Ritual land acknowledgements: inculturated justice or ritual overload?

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.

7 comments

  1. In my context of the San Francisco Bay Area, the places where I have worked – both educational settings, a P-12 and a university, Land Acknowledgements have become part of the rhythm within the “Call to Worship”. It is important in our context because of the presence of the California Missions and the narrative which that has presented for California’s collective history, the good and the not-so-good. (Not only has this been included in “big liturgies” but also in “other gatherings,” e.g. faculty and staff inservices.)

    The following is said at my current work:
    As we prepare for our celebration, let us pause to acknowledge that (institution) of (city, CA) sits on the land of the Ramaytush and the Ohlone people. We remember their connection to this region and give thanks for the opportunity to live, work, learn, and pray in their traditional homeland. Let us take a moment of silence to pay respect to their Elders and to all Ramaytush and Ohlone people of the past and present.”

    I appreciate Lizette’s example that the acknowledgement can developed into a moment where all the elements of creation with whom we recognize are connected.

    What would be interesting is, indeed, whether or not Land Acknowledgements should become a weekly part of liturgy, rather than once in while? Does it become ritual rather than just a things for a one time event/gathering? Is it a sign of hospitality? As Lizette questions in her title, is it inculturated justice or ritual overload?

    1. Thank you John Michael – I do remember the tensions and articulations of the mission history in California – you explain it so well, very much appreciated

  2. “Acknowledgments of country” (as they are called here in Australia) are very pretty much standard in civil and corporate ceremonial, but aren’t usually included in Church liturgical contexts.

    Within Churches, they are more common I think as permanent plaques, representing perhaps a more appropriate marker of continued presence, recognition and ownership.

    1. Thanks Scott – I hadn’t thought about plaques as another way to name the indigenous realities

  3. I like Scott’s suggestion of permanent plaques, just as we mark other historical places. The verbal acknowledgement seems to me to be virtue signaling. It does precious little to actually improve the lot of the people whose ancestors lived there. “We give thanks” in Michael’s example, further, makes it seem like some of us are visitors or interlopers and/or sojourners here, because the land really belongs to its prior inhabitants. Not a Christian theological point of view. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” We are all sojourners in life, and in places. We are stewards of Creation; it belongs neither to us nor to any other people, because it belongs to the Lord. The necessity of repentance for historical injustices and commitment to overcome present-day crimes against one another is a real thing. I don’t want to minimize it. But I do not know that this is the best way to get at it.

    1. Thanks Rita – I had a feeling of tokenism in many cases too, but I have to admit that the more recent (in my experience) of dialogues such as the Kanehelatúksla’ have changed my mind for two reasons (I thtink): first, they are dialogical nd therefore consistent with other rituals we do, and second, they praise the Creator/God and all that the creator has made – which keeps us in the heart of what liturgy is to do…

  4. I agree that along with BLM, LGBTQ flag, Land acknowledgments can become slacktivistic virtue signalling

    BUT they were intended to make us uncomfortable and ask important questions. For example, acknowledging the original land makes Americans ask (or should make them ask) by what legal right are they occupying this territory? This then should trigger analysis of the genocidal policies of the Unites States of America beginning with the Indian Removal Act, the slaughter at Wounded Knee, Manifest Destiny, and all the various genocides and weird justifications that the USA then and now continues to engage in. It should mean that Leonard Peltier should be granted a full and immediate pardon even if he doesn’t have millions of dollars to pay off politicians, As far as the history of the .Catholic Church goes in Canada the complicity of the church with genocidal Canadian polices is well documented but in the USA it was just plain old genocide (see trail of tears)

    Concrete actions US can consider

    1. Pardon Leonard Peltier
    2. Pay compensation to current individual American Indians as remedy for the theft of lands and communities displaced by the Indian Removal Act
    3. Congress should for all apologize for America’s genocide in a formal act signed by the president
    4. Update all school curricula to include this chapter in American history
    5. Begin a bipartisan Truth and Reconciliation Commission with clear calls to action for the country
    6. Include the impact of historical trauma as a mitigating factor in offences committed by Indigenous people in the justice system

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