You are on Indian Land: Acknowledging the Traditional Homelands of Indigenous People at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

[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


6 thoughts on “You are on Indian Land: Acknowledging the Traditional Homelands of Indigenous People at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  1. Reblogged this on Chief Writing Wolf and commented:
    For some 500 years the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have struggled to prove a simple fact: they and their ancestors were the first human occupants of this massive region. They weren’t members of the wildlife and they weren’t features of the various landscapes. They were real people who constructed real communities with the resources available. It’s taken a while, but they’re starting to gain that recognition. As someone of part Mexican Indian ancestry, it’s significant to me.
    Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is a Professor and Head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. A member of the Hopi Indian community, he is also the author of a number of books on the Native American experience in the contemporary United States; most recently Modern Encounters of the Hopi Past, in which he analyzes the ways the Hopi operated within and beyond their ancestral lands, including their participation in the U.S. military, American film industry, music ensembles, and higher education.
    It’s a mission and a challenge that may not be fully realized in our lifetime. When one considers the brutal scope of the ongoing discrimination and oppression faced by Indigenous Americans, it’s not difficult to see why.
    In 1998, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, nationalist Brazilian politician told “Correio Braziliense” newspaper, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Bolsonaro is now president of Brazil.
    What he and others of that bigoted mindset don’t seem to understand is that the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere never were completely “exterminated”; neither in Brazil nor in the U.S. The colonialists tried, but even after half a millennia, they still haven’t won that war.

  2. Lance Diskan


    Basket Dance at Sipalouvi this past weekend. A hundred women and flying home-goods! What a profound sense of place. As always, an honor to be there. /// I hope you are noting the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in the coming days. What a triumph for Vernon Masayesva, the Black Mesa Trust and sympathetic bahanas like myself. It has been my privilege and pleasure to be associated with Hopi for many years. [ As I say to people: “As go the Hopi, so go we all.” ] Some day someone will make a feature film about the 30-year struggle to save Hopi water. And OF COURSE now there’s the newest threat at the Confluence by ‘gravity-fed generation’. Believe the best bumper sticker for 2020 is : “America – white supremacist and proud of it since 1492.” Honored to be sharing the Journey with you en route to the Fourth World. Kwa Kwai.

    1. Lance, good to hear from you. and please forgive me for my long delay in responding to your very thoughtful comment! Over the years, I have followed very closely the work of Vernon Masayesva and the Black Mesa Trust. I plan to write about this work in my current book project, Modern Encounters of the Hopi Past. Thanks again!

  3. Mariah ShieldChief

    Dr. Gilbert,
    As I read this piece I was forced (by long-standing academic training) to think of the inter-connectivity between identity, place, history (the sacred history of a cultural “us”), and a people’s ceremonial life (another great are to explore within the AIS discipline). Which is to say that perhaps we need to re-consider or perhaps re-define what we within AIS how we talk about “land?”

    I say that because, within the Indian mind, land is really place. Not an abstract conception of something that can be own, traded, sold, sown, tilled, valued monetarily or condemned. It is a specific place or place(s) for all tribal nation’s members. for the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Miami, and Odawa in the place you gave your speech it is specific. In the minds of these peoples there are specific landmarks that clearly identify for those people what it is to be home. To have planted, hunted, fished, were birthed or died.

    Ironically I am forced to remember many things (so much a cacophony in my mind) that relates to both my own personal relationship to place both in Pawnee, Oklahoma and in Cowlic and Sells, Arizona. Places where I remember burials and births, dances (war & piast), relatives, sun or wind. Places, I think, I go to feel most closely related to those who’s hands I cannot hold or scents I am unable to smell. I go and I speak there, bring offerings of food, tobacco, soft, plush toys and American flags. Places, that, for me personally, a reflection of our removal and relocation.

    As we start down this heavily loaded internal and academic road within our discipline I believe your thoughts regarding the “reality” of what we say through our scholarship must be foremost in our minds. Theory yes; but basic, integral, and inexorable to American Indians and the Americas…

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