Arts Organizations and Activists Speak Out About Land Stewardship on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Today, October 11, marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, an occasion that honors the history, cultures, and ongoing struggles of the native people of this land. It falls on the second Monday of the month, parallel to Columbus Day, which celebrates the infamous colonizer of the Americas. The date is often at the center of protests and events acknowledging the history of Native genocide. In recent years, the practice of land acknowledgments has increased at US institutions, while protesters have voiced their opposition to the occupation of the Americas by toppling or defacing statues memorializing colonizing figures, like Christopher Columbus.

In the wee hours of this morning, anonymous protesters painted the Andrew Jackson memorial in Washington, DC with a message reading “Expect Us” in red. The text is surrounded by bloodied handprints, a symbol that represents solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States. (Native American women are up to 10 times more likely to be murdered or sexually assaulted in some regions of the country, according to the US Department of Justice.)

The Andrew Jackson statue at the @WhiteHouse was redecorated! Today is #IndigenousPeoplesDay but don’t get it twisted, colonization is not over. Native ppls are still fighting settler violence via fossil fuel extraction across Turtle Island! #PeopleVsFossilFuels pic.twitter.com/ntOIliXATW

— Indigenous Environmental Network (@IENearth) October 11, 2021

Without claiming responsibility for the action, the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of grassroots Indigenous environmental activists, released a statement today saying that the action also meant to protest “extractive colonialism” and the arrest of hundreds of water protectors and land defenders who fought against the construction of the “Line 3” oil pipeline from Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.

“Our people are older than the idea of the United States of America,” the statement reads. “We are the original stewards of this land and will continue to fight for the natural and spiritual knowledge of our Mother who sustains our life-ways.”

The group continued: “We are the grandchildren of the strong spirits who have survived your residential schools, your pipelines and mines, your reservations and relocation and your forced assimilation and genocide. We carry the prayers and intentions of our ancestors and are unafraid. Another world is possible, may all colonizers fall.”

The Theodore Roosevelt statue outside of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, defaced with red paint (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a similar action last week, unidentified protesters splattered red paint on the long-disputed statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the steps of New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Protests against the statue, which features the former president flanked by anonymous Black and Indigenous gun carriers in a subservient position, date back to 1971. Itremains standing despite the museum’s decision to remove it over a year ago.

The statue has also been at the center of a number of artist-led protests, most notably the series of Anti-Columbus Day Tours held between 2016 and 2019. Decolonize This Place, the activist group leading the tours, released a zine for Indigenous Peoples’ Day reflecting on previous protests, which publicized the connections between art institutions and legacies of colonization. With its last tour in 2019, the group marched with over 700 protesters from AMNH through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum.

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Meanwhile, the New Museum in New York acknowledged today that it sits on unceded Lenape land. Calling it a “living” land acknowledgment, the museum said that it will “continue to revise and strengthen” the statement in collaboration with community members. The statement was written with the guidance of the Lenape Center, which previously advised the Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum, and the Brooklyn Public Library in making similar land acknowledgments.

In a phone interview with Hyperallergic today, Lenape Center’s executive director, Joe Baker, explained that the idea behind a “living land acknowledgment” is to allow institutions to later answer the question: “What actions follow words?”

“It’s up to the organization to create their own living land acknowledgment but we encourage them to come up with actionable steps that they will take toward a more equitable future and addressing this genocide,” Baker said.

Hadrien Coumans, co-founder and co-director of the Lenape Center, told Hyperallergic that the organization is currently working with the Brooklyn Public Library on co-curating an exhibition of Lenape artists that will open in January of 2022.

“It’s really been a shame that other institutions haven’t taken up this responsibility,” he said, adding that Brooklyn Public Library was the first institution to make a land acknowledgment and follow it with action.

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Land acknowledgments are a recent phenomenon in the US, which lags behind countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was only in May this year that the Met, the country’s largest museum, released a land acknowledgment and engraved it on a plaque at its 5th Avenue location.

But as long as these statements avoid addressing the issue of returning the land to its original owners, they will remain hollow and useless, according to Joseph Pierce, an associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University and a Cherokee Nation citizen.

“These statements are often empty gestures linked to multicultural inclusion that obscures the reality of genocide, colonialism, and the ongoingness of our displacement from our lands,” he told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation.

“Recognizing that museums and universities were built on stolen land does not change that fact,” Pierce continued. “If that recognition does not include a pathway to returning the land, it only serves to continue the displacement of Indigenous peoples.”

“A statement that stops at a land acknowledgment is determinantal to the return of Indigenous people to their land,” Pierce explained. “Cultural institutions are trying to ride the decolonial wave but they’re missing one thing: decolonial practice is not about what you say and what you know — it’s about how you do things.”

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