Published: Oct. 7, 2022 By

CU Boulder recently introduced a campus land acknowledgment, reflecting on its own difficult origin story and founding in 1876 on the traditional territories and ancestral homelands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute and other Native American nations.

Andrew Cowell

Andrew Cowell

...To the extent that individuals are putting land acknowledgment statements on their emails and similar things—I would urge them to avoid just performative statements. There are plenty of opportunities to commit time and especially financial resources on an individual basis to back up personal acknowledgment statements with concrete action.”

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    The campus land acknowledgment touches on the painful experiences of Indigenous peoples who have lived for millennia in what is today Colorado and the rest of the United States and commits to “improving and enhancing engagement with Indigenous peoples and issues locally and globally.”

    Recently, to honor Indigenous Peoples Day, CU Boulder Today asked Andrew Cowell, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies (CNAIS), to share his insights on the new campus land acknowledgment, the history of land acknowledgments across the Americas, and how—when accompanied by meaningful actions—such recognition can raise awareness and lead to greater support for Native communities.

    Why was it important for the campus to have a unique land acknowledgment?

    Every campus in Colorado has a different identity, culture and history, so I think it’s important for each of them to go through the process of reflecting about their own past and their unique responsibilities in the present. For example, some of the founders of CU Boulder were involved with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. That’s a historical burden unique to this campus.

    How did the campus land acknowledgment come together?

    A number of Native student, staff and faculty members had been pushing for a land acknowledgment for several years. At the same time, CU Boulder put together a group to work on issues related to diversity and inclusion on campus several years ago. That group produced the Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence in Academics (IDEA) Plan in October 2019, urging the campus to establish a land acknowledgment.

    CNAIS then held a series of meetings with Native individuals and allies, both from the CU Boulder campus and the broader community—alumni, private citizens and our External Advisory Board—while the IDEA Council, the campus group charged with prioritizing IDEA Plan goals, worked in parallel to help craft a statement and urge the campus to make concrete commitments to accompany the plan.

    New Senior Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Sonia DeLuca Fernández has been an important ally in seeing the process through to a conclusion, and our own CNAIS Advisory Board, particularly John Echohawk of the Native American Rights Fund, continued to speak strongly in favor of this action.

    More U.S. college campuses are adopting land acknowledgments. Why do you think that is so? What is the intended purpose of campus land acknowledgments?

    I think there are two purposes. One is to reckon with the less-told and often tragic aspects of American history, including things such as slavery and genocidal practices aimed at Native Americans. Most everyone is aware in general terms of those parts of our past, but very often they are not aware of how their own local towns and institutions were intimately involved in the details of those practices, such as the CU Boulder connections to the Sand Creek Massacre. These stories should be told.

    Secondly, however, this is not just about history. The events of earlier times produce continuing effects in the present, specifically, continuing inequities. The wealth and benefits the citizens of Boulder enjoy today come, in part, at the expense of dispossessed Native Americans (and the unequal treatment of African Americans and other citizens, I might add).

    Native Americans today have vastly lower life expectancies, household wealth and family incomes, and that is a direct result of conquest, banishment to reservations, and continuing racism and discriminatory practices, which enable the disproportionate wealth the rest of us enjoy. Land acknowledgments should ideally be about both past history and present inequities, and the responsibility of the acknowledgers to remediate those where they can.

    What is the history of land acknowledgments in general? Where did they get their start?

    In one sense, this is a long Indigenous practice—recognizing and acknowledging that land is inhabited by a particular people and asking permission to enter or use that land. When the Hawaiian traditional voyaging canoe Hōkūle’a sailed around the world a few years ago, they always asked Indigenous peoples for permission to land every place they went before coming ashore.

    In the specific sense of what CU Boulder is doing, this type of land acknowledgment started in Canada, in particular in 2015, after the release of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report on the history of First Peoples in Canada, which documented a long history of dispossession and discrimination against First Peoples.

    How have Native American communities responded to college campuses and other public and private entities adopting land acknowledgments?

    I know that many Native peoples are grateful to have the history and inequities and injustices recognized finally. However, there is also a strong feeling these can’t just be performative statements—they have to include commitments to concrete actions that attempt to redress the continuing inequities. After all, it’s not very satisfying just to have someone say, “I took your land. I finally admit it,” and then walk away.

    Have you received feedback on the campus’s new land acknowledgment? If so, has it been positive?

    We’ve heard a good deal of feedback, most positive. CNAIS students, staff and faculty were certainly gratified by the announcement. The acknowledgement mentions 48 tribes historically associated with Colorado, and no doubt there will be some questions about “why not my tribe as well?”

    But we’re relying on the official state list of Colorado tribes, because that’s the list that controls which Native Americans have access to in-state tuition. Of course the big thing now is to consult with tribes and local Indigenous communities in depth and find out what kinds of cooperative efforts we can make toward further redress, or if the state list should include other tribes. I very much hope that five years from now we’re not hearing criticism that “you never did anything to follow up.” That would make the statement largely meaningless.

    CU Boulder’s land acknowledgment is meant to be iterative and ever evolving. How might we expect to see the campus land acknowledgment evolve over the coming years and why?

    From this point on, tribal consultation is the key. I think it will evolve in response to that process, so it’s really not for us on campus to imagine that evolution—we need to be the listeners first. I’m sure both the wording of the statement and the cooperative efforts toward building and supporting stronger Native communities will develop in completely unexpected directions. This is really just the first step on a long journey, not the conclusion of anything.

    Anything else you’d like to add to increase the campus community’s awareness of these issues?

    We hope to soon implement elements of an Indigenous Student Support Plan that CNAIS has taken the lead in developing. There is also still a huge need for additional fellowship funding for Native students. To the extent that individuals are putting land acknowledgment statements on their emails and similar things—I would urge them to avoid just performative statements. There are plenty of opportunities to commit time and especially financial resources on an individual basis to back up personal acknowledgment statements with concrete action. I encourage members of the campus community who want to learn more to contact CNAIS.


    CU Boulder Today regularly publishes Q&As with our faculty members weighing in on news topics through the lens of their scholarly expertise and research/creative work. The responses here reflect the knowledge and interpretations of the expert and should not be considered the university position on the issue. All publication content is subject to edits for clarity, brevity and university style guidelines.