See more of the story

"Great," Angela Two Stars thinks when she hears a land acknowledgment. "And then what else?"

Land acknowledgments, part of Native cultures for centuries, have filtered into arts organizations in recent years. Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj decided the theater needed an acknowledgment after hearing one at the 2018 Stratford Festival in Canada (according to the Theatre Communications Guild, many U.S. venues added them around that time). Two Stars recalls a 2018 panel discussion about crafting meaningful acknowledgments, which usually name the Native people who tended the land and thank them for it.

One memorable recent acknowledgment was led by Jim Rock and Babette Sandman for the Minnesota Book Awards. Rock, the director of Indigenous Programming and an astronomy professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said the key is thankfulness.

"The whole idea is connecting earth and sky and realizing that we are all relatives," said Rock, whose dad was Sisitunwan Dakota. "Every footstep is about being in thanksgiving, being in relationship. So [our] turning to the west, north, east, south — and then to above and below, sky and Earth Mother, says we know we came last. And we need the most help, so we're asking in humility for help from all of our relatives."

Although land acknowledgments have become common — Minnesota Opera, Children's Theatre Company and others present them before most performances — they differ widely, from a simple thanks to the detailed acknowledgment at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium on the campus of St. Catherine University. It was developed in cooperation with Native faculty members.

"They wanted us to be sure we talked about interlocking systems of oppression, that we named it that, and that in our longer statement we talked about genocide, that we didn't shy away from these things," said Sandra Mitchell, director of equity and inclusion at St. Kate's. "We acknowledge that this is the beginning of a longer journey."

Mitchell said the thinking behind the statement was that "we rarely acknowledge what happened on the land or the way we acquired it. It's really important to let people know that acknowledging the land is just one step, that you have to acknowledge the history."

Two Stars, who helped create acknowledgments for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and New Native Theatre in St. Paul, prefers looking to the future.

"Acknowledgments that go too much into the past are almost triggering to me if they go into harmful, genocidal, negative things versus more of a recognition of the past [with] a commitment to present and future work," said Two Stars, an artist and director of All My Relations Arts, who is Dakota and an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

Specificity is important, however, when acknowledging stewards of the land. Especially because "Those people are still here," according to Two Stars. "Their culture and language and communities and ancestral homes are still here. Otherwise, it's pan-Indianism, where you lump everything into the Navajo or Sioux nations, when there are actually 574 tribal nations acknowledged by the United States."

Rhiana Yazzie, a Navajo playwright, filmmaker and artistic director of New Native, said her theater's acknowledgment is designed to urge audiences to think and investigate.

"Land acknowledgments are an important first step for non-Native organizations to examine their relationships with Native people. Not only to examine that relationship but fill in the gaps of education in American school systems," said Yazzie, adding that it's important to remember that Native people may be listening to — and affected by — land statements.

"When land acknowledgments in the United States started, a lot of times it sounded like a checked box. Or a memorial: 'Now, a moment of silence.'" said Yazzie. "But then you think, 'Maybe there are Native people in the audience. Why should they have a moment of silence?' You can't do a land acknowledgment that pretends Native people have been eradicated or that just makes Native people in the audience sad."

That's why Rock links acknowledgments to concrete efforts such as the reparative justice of Makoce Ikikcupi, which buys back land once tended by Native people.

For Two Stars, an organization's acknowledgment should be coupled with "progress to make their organizations more welcoming to Native people, from their staff to their board to their advisory committees — something where they are really expanding the way they include Native people."

Haj agrees: "It's not just [a land acknowledgment]. But that, too."

The Guthrie debuted a pre-show acknowledgment at the 2019 "A Christmas Carol" (and put up a lobby display), written with the help of artists Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe. In addition, the theater formed a Native advisory council, earned a $50,000 grant to work with FastHorse and Defoe and staged the community-based project "Stories of the Drum."

But, said Haj, "Drum" wasn't part of the Guthrie subscription series, and "I didn't want this to be siloed in the idea of community-based work." That's why the theater has spent two years developing a Native play that will debut on the mainstage.

Keeping it relevant

Yazzie said what's on stage is most likely to affect hearts and minds.

"You have to have programming that's also relevant to Native people, especially in a state like Minnesota, where we have 11 federally recognized tribes," said Yazzie. "This is where the American Indian Movement started, but I think a lot of people are unaware of that and that Native people didn't have the right to practice their own religions until 1978. A lot of people think their relationship with Native folks ended sometime in the 1850s."

Yazzie's New Native focuses on creating work that speaks to Native folks and introduces non-Native people to themes raised by plays such as a world premiere coming next spring.

"There's this 'land acknowledgment Olympics' I have seen with arts organizations: Who can do it best? It's actually kind of funny," Yazzie said. "They're missing the point if they don't realize it's more about relationships, that it's not just a checked box."

Creators of acknowledgments talk about them as living documents that will evolve and gain complexity. But the impulse behind them is simple.

Said Rock, "It's: How can we all be good relatives to each other and to the land?"