Land acknowledgements (articulating on whose land a particular church building sits or a specific liturgy is taking place – referencing First Nation/Indigenous in Canada or Native American/American Indian in the US) has been an interesting comparative point between the two countries. In this blog site focused on liturgy, after an introduction to the conversation, I will limit the broad topic to one ritual aspect, land acknowledgements in Canadian liturgies, recognizing that this is a small part of the larger conversation past, present, and continuing.
Moving to Canada several years ago meant encountering the already-common land acknowledgement in primary Sunday liturgies, usually verbally announced at the beginning of the liturgy or printed in the bulletin. The practice was generally a little slower to develop in the US, and I am aware of its consistent presence in a few places, while elsewhere it is non-existent. I suspect the more widespread Canadian practices are a result of a different process and conversation, beginning with the indisputable point that Roman Catholic and Anglican churches were among the primary parties working with the Canadian government establishing the residential schools (with their accompanying destruction of indigenous culture and language, and widespread personal abuses on top of that). That reality led to a national reckoning under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and a widespread dissemination of the findings of that commission. While the residential schools were one piece of a long and systematic abuse of indigenous peoples, it was that national conversation which raised awareness for many Canadians and has resulted in a much higher visibility than in the US, especially in the two larger ecclesial communities directly involved. The report, published in 2012 (and available online) included a call for “Church Apologies and Reconciliation,” and has been followed with a multitude of other publications, secular and religious. In June of 2015, an ecumenical statement was issued acknowledging responsibility and promising to engage in reconciliation:
It is with gratitude and humility that we are here today to speak together as representatives of churches that participated in the operation of Indian Residential Schools. We are grateful to the Commissioners and staff of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada for the commitment with which they have carried out their mandate, and we are humbled in the knowledge that we continue to share a responsibility to ensure that the task of reconciliation does not end today. (Joint Statement of: The Anglican Church of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Roman Catholic Entities Parties to the Settlement Agreement, The United Church of Canada and the Jesuits of English Canada)
Since these statements, many specific suggestions have emerged, including the practice of “acknowledging territory” as an active step toward furthering reconciliation. In 2021 the Canadian Association of University Teachers republished suggested acknowledgements for universities, colleges, and school districts, which have provided a template for not only schools and local government gatherings, but also for churches. (for example, the main campus of the University of Toronto uses this acknowledgement:
I (we) wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.)
The ecumenical group “Kairos” suggested the practice for liturgies in the following way:
“A spoken territorial acknowledgment in worship might be a statement that is used consistently, or it might be something that changes depending on the context and the liturgical season and other factors. It can be something that is responsive or something that is said by one person. It can be done in the context of a prayer, particularly a gathering prayer as people arrive and ground themselves in the worship space.”
These various models have resulted in a wide compliance on the part of parishes using these land acknowledgements, but the reality is in many places they are done in a perfunctory way and have the feel of something tacked onto the beginning (or ending) of the liturgy, or simply a standard header in a bulletin. Part of the sense is an obligation (and honestly understood by many) without any connection to the liturgy itself. Far better have been acknowledgements which have engaged the congregation in a dialogue while incorporating the land acknowledgement with the aims of any eucharistic gathering rite (to gather the people together, to prepare all to hear the proclaimed word of God, and to prepare all to celebrate the eucharist together…) The 2018 dialogical prayer “We are Still Here,” (oddly referred to as a ‘responsive litany’) is primarily a rebuttal to the reality of the insidious “Doctrine of Discovery,” but concludes with
Indigenous: May the Creator’s plan
Non-Indigenous: for right relation in this place
All: finally come to be. Amen.
From this has sprung a number of dialogical ritual texts, folding the land acknowledgement into the primary foci of a liturgy (and many are far older than 2018, it has often been a matter of translating and adapting them from indigenous languages, or introducing them to both indigenous and non-indigenous alike). In the Anglican Diocese of Huron, for example, several diocesan liturgies have now begun with a shortened version of the Kanehelatúksla’ /Thanksgiving Address. This is a version of the Thanksgiving Address or the Words before all Else in the Onyota’aka (0neida) Language which is said by the Haudenosaunee peoples (and known to other native peoples in different languages). The words are greetings to the natural world said at the beginning and the end of each day or when there is a gathering of people for any occasion. Placed here in a Christian eucharist, it ritually functions as a series of offerings and words of centring before the opening hymn and liturgical greeting. It is not so much a “land acknowledgement” in the sense of whose land we have gathered on, as it is an acknowledgement of all that is – all the elements of creation with whom we recognize we are connected.
At the beginning of this exploration I asked (rhetorically) if these additions were inculturated justice or ritual overload. The reality is that it may not be a binary – necessary catechesis also comes to mind. But for an online community of ritual scholars, the larger question is ‘how do we keep adding these to the liturgy?’ Who is included, who is excluded, how do these acknowledgements and reconciliatory statements fit with the structure and balance of the liturgy (which is itself liturgical theology), and how do they become part of the work of glorifying God as God sanctifies us? Do they remain separate, politicized acts, or are they part of the liturgy? If they become part of the liturgy, do they become devalued in their own power, or is this part of the continual history of inculturation in and around the liturgy?
Finally, this is one situation of reconciliation and justice specific to North America. What about lands that have changed hands as gentrification drives out others, or prejudice and violence has changed the neighbourhood in which a parish church sits? What are the issues in other places of the world with regard to refugees, colonialism and more? How do we fit these pieces together into our primary weekly liturgical gathering?
Featured image: An 1836 map depicting the estimated areas of First Nation tribes in the 1600s from Wikimedia.