Column Description: The column title is inspired by the Malvina Reynolds song of the same name, which depicts a world in which people are mass-produced factory-style; a world without deviance, spontaneity, creativity, inspiration, without a difference. It is also inspired by a GIF in which a gender-diverse person looks anxiously at a small cardboard box with "GENDER" written on it. The person exclaims "Help, what do I do? I don't fit in the box!!" Then a second person dressed as a fairy godmother with a long lilac wig and a glittery wand dances across the frame declaring "There is no box!" The box disappears and the masculine-presenting person is relieved and happy. This column will discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher educational spaces, within academic libraries, and how academic libraries can support their parent institutions in DEI efforts while also making their own efforts.

I recently listened to an episode of NPR’s Code Switch called “Skeletons in the Closet” which briefly covered settler archeology in what is now the United States. This podcast frames the decade-long legal battle of the Florida Seminole Tribe to repatriate the skeletons of Seminole ancestors from the Smithsonian. 

The podcast framed the tension between the purpose and work of an honored cultural memory institution and who that institution actually serves when gathering materials to study and ‘preserve’. The question of who has the rights to cultural artifacts isn’t a new one in the museum and archive world, but this conflict bears a particular urgency. “Skeletons” isn’t discussing an artifact of a particular nation or group’s history–as in, an artifact marking a period in the group’s past – but the ownership of human remains whose displacement has been a constant source of distress for the Florida Seminole Tribe. 

As an academic librarian, it initiated in me a curiosity about what materials belonging to Native American nations might my library possess? How are they cataloged? Are Native students on campus aware of and accessing this collection, and if not, how can we, the librarians, facilitate that access? And what about beyond the library? What can my college, seated on the traditional lands of one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee who met the first waves of settlers, do to signal our commitment to our indigenous students and our commitment to untangling the razorwire of 200 years of whitewashed history?

Land Acknowledgements are an accessible place to begin.

These are statements created by institutions, in concert with local tribal nations, to recognize that the land on which the institutions sit traditionally belonged to these nations, and it is important as modern-day United States citizens to situate ourselves within that history. These statements, presented as a prelude to events, meetings, or programming, also situate the participants within the truth that the sovereignty of indigenous nations continues to be violated.  These statements work toward undoing harm enacted by our education system which teaches students about Native Americans as figures from our nation’s past, not as sovereign nations who continue to engage in and reproduce cultures that had been established for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in the Americas.  

Land acknowledgments give deference to the tribe(s) whose cultures, traditions, and identities are derived from the regions their ancestors have lived in for thousands of years. They bring attention to the ongoing attempts by non-natives to impinge upon tribal life, revered landmarks and areas, and even sources of water and food. But if these statements are merely a litany of historical wrongs and atrocities, a eulogy, an apology, then they fall short of the intended meaning. Land Acknowledgements reflect a widely held tradition amongst Native American nations of giving deference to the land and the stewards of the land upon which gatherings are taking place.

Land Acknowledgements reframe our relationship to the land more than a simple location, a dead space animated and loaned importance only by the human activity within and upon it, but as something with life and value intrinsic to it. It is imperative that these statements be written in consultation with the tribal nations it is meant to give deference to so they may indicate preferred terminology and phrasing, and so the work of creating the acknowledgment can act as the establishment of a partnership between the institution and the nation. 

Institutions of higher education have the same duty to their indigenous students as to their students of other minoritized identities: to increase the opportunities available to these students that prejudiced systems deprived their ancestors, celebrate their unique cultures and how their backgrounds enrich the educational environment for all, and lay bare the systemic disenfranchisement of their communities so that the college and the students may work to combat it. 

It is essential, given all of this, that Land Acknowledgements not be an end goal, but the inception of an institution’s commitment to the goals I outlined above, lest it be an empty gesture rather than the signaling of new and continuing effort.

Steps your library can take toward correcting historical injustice against the indigenous tribes of New York:

  • Purchasing materials published by local nations, from the nations themselves if possible 
  • Displays highlighting works by and about indigenous New Yorkers 
  • Supporting faculty in the development of courses and programming that employ indigenous viewpoints, knowledge, and meaning-making 
  • Examining special collection and archival holdings that may be transferred back to the care of local nations and tribes

Additional Resources:
Skeletons in the Closet”, on Code Switch by NPR 
Big Win in #NoMoreStolenAncestors Fight" - Indian Country Today 
Guide to Indigenous Land and Territorial Acknowledgements for Cultural Institutions
Interactive global map of indigenous territories 
Acknowledgement of Land and Sovereignty” - Native American Council at Iowa University

Sam Berry-Sullivan graduated with her MLIS from the University at Albany in 2017. Her librarianship centers around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the power of representation to build compassion, tolerance, and possibility. We can't solve inequities we don't see/talk about.