Anyone who has recently attended a city council meeting, a school board meeting, or a college graduation has probably heard an indigenous land acknowledgment spoken as part of the ceremony.
It is a statement intended to recognize the privilege and prosperity enjoyed by institutions and communities established by colonizers and settlers on land that had long been the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people and their many tribes across the region.
A land acknowledgement is a tip-of-the-cap, so to speak, that has been widely adopted by institutions in the Puget Sound region. But for many, its value is little more than an empty gesture.
Recently, a University of Washington professor protested the recommended inclusion of an indigenous land acknowledgment in the syllabus of his computer science course in objection to both the principle and the message.
He is now under investigation and faces possible disciplinary action or even termination for his stance on the issue.
The University of Washington’s Allen School, where Stuart Reges teaches computer science, made a list of recommendations to instructors regarding the “best practices” for inclusive teaching. They detailed things to include in the course syllabus such as a statement on the university’s sexual harassment policy, a statement about accommodating students’ religions, and a recommended indigenous land acknowledgment.
The university’s recommended statement for course syllabi read as follows: “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip, and Muckleshoot nations.”
Reges has described a course syllabus to be similar to a contractual agreement between students enrolled in a course and the instructor of that course. They typically contain an outline of the course, the class expectations, code of conduct and other details and conditions for students.
Reges had a problem with the inclusion of the land acknowledgment in his syllabus because he felt it took a specific point of view and perspective regarding history. He also said he did not feel it was appropriate to include such a specific political viewpoint in a contractual agreement between students and their course instructor, especially when to him, the land acknowledgment itself was a “hollow” gesture without “concrete action.”
Reges said he felt the indigenous land acknowledgment was more of a performative means of virtue signaling — a way of trying to show that the professors, faculty, and students are in-line with progressive politics.
“We have a complicated relationship with native tribes,” Reges said in an interview. “I don’t think it can be reduced to a couple of sentences.”
Jaime Martin, Executive Director of Governmental Affairs and Special Projects of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, said in an interview that often these land acknowledgment statements made by groups and institutions are entirely performative if not backed by proper intention and paired with meaningful actions.
Martin said that merely repeating these boilerplate statements does not carry real meaning if the institutions that recite them are not doing the work to re-examine their systems in relation to indigenous people and communities. This includes developing relationships with tribes and being mindful of their impact.
Martin said these land acknowledgement statements often do nothing to amplify tribal voices while using past-tense language, suggesting tribal communities do not still live on the ancestral lands. Martin also suggested that they can use over-generalizing language that fails to show an understanding of specific tribes, their story and their culture.
However, Martin said even 12 years ago, the idea of a land acknowledgement was somewhat uncommon. Now, to see groups and institutions reaching out to tribes about how to draft an appropriate land acknowledgment statement, she said, seems like a step forward and one that is closer to having the conversations needing to be had.
To her, what is more important than a statement, is to develop meaningful relationships between tribes and institutions, to support tribal businesses, to recreate on native ancestral lands mindfully and respectfully and to continue to deepen understanding of tribal communities.
Reges protests with his own land acknowledgement
While Reges was contemplating how to approach the issue of the recommended land acknowledgement, a colleague of his made him aware of an editorial from The Atlantic called “‘Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism.”
The article’s thesis is land acknowledgments are boilerplate, even lazy blanket statements only serving to signal virtue.
“These statements relieve the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event,” the article reads. “A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land.”
This idea resonated with Reges. He said he understood these land acknowledgments only serve to try and make white people feel good about themselves, as if they have actually done something to benefit the tribes and their members.
And so, Reges decided to protest both the university’s requirement of the land acknowledgement, as well as the land acknowledgment itself, by instead implementing his own.
Reges said the statement he included in the syllabus was not necessarily something he believes in, and it was designed “strategically” in an attempt to poke at UW’s push to employ a specific viewpoint and message into the syllabus.
He drafted something he “knew they wouldn’t like,” and he even sent it to college administrators before he gave it to students on their syllabus.
His version of the land acknowledgment facetiously read: “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”
Reges’s statement was a nod to John Locke’s philosophical theory that property rights are established by labor. An opinion piece from UW’s student newspaper claimed there were “logical fallacies” in Reges’ use of the theory in application to indigenous land rights and ownership.
“It was about so much more than this theory,” said Reges.
The statement he made in the syllabus generated buzz around campus as news of it was shared over social media. Eventually an administrator emailed Reges, condemning his version of the land acknowledgement.
In an email, Magdalena Balazinska, the director of the computer science department, ordered Reges to immediately remove his modified statement from his syllabus, labeling it “inappropriate” and “offensive,” and declaring that it created “a toxic environment” in the course. He was told several students had complained about the statement made in his syllabus.
He refused to remove the statement, on the basis that the university was discriminating against his viewpoint on a controversial issue, something he believed his rights to freedom of expression protected him against.
He said his statement was really just a perspective on land ownership, and his intention was not to create a toxic environment but rather to start a conversation on a college campus in which he believed should be an appropriate venue for the topic.
“It was an idea, I did not disparage the tribes,” Reges said when he was asked if he was worried his statement may have alienated certain students, particularly those who are tribal members or descendants of the Coast Salish peoples.
Taking legal action
Since the debacle, Reges says the university has started a “shadow course” for students who wanted to take Reges’s course from a different professor. He was also placed under investigation and faces what he expects could be possible termination from the university.
Reges is taking legal action against the university and is represented by lawyers from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
A University of Washington spokesperson made this statement when asked about their policies on the recommended syllabus land acknowledgement:
“The University of Washington is aware of the complaint. The university continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights and we look forward to presenting our position if called to do so.”