Wise Practices for Territory Acknowledgments

Good territory acknowledgements require preparation. Fortunately, once you’ve done some preparatory work you can build your library of knowledge, making it easier each time. This blog is intended to help you do the preparatory work by providing information on why we do territory acknowledgements, what are good elements to include, how to make it relevant, and calls for action in reconciliation.

Before we get started I’d like to share a new term that I learned from Stephanie Papik that I think is valuable for grounding yourself when doing reconciliation work. The term is Cultural Humility. Cultural Humility is a process of self-reflection to understand your personal and conditioned biases, systemic biases, and develop and maintain respectful processes and relationships based on mutual trust. In other words, accepting yourself as a life long learner. You are not going to get your territory acknowledgement perfect the first time… in fact, you’re never going to get it perfect. Perfect is subjective and it is impossible to achieve. So relax, breath and shift your goal from perfection to learning. Every time you practice something and reflect on it, you learn a little more. So, be gentle with yourself, be brave, remain committed, and let’s get started.

Why do we acknowledge territory?

When you are firmly grounded in why we do territory acknowledgements you can begin to connect to your personal motivation. This motivation is necessary to give you the energy and commitment necessary to do the work. With that said, territory acknowledgements are the most basic ways to do the following:

  • Recentre Indigenous wisdom which we can all learn from
  • Return space to Indigenous people who we have displaced by settling on their land
  • Educate and inspire our communities to decolonize spaces which benefits all of us 
  • Take an action that has been asked of us by Indigenous people 
  • Prepare ourselves for building intentional relationships with Indigenous people by growing our understanding of the people and place we are
  • Build personal resilience to the discomfort of stepping into our learning zone

This is a non-exhaustive list. How have you found territory acknowledgements useful? How are they benefiting you and the people around you? What motivates you to do them?

What is a good structure for a territory acknowledgement?

I’ve found there are some templates that make my acknowledgement flow so it doesn’t sound like I am reading off of a checklist. Yes, of course, you can read a pre-prepared territory acknowledgement, but consider this your training wheels. Eventually, you should be able to speak from the heart. Show the people in the room that this is a sincere and authentic sharing of knowledge by coming up with a structure that works for you so that you can remember what you are trying to say and make it easier for yourself to build trust through eye contact. Here is a template that I’ve found works well and some wise practices I’ve learned over years of practice:

  • Name the local land and local people. Be sure to use the names of the specific people on whose territory you are on, not just large analogous groupings such as “Coast Salish”. Thanks to Erich Kelch for this tip.
  • Stephanie Papik in the EMBC webinar recommends beginning with acknowledging and welcoming the diversity in the room. This way you can let people feel seen, welcome and help them feel more comfortable in a space that they otherwise may not. You can do this by saying something like, “I want to acknowledge that there is a diversity of people in this room and that while some may be comfortable in this space others are courageously stepping out of their comfort zone to be here. Some people may be from this territory, while others may be far away. We welcome this diversity and all identities in this space.”
  • Briefly talk about why we do territory acknowledgements so as to educate people in the room 
  • Make it relevant for the audience so you can connect this practice within the broader context of what brings people together in the space
  • Consider using storytelling to talk about a personal experience, but be careful not to centre yourself
  • When opening events, Stephanie Papik suggests practicing humility by stating that you or the organization you represent may have made mistakes in the past or efforts in reconciliation may not have had the intended impact. In fact, you may still be doing it wrong, but that you are committed to improvement and invite feedback from anyone who is willing to share.
  • Encourage action at the end of the acknowledgement. This helps in mitigating performative allyship (when you don’t take any meaningful action to eliminate oppression other than talking about it to make yourself look good). Share what the audience can do specifically and make it a “hard ask” by giving them the time, date, place, and how to sign up. Encourage follow-through.

How can you make it relevant?

Making a territory acknowledgement relevant to the audience is a great way to help the practice come alive. This can be done in many ways but may require some thought ahead of time. For example, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, my housemates have all been meeting once a week. Sometimes we do territory acknowledgements and this week is my turn. To make it relevant I thought about what people in the house like to do together. We like to forage for food and we like to play games together. So, I’ve chosen to include information on the ways that the local people do these activities. This may require a bit of research. With that said, it is always important to watch out for cultural appropriation. Be sure to reflect before a meeting if you have permission to share and it what context it may be appropriate to share Indigenous practices.

What about if you are in a more formal setting? For big events or formal meetings with coworkers, I like to connect to what the purpose of the meeting is and then see if I can learn about how that relates to local peoples. For example, when I meet with local environmental activists or people who are concerned about the environment, I like to share information about how Indigenous people have been stewards of the land since time immemorial and what we can learn from them. Alternatively, you could share what relationships the original peoples had with the land you are currently on.

What are some calls to action?

As said at the beginning of this blog, a territory acknowledgement is the most basic way to show solidarity with Indigenous people. It is by no means enough to undo what centuries of colonization has done and continues to do to the people and the land. As a result of breathing the air, drinking the water, and being on the land, you have a responsibility to do more, especially if you care about the items listed in the section “why we do territory acknowledgments”. The first thing you can do is invite people to join you by taking action at the end of your territory acknowledgement.  Be sure to make it a strong call to action and encourage follow-through by including the time, date, place, and way to sign up in your ask.

Here are some ideas on what you can ask your audience to do:

Did you find this blog useful! Do you have feedback? Did I get something wrong or make a mistake? Please let me know in the comment below. I welcome feedback and acknowledge I am always learned. Thank you!

 

Note: “Wise Practices” is intentionally used instead of “best practices” and is the chosen language of  Lwungen artist and Songhees community member, Bradley Dick. I learned to use this language from a webinar delivered by Stephanie Papik through Emergency Management B.C.  I’ve intentionally chosen this language because it removes the implied hierarchy of words such as “best” or “better”.  As a practice, I try to remove “best” or “worst” from my vocabulary, because the reality is that most things depend on the environment and context. Removing this language encourages curiosity and critical thinking rather than blindly accepting someone else’s definition of what is best. With that said, I encourage you to read the following article and come up with your own wise practices. What works for you?


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