Royal Ocean Kelp Co. grows their kelp in Windy Bay, off of the coast of Hawkins Island. Photo by Bella Fertel for The Cordova Times

By Teal Hansen

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that we are on the unceded traditional lands of the dAXunhyuu, the Eyak People.  

But what does that mean? 

It means that we are all currently living, working, building, and establishing ourselves on lands that were unwillingly removed from a group of spiritual and intelligent beings. A whole culture who had an established belief system, medical practices, ceremonies, trade routes, technology, language, stories, and songs. They were people with feelings, families, and homes. A civilization with objects and places of worship, with hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. They had relationships with neighboring cultures. They had a role to play in this social and regional dynamic as the established Tribe centrally located at the mouth of the Copper River, south of the Copper River’s Ahtna people, east to the Prince William Sound Sugpiat, and west of the Tlingit Nation.  

The dAXunhyuu are the original stewards to the lands present-day Cordova sits on. 

Want a simplified definition?  

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The Anchorage Museum defines land acknowledgement as “a formal statement recognizing the Indigenous people of a place. It is a public gesture of appreciation for the past and present Indigenous stewardship of the lands that we now occupy.”  

This acknowledgement opens a space with gratitude and respect for the contributions, innovations, and contemporary perspective of Indigenous peoples. It is an actionable statement that marks our collective movement towards decolonization and equity. Land acknowledgement is a way that we can insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in our everyday life.  

Most commonly this is done at ceremony openings, conferences, lectures, public events, posted below an email signature, or on a website. It is a subtle way to recognize the history of colonialism and the need for change in settler colonial societies.   

But what can go wrong? 

These acknowledgements can easily be a token gesture rather than a meaningful practice. It can be, or appear to be, a box for an organization or person to check off. A publicity stunt that can do more harm than progress. All settlers have a responsibility to consider what it means to acknowledge the history and legacy of colonialism.  

Allison Jones from Native-Land.ca put together a great list of questions you can ask yourself to get started: What are some privileges settlers enjoy today because of colonialism? How can individuals develop relationships with peoples whose territory they are living on in the contemporary Alaskan geopolitical landscape? What are you, or your organizations, doing beyond acknowledging the territory where you live, work, or hold your events? What might you be doing that perpetuates settler colonial futurity rather than considering alternative ways forward for Alaska? Do you have an understanding of the on-going violence and the trauma that is part of the structure of colonialism?  

Chelsea Vowel, a Métis woman from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Sainte Anne, Alberta, writes: “If we think of territorial acknowledgements as sites for potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands.” (“Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments,” 2016.) 

How can we insert this understanding and practice into our lives? 

Really contemplate what this means! Talk to your children and family. Talk to your organization. Consider past and contemporary injustices. Consider Indigenous pride, love, and tradition. Learn local history. Books and online sources are a great starting place (and often may be your only source of information if you don’t yet have an established relationship), but listening to our elders and the people will always be the most ideal way to learn.  

Land acknowledgements are often concise, along the lines of: “I want to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of ___.” While a brief acknowledgement may work in some instances, you may wish to add more intention and detail in other situations. It requires time and care to thoughtfully prepare an in-depth acknowledgement. Ask yourself why this acknowledgement is happening. What are your intentions? How does it relate to the event, organization, or the work you are doing?  

Make sure you can correctly pronounce the traditional names. Consider reaching out to the organizations that represent the local Indigenous population and ask if they have a written statement that they have prepared for the public. Some groups may wish to be in control of how they are recognized. Present your statement to these representatives and ask for any feedback or guidance. When appropriate, ask if they have a representative that would like to make this public recognition. An exchange of services and knowledge as such is traditionally paid for, whether with a donation, gift, or otherwise. Don’t take advantage of our cultural bearers.  

How would you like to recognize and honor our land’s original caretakers? 

My simplistic land acknowledgment is posted below my email’s signature and shown below. You may wish to personalize yours to reflect your mission and the people you work and interact with, but feel free to use this one as a starting place: “I work and reside on the unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), coastal neighbors to the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq and the Yaakwdáat Lingít.” 

Disclaimer: this is not a perfect resource! If you do not do your own research and verify it appropriately, you will err in your acknowledgements.  

Teal Hansen is the Cultural Coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak. 

The Native Voices Column is a new Cordova Times column that highlights and uplifts the experiences and culture of the many Native populations that make up our community through guest contributions to the paper. If you are interested in submitting something about your Tribe, Village or a Native topic that is important to you, you can email us at [email protected]. The Cordova Times covers and is distributed on the historical and unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq, and the Yaakwdáat Lingít. 

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