Two metro-area cities are among the first in the state to publicly recognize that the land they inhabit once belonged to Indigenous people, a trend that is gaining momentum as Minnesota arts organizations, nonprofits and universities craft and share similar declarations.
"We've seen it happening more at the organizational level … but not so much local government until recently," said Apryl Deel-McKenzie, program manager for the Native Governance Center, a remote-based nonprofit that works with Native nations in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. "It's really exciting to hear [and] it's really where it needs to happen."
The cities of Eden Prairie and Northfield join the Guthrie Theater, the University of Minnesota Duluth and others in creating land-acknowledgment statements, which may be read at meetings and events or posted on websites. The statements can take varying forms but many begin by naming which tribal group's homeland they are standing on.
While many Native American groups and community members have responded positively to the statements, some also say the gesture can feel empty if it doesn't translate into further efforts by cities, including supporting and advocating for Native people. Both cities are debating how to use their statement and what other steps, if any, to take.
"Land acknowledgment in and of itself, I think, is a good thing," said Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, who teaches American Indian studies at St. Cloud State University. "The problem comes when institutions, organizations and in this case municipalities think of this as the beginning and end of their commitment to Indigenous peoples."
St. Clair said she's advised several groups as they worked on land-acknowledgment statements, a process that ideally involves soul-searching and deep conversations. But some groups skip those steps, she said, instead going about the process "in a performative way."
Eden Prairie and Northfield have both introduced land-acknowledgment statements in the past month. Each was researched and written by the city's human rights commission.
For Eden Prairie, the process was unceremonious: Mayor Ron Case read the statement as a proclamation at a November City Council meeting, without an official vote of approval. The statement notes that officials are gathered on the past and present homeland of the Dakota and mentions two treaties that opened land west of the Mississippi to white settlers in the mid-19th century.
"The intent was not to change anything but really to be healing and simply acknowledge that we are aware of our past," Case said.
Case, a former elementary school teacher who once taught a Minnesota history unit including lessons about Indigenous groups, said he doesn't see "any political piece" in Eden Prairie's statement. The council supported it, he said, as long as "it said just what it said and didn't say anything more."
The Northfield City Council approved its statement, which references the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota and honors their contributions, with a 4-3 vote Nov. 17 after an emotional debate centering on specific wording. Three council members took issue with a sentence referencing "ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation," suggesting that it be amended to say "ongoing injustices have been committed."
"I found the words 'we have committed' to be blaming, and a lot of my constituents also are going, 'What? What did we do?' " said Council Member David DeLong. "You don't want to come out of the gate alienating people."
Council Member Brad Ness said some residents said they wouldn't attend the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day event if the statement was delivered there with those two words included.
"I'm close to speechless myself from what I'm hearing here tonight," said Council Member Erica Zweifel in response to the suggested amendment. "Putting the language in the past tense and not honoring and acknowledging our current role in the power imbalance, in the ongoing inequities, is downright wrong and harmful."
In the end, four council members voted in favor of the original language, and the motion passed.
In both cities, the question of what comes next looms large. Officials said they weren't sure where, when or how often their statement will be read or whether they will expand their efforts.
Deel-McKenzie said land acknowledgment statements should include "a call to action" and involve reflection by the organizations creating them. One tip, she said, is referencing what tribes are doing now as a nod to their "hope and resilience."
This is important, she said, because some research indicates that many Americans don't know Indigenous people still exist.
She said she hasn't seen many land acknowledgments that include an apology, but "more of that needs to happen."
"I think government really needs to do a lot more work to … start making positive change and to be better supporters and allies to Indigenous people," she said.
Case said a "future personal goal" would be to meet with the descendants of Native people who previously lived in the Eden Prairie area. He also suggested displaying the text or reading the land-acknowledgment statement on certain historical days.
Clarice Grabau, a Northfield City Council member who supported the statement, said it could inspire the city to erect placards showing the Dakota name for certain places. It could also be incorporated into public art projects, she said, or be read at the state of the city address.
"We might not get everything right," she said, "but I want to stay involved in the conversation because this is how we learn."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781