On Stolen Land: Beyond Land Acknowledgements

By Brian Ward

A couple years ago I went to a pro-choice rally outside the capitol. The well-meaning leaders of the protest did a land acknowledgement. They said something along the lines of, “we need to remember that we are on Native American land that was stolen. Now let’s have a moment of silence.” 

I cringed and wanted to scream, so many things went through my head: 

“Just do a quick Google search to know that we are on Ho-Chunk Land, not ‘Native American.’” 

“Native Americans are not monolithic.” 

“This is just sheer laziness and is detrimental to the Indigenous community.”

“Native Americans are not all dead.”

I contrast this experience with a meeting that People’s Green New Deal Madison recently held called, “Green New Deal to the Red Deal: The Fight for Native Liberation” featuring the Lakota activist and author, Nick Estes. Tara Tindall, educator and citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, also spoke and gave a land acknowledgement with details about Ho-Chunk history of Madison, known as Teejope by the Ho-Chunk since time immemorial. 

These two examples are at different ends of the spectrum and show how a land acknowledgement can be misused and cause more harm than good. 

We have seen the rise of Indigenous struggle all around Turtle Island (North America) from the Idle No More Movement to Standing Rock to the current fight by the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northern British Columbia. Land acknowledgements have become an easy and popular tool to show solidarity. A land acknowledgement is usually stated at the beginning of a gathering and identifies the Indigenous Nation’s land you are currently occupying. You mostly see this in activist and academic circles in settler-colonial states such as Canada and the United States. 
Land acknowledgements took center stage at the Oscars when Māori (Indigenous to New Zealand) director Taika Waititi won best adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. Later in the night, when Waititi was presenting an award, he gave a land acknowledgement–a first in Oscar history.

What does this look like in Madison and Wisconsin?

Madison tends to tout itself as a welcoming city, however Madison is just now starting to deal with their erasure of Indigenous people. The Ho-Chunk, formerly called the Winnebego by white settlers, were forcefully removed from Teejope. Wisconsin’s first territorial governor Henry Dodge addressed the territorial legislature in 1840 about the removal of the Ho-Chunk. He said: 

I am advised by the Commanding General of the United States troops, charged with the removal of the Winnebago Indians, that, should any of them remain in the country east of the Mississippi, the dragoons will be detached to collect them and form an escort for their removal from this Territory…The removal of the Winnebagoes will enable our enterprising citizens to extend their settlements to a desirable and interesting country north of the Wisconsin river…The settlers on the public lands in the Territory form the best safeguard for the defence of our extended frontier from the encroachments of the Indians. 

Martin Case, The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land became U.S. Property, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018, p 124

The removal, which was explicitly in the interest of the settlers, forced many Ho-Chunk throughout the 1830s to Iowa, then Minnesota, then South Dakota, and finally to Nebraska where many Ho-Chunk still live today as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Many resisted removal and many more came back to their country and today are the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin based in Black River Falls with a community center in Madison called Teejope Hocira. 

The Ho-Chunk in collaboration with UW-Madison just recently started to grapple with the bloody history of the land we live on today. A plaque has been placed at Bascom Hill stating:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their nation has called Teejop since time immemorial. In an 1832 treaty, the Ho-Chunk were forced to cede this territory. Decades of ethnic cleansing followed when both the federal and state government repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, sought to forcibly remove the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin. This history of colonization informs our shared future of collaboration and innovation. Today, UW-Madison respects the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation, along with the eleven other First Nations of Wisconsin.

This is contrasted with a sign also on Bascom Hill that boosts Wisconsin’s colonial history reading: 

At the end of the nineteenth century, one of the most popular classes at the University of Wisconsin was Frederick Jackson Turner’s course on the American frontier. In those lectures, Turner shared beliefs about our nation’s history that would help define what it means to be an American. His “Frontier Thesis” traced strains of American self-reliance and individualism to the hard experience of colonizing the rugged West. Turner’s argument became one of the most influential ideas about the American experience ever posed in a classroom.

This second sign does not hold back from calling western expansion what it is: colonialism. The sign uses the word “rugged” as a dog whistle, standing in for the implication that Indigenous nations were uncivilized, or that Indigenous people were savages, or that Indigenous nations didn’t manage the land, all of which is untrue. 

When you walk through the campus and throughout the four-lakes region you quickly find out that there are effigy mounds everywhere and we are walking in a cemetery every day. This is a history that Madisonians need to confront and that isn’t exclusive to Madison but exists throughout all of Wisconsin.

In northern Wisconsin the Ojibwe fought hard in the 1980s to ensure that the states would follow various treaties that the Ojibwe made with the United States in 1836, 1837, 1842 and 1854. These treaties ceded land to the U.S. but ensured the right to hunt, fish and gather on the lands they ceded. 

After the courts confirmed Ojibwe off-reservation hunting and fishing rights in 1983, battles between settlers and the Ojibwe played out at fish landings. Ojibwe people, especially those from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Nation, would perform ceremonies before they went out onto lakes to spearfish for Walleye. White protesters called this unfair special treatment and started groups like Stop Treaty Abuse Wisconsin. One of the most popular slogans of the white protesters was “Save a Walleye, Spear an Indian.” Today, the Ojibwe manage themselves through the Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commision (GLIFWC) and experience less white hostility than in the past (though there is still tension).

In another piece of history, the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin was terminated by the federal government in 1954, meaning their nationhood and reservation were eliminated. The Menominee, through their grassroots organization Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders (DRUMS), fought hard for and won the restoration of their reservation and nationhood status in 1973.  

The Way Forward

Knowing the history of the 12 Indigenous Nations in Wisconsin (one is not federally recognized) is critical to our fight today. 

Land acknowledgements should not be a substitute for solidarity and action around Indigenous rights. Today we see a rise in resistance in Indigenous communities merging with a call for a Green New Deal, that hopes to transform our economy from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. The organization The Red Nation has also put forward a Red Deal, an effort to compliment the Green New Deal while centering Indigenous liberation.  

There are current struggles in the midwest against Enbridge pipelines that go through Ojibwe land. Line 3 has been at the center of this resistance as Enbridge is rerouting and making upgrades to the pipeline in order to carry tar sands from Alberta all the way to Superior, Wisconsin. 

In addition Enbridge wants to make upgrades to the Line 5 project. Line 5 currently goes through the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin. However the Bad River Ojibwe have voted not to renew easements on this pipeline because of the damage it will do to sacred wild rice lakes and watersheds for the area, echoing the slogan from Standing Rock, “water is life.” 

This could quickly raise the question of whether Line 66, which goes through occupied Ho-Chunk land and comes very close to Madison, would be upgraded to carry tar sands to major cities like Chicago. 

Native struggles against the climate crisis that invoke Indigenous land rights are a lynchpin in fighting the extractive industry. Pipelines and extraction are the new faces of the same problem of settler-colonialism and capitalist expansion. What is different this time around is the development of multi-racial organizations like the Cowboy-Indian Alliance that was formed to fight the Keystone XL pipeline and the Black Hills Alliance that fought uranium mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1980s. The Cowboy-Indian Alliance and the Black Hills Alliance put treaty rights at the center of their struggle. These examples may be exceptions, but show that non-Indigenous workers must see that they have more in common with Indigenous treaty rights than they do with the fossil fuel industry that seeks to make this planet uninhabitable. 

Understanding and educating yourself about the brutality of settler-colonialism and that we live on stolen land is the first step to addressing the issue. That spark may very well come from hearing a land acknowledgement. However, the next step is building a multiracial solidarity-based grassroots movement like the examples above that combines the social power of Indigenous peoples and workers. With that type of power we can win a People’s Green New Deal in Madison and throughout this country.