inside Higher Ed maintains UW’s stance that this argument is one best left out of the classroom.
“Reges can and has expressed personal views with which the Allen School and the UW profoundly disagree on other platforms,” Balta said. “However, again, a syllabus is not the appropriate place to express personal views unrelated to the course he is teaching.”
With drama playing out over land acknowledgments at UW and the challenges of getting such statements right, the practice may seem to offer significant risk with little reward for university administrators, and often for Native people, as well, who may be caught up in academic virtue signaling. But Whitebear suggests that such land acknowledgments, done appropriately, can open the door to broader conversations that can foster change, for the better, on campus.
“It’s an entry point,” Whitebear said. “Now that we’re saying this, what are we doing to build relationships with those people who are mentioned in the statements? How are we uplifting and collaborating with Indigenous faculty and staff on campuses? What kind of supports are in place for Indigenous students on campuses? It’s a way to start having those conversations as well.”