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UM’s School of Public Health ups the ante on Native land acknowledgments

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Posted at 10:22 AM, Nov 29, 2021

MISSOULA — When D’Shane Barnett first heard a land acknowledgment about four years ago, he thought the statement recognizing that Missoula is on land traditionally occupied by Indigenous people was powerful.

But Barnett, the director, and health officer of the Missoula City-County Health Department, said the statements have since lost some of their impacts.

“It’s like the first time that you tell someone you love them,” said Barnett, who is from the Mandan and Arikara tribes. He said land acknowledgments are great but when they’re overused, their function of inspiring action falls short.

That’s why Barnett, who is also a doctoral student at the University of Montana, helped edit a new land acknowledgment drafted by the university’s School of Community and Public Health Sciences. The acknowledgment was introduced on Indigenous People’s Day this October.

Most land acknowledgments list the Indigenous tribes that traditionally inhabited local areas, but don’t include instructions for how non-Native people can support those tribes.

The new statement says the university strives to empower Indigenous scholars by honoring tribal authority and creating inclusive learning environments. Barnett said that the more specific and action-driven language makes this land acknowledgment one of the best he’s seen.

He also lauded the statement for directly calling out education, health and legal systems for marginalizing Indigenous people.

A Native American camp site near the Clark Fork River and what today is downtown Missoula.

The School of Community and Public Health Sciences joins others at the university, including the Alexander Blewett III School of Law and the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS Farm), that have written statements unique from the university’s general acknowledgment, which was adopted in 2016.

One problematic part of land acknowledgments is that they’re often framed in the past tense, according to Dr. Brad Hall, a Blackfeet educator and tribal outreach specialist for the university’s Office of the President.

Almost 3% of Americans and 6% of Montanans identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native in the 2020 census.

Recognizing history in land acknowledgments is vital and should be used to “position yourself in the present and then look to the future,” Hall said. That means supporting and improving the university experience for current and future Native students, who make up almost 7% of the mountain campus student population, or just under 600 people, according to enrollment data released in September.

Hall said it’s important to introduce and promote Indigenous knowledge and research methods in classrooms. A land acknowledgment should identify the author’s plans to incorporate that support, he said.

That means land acknowledgments can be quite personal, even down to the individual level. To make or read one of these statements “acknowledges personal responsibility and personal stewardship,” Hall said.

Hall listed several things a person should consider while drafting a statement including personal background, the ways that person is viewed by others and how that person impacts the people around them.

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The Bitterroot-Salish near the Missoula Valley.

Even as land acknowledgments are improving, they’re not written in stone. They’re “living, breathing things that can be made more relevant over time,” Hall said, which leaves room for their authors to incorporate new knowledge.

Annie Belcourt, a professor in the School of Community and Public Health Sciences, began drafting the school’s statement in September. Belcourt, who is a part of the Blackfeet, Mandan, Hidatsa and Chippewa tribes, decided to include the names of tribes in English and in the tribes’ own languages.

“We’re here on their land. Why not include their names if we can?” she asked.

When she acknowledged that the University of Montana is on the traditional lands of the Salish people, she also used “Selis,” the Salish name for the tribe. Likewise, she paired Kootenai with “Ksanka” and Kalispel with “Qlispe.”

The statement also acknowledges the migratory nature of five other tribes that “relied upon their traditional knowledge and relationships with this land and this space for survival in the past and today,” according to the statement.

Belcourt had never used a land acknowledgment before writing this one. She didn’t want to use one superficially. Taking time to write one herself, Belcourt said, allowed her to reckon with the ways place and history have shaped the health of Native communities today.