[The following land acknowledgement was part of a keynote address I gave at the Annual Celebration of Diversity Breakfast at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The event, which had over 400 people, took place on November 9, 2018. Over the years, people have approached Indigenous land acknowledgements in various ways. This is how I did it, and I am hopeful that my approach will be of some help to others.]
You are on Indian Land
Good morning everyone. It is great to be here. I am so honored by this opportunity.
I was told earlier this week that I had about 8 minutes at the mic.
And so in true Hopi fashion, I am going to keep my remarks short and sweet.
In recent months, officials and others on campus have started their public gatherings (including this gathering) by reading an official statement that acknowledges the Indigenous people who were the traditional stewards of these lands — the lands we now collectively refer to as the state of Illinois.
It is a wonderful statement, and I am grateful for those across campus who helped create it, including my colleagues Nichole Boyd, Jamie Singson, Elizabeth Tsukahara, Dr. Rusty Barcelo, and many others.
This morning I would like to talk about what is at the heart of this statement, but to do so in a way that reflects who I am as a Hopi person, a Native historian, and as one who has lived and worked on these lands for the past twelve years.
I hope you don’t mind me doing so.
My former graduate advisor Clifford Trafzer at the University of California, Riverside, once began his Native American history textbook with the following words:
“Wherever you are in the Americas, you are on Indian land.”
It is difficult, I think, for those of us who work and study at the University of Illinois to remember or even understand that the land beneath our feet is “Indian land.”
We look outside the windows from our offices or places of work and we see both old and modern buildings. We walk on the pathways of our beautiful Quad, enjoy the nicely cut grass, and hear chimes from the Altgeld Hall Tower.
Little, if anything, on this campus reminds us that we are on Indian land.
But we are.
Long before French explorers encountered Native people on these lands in the 1600s, Indigenous people were here. Some of these people included the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Miami, and Odawa, among others.
And long before the federal government forcefully removed a number of these tribes to places such as Kansas or what was then referred to as the Oklahoma Indian Territory, the people considered these lands their home.
It was here among the tall grasses, flowing rivers, natural springs, and rolling meadows where the aforementioned tribes learned about and understood their identity as Indigenous people.
Their origin and migration stories tell of these lands, and give their communities meaning and purpose in life.
Back on my ancestral lands in the American Southwest, far from the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois, the land also gives testimony of the ancient ones.
Our many ceremonial sites, including our sacred mountains and springs, and places unknown to the outside world, remind my people of those who came before us.
“We were once great travelers,” elders back home have told me, “a people who ventured out and put our marks upon the country from the Pacific to Central America and beyond.”
Again, “Wherever you are in the Americas, you are on Indian land.”
Well known Lakota scholar and thinker Vine Deloria, Jr. once remarked that “American Indian people are a people of time and a people of place.”
It is tempting, I know, for us to only associate this “place” (or these lands) with Native people of the distant past.
But these lands have always been closely associated with their original caretakers (notice that I used the word “caretakers” and not “inhabitants”), regardless if a university or any individual acknowledges this reality.
The land has memory, and it still speaks to us. The question, of course, is whether you and I are willing to listen?
Again, thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you this morning.
I especially want to extend a heartfelt thanks to Assistant Vice Chancellor Gioconda Guerra Perez, Chancellor Robert Jones, Provost Andreas Cangellaris, and Dean Feng Sheng Hu in the College of LAS.
The fact that I am standing before you today gives testimony to our current administration’s commitment to American Indian people and issues on campus. And it demonstrates the vital role Indigenous people – and yes, all people – have in creating and maintaining a truly diverse and inclusive Illinois.
Delivered by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert at the Annual Celebration of Diversity Breakfast, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, November 9, 2018