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Op-ed: Acknowledging Indigenous peoples is only first step, meaningful action required

By Mishuana Goeman

Jan. 16, 2021 2:38 p.m.

Last year, we witnessed the incredible impact Native Nations can have in electoral politics and celebrated the largest number of Native people elected to public office in history.

Deb Haaland has been nominated the U.S. secretary of the interior in a historical first. Throughout the last decade, we have seen Indigenous peoples work to expand Indigenous rights globally, particularly for protection of the environment. In 2019, UCLA released a land acknowledgment to campus and we have exciting projects in process for when we all return to campus.

I have been asked throughout the last year what the UCLA Land Acknowledgment means at the level of student organizing, faculty participation and constructing department and divisional relationships. There are several different embraces, critiques and opinions of the acknowledgment – and that is good as we all sit particularly in relationships to the place we love. At UCLA, we do have a long tradition of taking special care to reflect on our shared histories, possibilities for the future and celebrate Native Nations and Indigenous lives while taking action.

I am writing to provide some further ways to move beyond the land introduction.

UCLA sits on the land of the descendants from the closest village Kuruvungna. While UCLA was not a known village site, it was known to be the traditional Gabrielino-Tongva territory, the name which the direct lineage from Kuruvungna prefer to call themselves. Our UCLA acknowledgment derives from the Indigenous protocol of introducing oneself and acknowledging each other as coming from specific lands, histories, cultural formations and is the start of forming respectful relationships.

UCLA’s acknowledgment was created in consultation with a majority of the lineages of Gabrielino-Tongva elders and leaders after many months of consultation. While I have been pleased to see its adoption throughout our campus, I urge everyone to reflect on its purpose. The land acknowledgment was never meant to end there: it is an introduction. Anyone can acknowledge whose land you are on and weave in what that means to the specific event or programming you are conducting. This acknowledgment calls on all of us to end Indigenous erasure and engage with Native people in meaningful ways.

Inclusion should never just be tokenism – it should have meaningful impact. Learning about the Gabrielino-Tongva is part of this process.

At UCLA and in Los Angeles specifically, there are many ways you can take action. We are a talented and diverse group of people at UCLA with many gifts to share. Here are just a couple of ways to put meaning behind your acknowledgment.

  • Each and every one of us has responsibility to be caretaker of the land. Awareness of our water intake and local environmental issues is a great place to start.
  • The American Indian Studies Center is a fantastic place to learn about many opportunities to learn and take action. Attend these virtual events to learn more about contemporary and past issues facing Indigenous peoples.
  • Form meaningful relationships by supporting local organizations and Indigenous nations.
  • Ask if your research would impact Native American communities, and if so, consider ways to incorporate Native American Nations and communities as collaborative partners. The AISC and UCLA School of Law already engage with important work in Indigenous communities, such as these cutting-edge projects: HateMap, Diverse Perspectives on Water Project and Native Nation’s Law and Policy Center. There are many more across campus. Get involved. Find out what is going on in your area of UCLA.
  • Educate yourself about contemporary Indigenous peoples, especially their work within your field of study. For more information on local tribes, you may start with Tataviam’s video series or UCLA’s Mapping Indigenous LA.
  • Learn more about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at Carrying Our Ancestors Home, a special advisor and archaeology lab project. Hear about its meaning and history through the voices of local tribal leaders.
  • Not only have we planned a physical representation on campus to be placed near Founders Rock, but we also are working on creating more environmental plant spaces throughout UCLA for reflection, gathering and learning. The Botanical Garden at UCLA has some spectacular upcoming events. We hope to celebrate the work of more inclusive spaces on campus, through a series and Fiat Luxes as soon as we are able to return to campus.

See the Special Advisor website for more information about the projects we are doing on campus and updates.

I encourage you all to engage with the wealth of knowledge Native people share during this difficult and tumultuous time, use what you learn and carry it forth, and not just begin and end with an acknowledgment. Rather, think of it as a land introduction that can inspire you to form more inclusive and meaningful relationships.

The more we all participate in these steps, the more we can chip away at injustice.

Dr. Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, is special advisor to the chancellor on Native American and Indigenous affairs. Goeman is also a professor of gender studies, American Indian studies and an affiliated faculty of critical race studies in the UCLA School of Law.

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Mishuana Goeman
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