In our series Front Lines, Splinter speaks to activists leading the charge in all kinds of ways.
“Right now we are in Yelamu, which is Ramaytush Ohlone territory.” So began Kanyon Coyote Woman/Sayers-Roods, standing before a roomful of people who had gathered to watch a performance in San Francisco on a recent Thursday night. Kanyon, who is Mutsun Ohlone, was practicing a form of cultural protocol known as land acknowledgment: honoring indigenous peoples and places by speaking their names aloud.
“Yelamu” is the name of the village that, prior to colonization, stood on the land we now call San Francisco. It was inhabited by a band of the Ohlone, the original peoples of the Bay Area. Kanyon thanked the organizers of the performance for inviting her “to acknowledge the land that we are standing on.” Beneath several abalone necklaces, her t-shirt read “DECOLONIZE.”
This may sound like a scene only possible in liberal San Francisco, but in fact land acknowledgment is becoming the norm in many parts of the world. Australia’s Parliament begins every day with “Welcome to Country,” a gesture of respect toward Aboriginal peoples. In Canada, acknowledgment statements are being read each day in classrooms, at city council meetings, and even before professional hockey games.
Usually crafted in consultation with local indigenous groups, acknowledgments are a way to honor the traditional stewards of the land. They also call attention to the losses incurred through colonization. Honor Native Land, a guide published by the “people-powered” U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, says that land acknowledgment is “a necessary step toward honoring Native communities and enacting the much larger project of decolonization and reconciliation.”
That project remains a pressing need as President Trump fast-tracks the Keystone XL pipeline and downsizes Bears Ears National Monument, prioritizing “energy independence” and “economic growth” over the needs of indigenous communities. Though acknowledgment practices have not prevented abuses of Native land in Canada or Australia, they are an important first step, which the U.S. has yet to take.
Kanyon grew up in Indian Canyon, which, thanks to her mother, is the only federally recognized “Indian country” in traditional Ohlone territory. Paying respect to the land’s first inhabitants is a fundamental practice of the culture she was raised in. An artist and activist, Kanyon frequently travels around the Bay Area to educate non-Natives on their responsibilities as guests on occupied Ohlone land. “I am an angry Native,” she told me, “but I channel my rage and sadness and hurt into walking forward in a good way, into more forgiveness and accountability.”
I sat down with Kanyon to talk about acknowledgment and other ways that non-Natives can honor and protect indigenous land.
What does it mean to acknowledge the first inhabitants of the land?
Cultural protocol has taught me to acknowledge that whenever I visit another space, there are ancestors present who were the stewards of the land and maintained a strong connection to the environment. Acknowledgment means acknowledging the truth of the land, which will speak about its longer history. It will talk about the blood spilled, the plants grown, and the way the land was stewarded. It has to do with the damage of colonial enterprise. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Who did he run into? Tell me, what was their first language? What were their sacred mountains?
In today’s colonial society, people are absentminded of the sacred. Original histories and narratives should be brought to the surface and acknowledged in the beginning, versus being an afterthought.
Why did you decide to start educating non-Natives about indigenous protocols?
It’s weird to be acknowledged as someone who talks about protocols, when those have been practices of my ancestors from time immemorial, and here we are needing to talk about it and engage with it as if it’s a new practice. It’s bittersweet, because it shouldn’t need to be taught. At the same time, it is beautiful that people are willing to learn and come into the circle and say that they may not know, but they’re willing to learn.
How can non-Native people learn to practice acknowledgment in a good way?
It would have to involve non-Natives being responsible for their own education, to take a little time to learn about the spaces they are living on and research. There were over 300 languages spoken in California, and now there are only 106 federally recognized tribes. Another 68 are still seeking federal recognition. Some people don’t even know that California Natives are alive. When visiting Canada, it is amazing to witness First Nations peoples’ rights being acknowledged in political practices. They present truth in the history books, and when you visit historical places, you see a more integral relationship with acknowledging First Nations peoples.
Land acknowledgment has become relatively common in Canada, but some people worry that it will become just “box-ticking inclusion.” What can we do to make sure it’s meaningful?
Be collaborative. Seek out organizations and resources to be a stronger ally and raise awareness. Instead of just saying, “I honor the Native peoples, I know that First Nations people were here,” well, what are you doing with that information? You walk by people every day that do not know this, and it may be important that they do. You yourself can be an ally and inform. Instead of biting your tongue or being quiet, you no longer stand idle. You speak out against the lies, instead of saying, “some Native will inform them.” There’s a lot of responsibility on Native peoples to correct what has been done wrong to us, and what is continually done wrong to us.
What do you think of Trump’s decision to downsize Bears Ears National Monument, which is co-managed by five indigenous nations?
It will be yet another treaty broken. This is the ultimate form of disrespect and cultural insensitivity. There are limited locations and spaces that indigenous peoples can steward and hold sacred. Just because it doesn’t meet the criteria of economic development or financial gain doesn’t mean that isn’t a space that’s useful, productive, and necessary. When it comes to insensitive colonizers coming in and dismissing our way of life because it’s not a priority in their agenda, it is fundamentally an act of war. It may awaken a bigger shift, because Native peoples have been degraded, negated, and swept under the rug. We are too tired to tolerate it any longer.
Acknowledgment statements are often phrased in terms of being “guests” in whichever nation’s territory. What are some responsibilities we should be aware of as guests who were not invited?
We need to be held accountable for the damages we’re incurring in the environment around us, from projects that dig into the earth and uproot Native burials, to construction that damages the homes of our four-legged, winged, and gilled relatives. If you run a business and were acknowledging indigenous perspectives, you wouldn’t think about the three, five, 10 year plan. You would think about the one, two, or seven generation plan. It would already be part of the decision-making.
People can be like weeds, which come in different forms. Some are helpful and useful to the land, and some are devastating. Some people just don’t know better, but everybody needs to be accountable. We’re all in our own form of healing from historical wounds. We just need to process them in different ways.
What do you wish non-Natives would understand before seeking to get involved in indigenous culture or activism?
When non-Native peoples seek out Native peoples, sometimes their colonial thought process is very consumeristic. There are times when Native peoples have been exploited or disregarded because a non-Native comes in and says, “I’m gonna talk to a Native,” and that first Native says no to their inquiry, so that person then says, “Well, I still wanna do what I wanna do, let me find another one.” Some people don’t know how to hear the word “no.” If I’m trying to do something for someone and I’m told “no,” I shouldn’t subvert them and find a way to still get what I want. If I’m still inclined to assist and help, then ask, “How can I be of help?” because every community will have a different answer.
In today’s society, there is a big effort for Native peoples to offer terminology to raise awareness. But what I’m learning is, why is all of the weight on Natives’ shoulders? Non-Native peoples should step up to learn about the original histories of the land, and learn how they can use their skills to raise awareness.