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Opinion: Land acknowledgments are not enough

More action is needed to repair the University’s destructive legacy.
Image by Ava Weinreis
Analyzing the University’s efforts to repair relationships with Indigenous tribes.

Land acknowledgments have become a common method of denouncing the colonial legacy the United States was founded on. Appearing before events such as county meetings and performances, these statements have grown in popularity as a means of accepting accountability from institutions. At least 150 have been written by various local groups and governments in Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota is among their numbers. Its land acknowledgment appears across various University webpages and is often read aloud before public events. 

“We in the Office of Admissions acknowledge that the University of Minnesota Twin Cities is built within the traditional homelands of the Dakota people. It is important to acknowledge the peoples on whose land we live, learn, and work as we seek to improve and strengthen our relations with our tribal nations,” the acknowledgment reads.

These statements juxtapose public scrutiny following the publication of a 554-page Indigenous-led TRUTH Project Report criticizing the legacy of land grabs and forced removal by the University. 

The report explores the harmful colonial history of genocide, removal, land expropriation, wealth transfer, revisionist history and Indigenous erasure used to secure property by the University. It also recommends actions to improve the University’s policies through repatriation of land and reparations. 

Land acknowledgments have received mixed opinions from Indigenous activists and leaders. Criticism stems from the belief that these statements are often performative and fail to incur meaningful action or policy change. 

“There’s something about a land acknowledgment that’s kind of past-looking,” said Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs at the University Karen Diver. “Tribes are saying, ‘Let’s look forward to see what we need as employers, as communities, to uplift our own people.'” 

Even Indigenous experts who support land acknowledgments agree that they must be followed by more action. One thing is abundantly clear — acknowledgment is not enough.

The University currently has one major project dedicated to Indigenous land and its ownership. Collaboration with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has been centered around the Cloquet Forestry Center, including a potential land transfer and collaborative research opportunities between the tribe and the University. 

The Cloquet Forestry Center is a 3,400-acre property located within the Fond du Lac reservation used by the University to provide research and educational opportunities to students studying forest ecosystem communities. It is also open for public recreation. 

The process of a land transfer would involve the school, the state of Minnesota and its legislature, according to Senior Director of Public Relations at the University Jake Ricker. Discussions are ongoing regarding how this process will move forward. 

“We’re worried about clean water, climate change, the impact of Minnesota’s changing climate on our way of life,” Ricker said. “We’re worried about things like chronic wasting disease on our deer population, the preservation of our natural resources. We’re hearing from tribal communities and our tribal nations. Those are priorities for them as well.” 

This project is the only one focused on tangible reparation and repatriation. After all, 3,400 acres is a good first step, but the University received 94,631 acres of land through 316 Indigenous land parcels. This sizable sum is what earned the institution the title of a “land grab university” by tribes in the first place.

This name stems from the 1862 Morrill Act, which allowed states to establish colleges funded by the development and sale of federal land grants. The land acquired by the University under this act was seized from the Dakota people following the Treaty of 1851 and the Chippewa after the Treaty of 1847. 

The compensation given to these tribes was far from equitable. The Dakota tribe was paid a mere $0.02 per acre while the University sold the land for 251 times that amount. 

While projects like the repatriation of the Cloquet Forestry Center are important, the University must continue to heed Indigenous calls for reform. With the violent history of colonialism requiring acknowledgment, 11 tribes continue to advocate for reparations. 

While these tribes have yet to determine what amount would suffice for reparations, meeting their demands with support is necessary to uphold the promises made by the University’s land acknowledgment. 

These statements are merely the beginning. Just like the statement claims, words are not enough. The University must prioritize the perspective of Indigenous people as they aim to repair their destructive legacy. 

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  • Lisa Keith
    Mar 11, 2024 at 3:41 pm

    Totally agree that more needs to be done. I have been on a committee since last year that has been studying the Truth Report. I try to educate others as much as I am able. That’s not enough either.