Cris Stainbrook at Indian Land Tenure Foundation in Little Canada on January 10, 2023. Credit: Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

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Cris Stainbrook has a problem with land acknowledgements. 

As president of the nationwide Indian Land Tenure Foundation and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Stainbrook sometimes gets requests to help organizations develop their own land acknowledgments. They usually consist of a statement acknowledging that the land they are gathered on was stolen from Indigenous people. Proponents say such acknowledgements provide a way for non-Native people to publicly acknowledge the ugly legacy of Western colonialism.

But to Stainbrook, the words are largely empty. 

“The part that’s always missing is, ‘And here’s what we’re going to do about it,’” Stainbrook said.

So the Indian Land Tenure Foundation decided to act. This month, the nonprofit organization launched the “Beyond Land Acknowledgement Fund,” whose proceeds will help tribal nations across the country buy back land. It’s an extension of work that the Little Canada–based Indian Land Tenure Foundation has been doing for the past two decades. 

Land acknowledgements have become ubiquitous over the past few years: Countless organizations in Minnesota and across the country use them, including state government, the University of Minnesota, and arts organizations like the Minnesota Opera. They’re often read out loud before professional meetings and public events.

The Beyond Land Acknowledgement Fund started with a check for $250,000 from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, a 118-year-old parish in the south Minneapolis Longfellow neighborhood. Ingrid Rasmussen, the church’s lead pastor, said the money became available after the church recently sold a nearby affordable housing complex to a new owner. 

For close to a decade, Holy Trinity had been formally studying Christian ties to colonialism. This included holding sessions on Indigenous issues, including the loss of tribal land. Stainbrook started presenting at these panels several years ago. Congregation members approached Stainbrook and began a discussion about doing something concrete.

The parish has also been using a land acknowledgment for the past decade, and most recently updated it to add the congregation’s support for “movements to return land back to Indigenous hands.” Last fall, after Stainbrook gave a presentation as a part of the sessions at Holy Trinity, Rasmussen read the church’s updated land acknowledgement out loud and then gave him an envelope with the check. 

“The money was a small act of reparation for what had been taken from the Dakota people,” Rassmussen said.

It turned into seed money for Indian Land Tenure Foundation’s new Beyond Land Acknowledgement Fund. 

“I was really surprised,” Stainbrook said. “We had been pondering having a fund that even individuals can give to. And then this thing just kind of kicked it into gear.” 

Helping tribes buy land back

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation largely focuses on recovering land within reservation boundaries promised by treaty and nevertheless taken from tribes by public and private interests through the General Allotment Act of 1887. 

Commonly known as the Dawes Act, the policy allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands and allot smaller parcels to Native American households. The stated purpose was to encourage Native families to farm and become private property owners. Through this process, the federal government would identify land it deemed left over and sell it off to non-Indigenous interests. 

Before the Dawes Act, tribes owned 150 million acres of land across the U.S. When allotments ended in the 1930s, tribes had lost control of 90 million acres, leaving them only 60 million. 

Since then, Stainbrook said, tribal nations have regained 7 to 8 million acres. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation has helped tribes regain 155,000 acres, adding up to a land value of $270 million, Stainbrook said. The organization runs 27 funds that help tribes do so, employs a staff of 12, and gets its funding through donations, grants, and contracts. 

Seated in his office on a Tuesday in early January, Stainbrook cycled through maps of different reservations on his computer. The maps compare how much land the federal government promised each tribe versus how much of this land the tribes currently retain. 

The Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, located in north central Minnesota, offers one of the most striking examples. The tribal nation owns just 5 percent of the roughly 800,000 acres of land initially promised to them. The map makes this clear by showing a tiny checkerboard of red squares signaling tribally owned land within the reservation boundaries. The rest is owned by federal, state, county and city governments, and private interests. 

Stainbrook pulled up another map of the entire state of Minnesota from the early 19th century. At that time, the entire state was owned by tribal nations. 

Too often, Stainbrook said, land acknowledgements became a way for people who understand this land expropriation “to kind of alleviate their guilt, and so it’s become an easy way to do that.”

“Look at where these acknowledgements are done,” Stainbrook said. “A lot of them could actually do something without even putting up money. They could actually return land.” 

A ‘living initiative’

Representatives of several organizations told Sahan Journal they put time and effort into their land acknowledgements. Many of these efforts were led by Native people, with an eye toward creating an acknowledgement statement appropriate for reading out loud before an official meeting. Several organizations told Sahan Journal that their acknowledgements include concrete steps and goals to help rectify past wrongs. 

Allison Waukau chairs Hennepin County’s Land and Water Acknowledgement Workgroup, which recently developed a land and water acknowledgment for the county. She agrees with some of Stainbrook’s general criticisms of the statements.

“I’ve heard really bad land acknowledgments,” said Waukau, who is both Menominee and Navajo. “I’ve been in conferences where they just say it to be the cool kid on the block.”

Like Stainbrook, Waukau said after hearing a land acknowledgement, she wants to hear what concrete measures the organization is taking. At the same time, Waukau said, she worked to make sure Hennepin County’s land acknowledgment was meaningful. 

The Land and Water Acknowledgement Workgroup, for example, is contracting with the Metro Indian Urban Directors, a coalition of local Native American advocacy organizations, to support Native American people in the Twin Cities. The workgroup is sending the organization $50,000 this year, some of which will go toward health, education, and public safety subcommittees, Waukau said. 

The workgroup is using educational resources to develop a toolkit explaining local Indigenous history, including stolen land. It is developing a library where members of the 11 Minnesota tribal nations can rent out the flags of each nation to use for ceremonies and other events. Waukau said the workgroup is also looking into renaming county buildings that are currently named after early white settlers like Father Hennepin and T.B. Walker. 

Waukau said she wants to explore whether the county can allow residents to amend and direct a portion of their property taxes to tribal nations. 

Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who led the drive to adopt the land and water acknowledgement, emphasized that the county’s written land and water acknowledgement is “one piece of a much larger puzzle.”

“This is a living initiative that will continue to evolve as our work deepens and our partnerships grow,” Greene said in a statement.

‘This wasn’t created by a nonnative staff who wanted to check a box’

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which regulates food, environmental issues, and agriculture for the state, adopted a land acknowledgement in 2021. Shannon Kesner, the agriculture department’s tribal liaison, played a key role in making it happen. A member of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Kesner said that when she began working for the agriculture department in 2020, she felt it was crucial for the department to acknowledge the past. 

“A lot of our history and the loss of land is tied to agriculture,” Kesner said. “And so we thought it was extremely important to send a message externally that we acknowledge this, and also internally, to guide our staff to move forward in a better way.” 

The land acknowledgement took just under a year to develop, and sought input from all of Minnesota’s tribes. Kesner said it was also developed using guidance from the Native Governance Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps organizations formulate concrete goals beyond the statements themselves. 

“This wasn’t created by a nonnative staff who wanted to check a box,” Kesner said.

The Agriculture Department is working to encourage farmers who are leaving the profession to sell their agricultural land to tribes. The department’s online Farm Link platform will, in the future, include information about tribes who may be able to purchase land. 

Kesner also said she made sure the land acknowledgement isn’t recited at every single department meeting and event; the department saves it for special events to preserve its impact. 

The University of Minnesota also uses several land acknowledgements throughout many of its schools, departments, and divisions. It is a land grant university, and received more than 200,000 acres of land through federal land grants in the mid-1800s. 

In a prepared statement, University of Minnesota spokesperson Jake Ricker said that “land acknowledgements only carry meaning when the expressed sentiments are reinforced with action.” Ricker added that the University “has taken preliminary steps, some of historic significance, to reflect our commitment to this work.”

Among those steps, Ricker said, are the recent creation of the position of ​​senior advisor on Native American affairs to University President Joan Gabel. The University re-established its Dakota and Ojibwe language programs and recently announced free and reduced tuition for enrolled members of Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations. The University also directs funding to housing communities “where students can choose to live together and be immersed in Native culture and language.” 

“We recognize that the selected examples above are initial steps,” Ricker said, “but we also see each as a meaningful step reflecting our commitment to honor the values brought forward in a land acknowledgment.”

Land acknowledgements in their own words

Ingrid Rassmussen, lead pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, said using a land acknowledgement is important to her south Minneapolis congregation. She cites a papal bull (that is, an official decree) from the Roman Catholic Church dating back to 1493, one year after Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas and before the Reformation, which officially authorized colonization of the land. 

All Christian communities, including protestants, are implicated in this papal bull, Rassmussen said. Confessing one’s sins is also a major part of their faith.

“We confess wrongdoing and past injustices,” she told Sahan Journal. “A land acknowledgment allows us to confess the church’s active and complicit participation in harm done against Native peoples.” 

Below are examples of land acknowledgements from a handful of Minnesota organizations.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s land acknowledgement:

We collectively acknowledge that Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is located on the sacred, traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Dakota people. Holy Trinity’s building resides on land that was called Mother by the Dakota Nation and other Native peoples from time immemorial. We acknowledge that this land was taken from Indigenous people by exploitation and violence. Christian churches, including this one, benefited from the land theft. Given the historical, spiritual, and personal significance of this sacred ground for its original stewards—as well as its painful history—we recognize our responsibility to advocate for treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, and movements to return land back into Indigenous hands. By offering this land acknowledgement, we recognize our responsibility to confront past and present injustices and pledge to work for a future marked by justice, peace, and the well-being of Native peoples and their lands.

University of Minnesota, Office of Admissions Land Acknowledgement:

We acknowledge that the University of Minnesota Twin Cities is built within the traditional homelands of the Dakota people. It is important to acknowledge the peoples on whose land we live, learn, and work as we seek to improve and strengthen our relations with our tribal nations.

We also acknowledge that words are not enough. We must ensure that our institution provides support, resources, and programs that increase access to all aspects of higher education for our American Indian students, staff, faculty, and community members.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Land Acknowledgement

Partial statement:

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognizes that Minnesota’s vibrant food system is built on land which is crucial to Indigenous cultural identity. While this land acknowledgment doesn’t rectify the significant cultural, physical, and emotional losses of Indigenous people due to the loss of land and connection with it, the Department hopes it is a good starting point to move forward together to both fulfill the agency’s mission to enhance all Minnesotans’ quality of life by equitably ensuring the integrity of our food supply, the health of our environment, and the strength and resilience of our agricultural economy, and to support current Indigenous efforts to use food as a means of reaffirming their treaty rights and regaining culture, sovereignty and self-sufficiency for all tribes in Minnesota.

Read the full text here.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...