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The Was and the Is: USM Land Acknowledgment

Reflections on Writing a Land Acknowledgment

By Libby Bischof & Aaron Witham

For the first time in 141 years, the University of Southern Maine opened its May graduation ceremonies with a Land Acknowledgment. Due to COVID-19, this year’s commencement was a virtual event. As the ceremony began, Dr. Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, read the following statement:

As we begin our commencement ceremony, we pause to acknowledge the land and water that the University of Southern Maine campuses occupy, as well as the ancestral and contemporary peoples indigenous to these places in the Dawnland...

Campus lands were the ancestral fishing, hunting, and agricultural grounds inhabited by the Abenaki and Wabanaki people for thousands of years.

This morning we recognize that we are on indigenous land. In addition to the Abenaki, the broader place we now call Maine is home to the sovereign people of the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq peoples. We exist on their unceded homelands.

We also acknowledge the uncomfortable truths of settler colonialism, among them that the peoples indigenous to this place were often forcibly removed from this place. Harm from the physical and cultural genocide of Native people here and throughout the land we now call Maine continues and is felt by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy who live here today, including our own Wabanaki students, staff, and faculty.

To participate in the healing process, please visit the organization Wabanaki REACH at We all have work to do.

As the co-authors of this Land Acknowledgement and as white descendants of colonists, we are grateful and very humbled for the opportunity afforded to us by Wabanaki REACH to share our experience of writing this statement and others like it. For both of us—a historian and map library director, and a sustainability director—this work was emotional as well as intellectual; the work of the heart as well as the head. What we wrote, and the process of writing it, remains deeply meaningful to us as individuals. For both of us, this is just one part of our own personal journeys of decolonization. We still have much work to do.

We intentionally tried to keep our authorship anonymous prior to the invitation to write this blog post. In not claiming authorship, we wanted the Land Acknowledgement to be less about our individual intentions, and more about the University of Southern Maine at large. Organizations have enormous power and privilege to establish space for important dialogue and cultural growth if the organization is willing to take that step. We felt it was important to push for organization-level authorship of the statement, and thankfully, USM was willing to do that.

We’ve also learned that in most contexts, it is more meaningful and respectful for those of us who are white settlers to do the work of researching, writing, and reading the acknowledgement. After all, we are the ones who need to do the acknowledging and the work of repairing harm. And too often, Native people are asked to engage in uncompensated work to repair the very harms levied against them.

We approached our work on this Land Acknowledgment with six guiding principles:

1)   Tense matters

As white settlers, it's easiest to write a statement only from the “was” perspective. While “was” is helpful in acknowledging truths of the past, the past is only one part of the ugly reality of colonization. If overused, “was” can be too easy, too distant, and too hands-off. “Was” can be a propagation of the erasure narrative.

2)   A statement should be balanced between the past and present

When we balance “was” with “is” statements, we create responsibility and responsibility can lead to action. “Is” acknowledges the fact that the Wabanaki are STILL here, that the land is still theirs, that we are not just accepting that colonization was something that happened four hundred years ago, and “what’s done is done.” Because the cultural genocide of the past is still active and present in contemporary society, we need to actively decolonize. “Is” stands in the face of every white settler. “Is” cannot be ignored; “Is” is the present—here and now. “Is” demands action. “Is” acknowledges that power is in our hands. “Is” unveils the possibility for a better future.

3) Take the time to gather the knowledge needed to write the acknowledgement

In order to write a Land Acknowledgement that is specific and appropriate to the people whose land you occupy, to your organization and to the physical place/s and environment/s where it is located, you must first gather knowledge. Whose Native ancestral homeland does your workplace and your home occupy? What tribes live and work there still? What are the indigenous names of the places you inhabit? What happened on the land where you live and work? While the answers to these questions may be hard to find initially, it is this very lack of information about various tribes, especially those who inhabited territories in the past, that is indicative of colonial erasure, an intentional strategy of colonization, imperialism and racism. Think about the ways in which a lack of information can be the result of an intentional erasure of a land’s inhabitants—of physical and cultural genocide. Share these thoughts with others, so they can reflect as well.

4) Don’t do it alone

This work is more meaningful and more powerful if done with others. The journey of researching and writing is just as important as the final document, and that journey should include conversations with colleagues, experts, friends and family members. Talk to them about words, actions and emotions. Build a community, no matter how small, around the ethos of decolonization. Individuals may pose ideas, but communities are what change cultures. When you are done writing your statement, you’ll need your community for the real work ahead.

5)   Use the Land Acknowledgement to leverage deeper action and change

If readers, especially non-Native readers, prioritize just one of our guiding principles, prioritize this one. Acknowledging land is not nearly enough. It is one small step of many. Words, no matter how thoughtful or well-intentioned, need to be transformed into action to begin to repair hundreds of years of colonial harm. Complacency, both individual and institutional, perpetuates this harm. While we cannot change the past, or the actions, behaviors, and choices of our settler-colonist ancestors, we can acknowledge the truths of the past, while actively working to create a new future. When writing a Land Acknowledgment, especially for an organization, have the conversation throughout the process about how the acknowledgement will lead to action. It may be difficult, but it is the most critical part. Ask others, “What will you do next?” Ask yourself, “What will I do next?”

6)   Be willing to live in discomfort

One thing that became clear to us in our work is that we had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We didn’t just acknowledge the land in our statement; we also acknowledged uncomfortable truths about settler colonialism, including genocide, forcible removal, loss of land and water, and the continuing epigenetics of physical and cultural genocide among the Native members of our university community. It can be difficult to openly confront the harm caused by our ancestors, and the harm that continues in our present day. It can be uncomfortable to speak the truth, and to use strong statements in telling such truths. Keep in mind that if the statement you craft feels too comfortable to read, then it is probably missing some essential truths.

Closing Thoughts: Reflections on Reading a Land Acknowledgement

By Jeannine Diddle Uzzi

When in the creation of USM’s 2021 virtual commencement exercises it became clear that I would be the one to read the new Land Acknowledgement, I was honored and humbled and also cognizant of the weight of that responsibility. I prepared myself carefully so as to do justice to a statement so carefully crafted and so meaningful for the community. I was especially grateful to be given the opportunity to put voice to the Land Acknowledgement not only because of my role at the university but also because I have spent my life in the close reading of text. While I know that words are not action--and I take to heart the importance of asking ourselves what we will do alongside what we will say--I also know that words have power, particularly at an institution of higher learning: what we say is where we start.

USM’s Land Acknowledgement does not mince words; it does not demur. Instead, it confronts directly an ugly truth about the way in which the state of Maine and the university came into being. We cannot always look back with pride at things that went before, but we can envision and effect a better future. If the words themselves feel uncomfortable, we can take solace in the fact that we are speaking the truth about settler colonialism and the genocide it engendered in Maine and elsewhere. And we can take solace that with this Land Acknowledgment, we have begun and stated publicly the work that needs to be done.

I was also grateful to be given the opportunity to express the Land Acknowledgement because if I have learned any single thing as Provost, it is the importance of acknowledging harms, apologizing for them, and allowing space for the emotional impact of those harms to exist.   Most of us know from personal experience how difficult it can be to say “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry.” As Provost, I have learned that when someone tells me they have felt harmed by me or by the institution, the right starting place is “I’m sorry.” Only by first acknowledging harm and hurt can any path forward be mutual and fruitful.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to those who took the time and care to write with open hearts a Land Acknowledgement that reflects the pain of the past, the ongoing experience of Native people, and the grief of personal and cultural loss that also ends with the hope of healing. Finally, I would like to thank Wabanaki REACH for the generous invitation extended to me and my colleagues to share our experiences of composing and reading USM’s first Land Acknowledgment.

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