Land Acknowledgements as Living Things

The Connection of Life and Language

This post was co-written by educators, Whitney Aragaki & tia North.

With school back in session in much of the world and in honor of Indigenous People’s Day around the corner, we’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to acknowledge Indigenous people in our classrooms. 

Our classrooms are, by geographic measurement, roughly 2,500 miles apart, but the land and its history connect us. We grew up together in Hawaiʻi—learned in the same preschool, swam in the same waters, and ventured into the same rainforests. As individuals, our education and careers have taken us on diverse paths: One, a Native Hawaiian, is currently residing in Eugene, Oregon and teaches poetry and writing in Higher Ed. One, a Japanese settler, is fortunate to remain on Hawai‘i Island and teaches science at a public high school. Today, the conversation of land acknowledgements brings us back together.

Land acknowledgements have become features of educational spaces. We’re in contact with them in email signatures, website homepages, at the start of conferences, and more, replicated or repeated seemingly from templates. In the classroom, land acknowledgements are often couched in a conversation with #decolonizing a lesson. But are these statements doing what we want them to do? 

We ask a lot of land acknowledgement statements these days in the wake of a collective remembering. We want them to be and do everything: heal, teach, light, open, recognize, etc. If we treat land acknowledgements as static objects, however, how can they fulfill such lofty aspirations? To remember the words of our kumu (teacher), Manulani Aluli Meyer, “nouns have always been verbs.” We come back to this lesson today.

As a biology and a writing teacher, life and language are at the heart of our teaching. And as children of Hawaiʻi, we come to this conversation because our kuleana (role/responsibility) is to serve ‘āina (land). While a direct translation of ʻāina is land in Hawaiian, the nuanced translation is of land and water, and all that thrive on them – humans, animals, plants, fungi. For us, land acknowledgments are the recognition of ʻāina, past and present—the connection of life and language, verbs incarnate.

For us, land acknowledgements are living things.

In our classrooms, we work with land acknowledgements to practice holding expertise. We resist the idea that one is either an expert or one is not. Instead, everyone has access to holding expertise. Here are some of the ways in which to think about incorporating land acknowledgements in your classroom:

Early learners can identify, record, sort, describe, or classify tangible details of a land acknowledgment. Historical events tailored to age-appropriate learning can complement these details. For developing learners, establishing context and verifying the relevance and accuracy of information through discussions and guided questions can be beneficial. 

Create a class Land Acknowledgement Statement that becomes a living document during the course year. Demonstrate fluidity and growth by adding and editing as more learning emerges. 

Enter a guided learning journey to learn about the land’s histories and about the people who have stewarded this place and how the land has thrived, suffered, or changed. 

Creating a class statement may lower the social risk and isolation of privilege in certain communities. Students may work on their own statements given different lived experiences as a form of reflection.

Upon initial land acknowledgement work, engage in discussion with guided questions: 

Where are we and whose traditional lands do we reside? Who should make these decisions and what should affect them? What state do we want the land to be in for future generations?

Reflect, problematize, and seek to deepen the cycle of learning that contributes to a robust and meaningful land acknowledgement.

The process deepens the product. Engaging in land acknowledgement as a verb, a continued action, moves our impact. There are aspects to land acknowledgements that require a knowledge base and guided practice. Stick with it, especially in the discomfort. This is where our deepest learning happens. We are growing along with you.

Whitney is a fifth-generation Japanese settler on Hawaiʻi Island. She teaches high school biology and AP Environmental Science. Whitney holds a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College, a M.Sc. in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is a two-time state finalist for the Presidential Awards of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. 

t. north (she/they) is an ʻŌiwi poet, educator, and ʻāina aloha from Panaʻewa, Hawaiʻi in the ahupuaʻa of Waiākea. She teaches poetry and writing and serves as the Associate Director of Composition at the University of Oregon. She is a Composition Teacher of the Year, Williams Recipient, and the Inaugural Culturally Responsive Teaching Fellow for the Department of English.

Lead image taken by Madeline Onassis / Unsplash.

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