Authentic Land Acknowledgement: Are we just checking a box?

By: Tara Beresh, Curatorial & Collections Manager

“It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” –Northwestern University

In 2020, the Moab Museum adopted its first Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Statement. It pays respects to the original settlers of the Moab Valley; the People who came before European settlers—the First Peoples. But it also pays respects to their descendants presently thriving in Moab and across the region.

The Moab Museum’s Land Acknowledgement reads as follows:

We acknowledge the land we currently identify as the Moab Valley to be the traditional and ancestral lands of bands of the Nuutsui (Ute) and clans of Ancestral Pueblo People. We pay our respects to all their elders, past and present, and choose to honor and acknowledge the original stewards of this land in hopes of building mutual respect and understanding across all cultures – those that reside here and those that pass through here today and in the future. The Moab Museum intends to foster a mutual understanding among and between cultures to produce stronger and more effective civic interactions among citizens of, and travelers across, the Colorado Plateau.

When we discuss the region more broadly, we acknowledge the Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, and Diné, who also share deep ties to this region.

During National Native American Heritage Month, we reexamine our motives for having a Land Acknowledgement Statement and what it means to be authentic about it. Recent dialogues from local and national Native communities highlight the complications with this latest attempt by institutions to address historic wrongs. In a recent article published in Outside Magazine, Dr. Len Necefer, CEO Founder of Natives Outdoors, and member of the Navajo Nation, shares, “acknowledgements can have the unintended consequence of framing Indigenous people’s issues as antiquated and limited to land, glossing over the most brutal acts as a result.” The very language used in documents like a Land Acknowledgment, or even the Native American Graves Repatriation Act of 1990, ignores or unknowingly erases cultural views by contextualizing the matter from a western perspective. For example, “a focus solely on land oversimplifies many other varying beliefs. For some Indigenous people, while the land is important, bodies of water—rivers, lakes, and the ocean—hold significantly more cultural relevance. For other tribes, the dream world may be a much more central component of their lived experience,” per Dr. Necefer. To some Native cultures, it isn’t just about land, and the very phrase “Land Acknowledgement” misses the point.

Suggestions for authenticity include building real, authentic relationships with Indigenous people, compensating Indigenous people for their emotional labor (instead of casually requesting free counsel), and understanding displacement and how it plays into land acknowledgment. Are we simply checking a box, or are we demonstrating our commitment to change through our actions?

The Moab Museum has only begun building relationships with Native communities, listening to their concerns, and honoring their requests to change how we include First Peoples’ stories in our exhibits. The Museum currently displays five ancestral objects, each curated with care and cultural accuracy. Prior to the redesign, the Museum exhibited more than fifty objects, all beautiful to observe, but not always accurately depicted. Today we prioritize consultation and including text directly from those consultations. Our current special exhibit (Hopi Katsina: Evolving Styles, Enduring Meaning) features a contemporary representation (per the request of local tribes) of Native culture and lifeways.

Our exhibits and programs seek to present authentic, whole stories of Native communities both in the past and today. We recognize that the road ahead to accomplishing this is long and we will make mistakes. But, we continue to commit to authenticity and cultivating a space that is both representative and welcoming to our diverse community. As we observe Native American Heritage Month in November, we invite our community of Museum visitors to join us in reexamining our cultural understanding of Native history, and expanding our knowledge of what it means to be Indigenous in America today.

The Moab Museum’s Land Acknowledgement, as well as Values, on display at the entrance to the exhibit space.


Native Governance Center – A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement

Outside Magazine: We Need to Reframe Why We Do Land Acknowledgements by Len Necefer

Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) – Native American and Indigenous Initiatives