On a Friday night at the Guthrie Theater, as the lights dimmed, a woman spoke about the land.
“We want to acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the Dakota people,” her recorded voice said, “and honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations, including the Ojibwe and other indigenous nations.”
Each show at the Minneapolis theater now begins with this statement — a land acknowledgment. The ritual recognizes the indigenous people upon whose homeland a play is performed, a lecture is given, a meeting is held.
Common in Canada and Australia, the practice got its biggest U.S. stage yet at the Academy Awards, when Oscar winner Taika Waititi noted that “tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash.”
More and more Minnesota art events are featuring such acknowledgments. Music and dance performances at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium start with one. The MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids opens each show with one. Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival began each night with one. (And each night the audience applauded it.)
They’re popping up in lobbies, programs and even a podcast. During each episode of the locally made, nationally known “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s gentle voice notes that “the On Being Project is located on Dakota land.”
The goal is to make audiences aware of the people who once called — or still call — the land home. The arts grapple with stories, artists say, so it’s important to remind audiences of the histories that stages are built upon. Ignoring those histories, they say, can lead to missteps like “Scaffold,” a sculpture first shown in Europe that took on a very different meaning when placed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, on Dakota homeland.
“It’s about getting people to think critically about where they stand,” said Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of Native Governance Center. The St. Paul nonprofit recently published a guide to creating a respectful, accurate land acknowledgment.
First step: Start with self-reflection. “If people are [doing it] to alleviate their own guilt, that’s not enough. ... It’s gotta be deeper,” Ducheneaux said.
In an essay, Minneapolis poet Heid E. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, reflected a concern felt by some Native people: “I worry that land acknowledgment statements take the place of real relationships with Native nations and individuals. It’s a good start, but there’s so much more to acknowledgment than saying our names.”
No ‘empty hollow script’
The radio show and podcast “On Being With Krista Tippett” is known for thinking deeply about knotty topics.
So when it spun off from American Public Media in 2013, the staff contemplated its new Minneapolis offices. What did it mean to be next to Loring Park? Across from the Basilica of St. Mary? On Dakota land?
“That was part of this deliberation ... honoring the ground we stand on and the lineage of the place,” Tippett said recently in those new, sunny offices.
Editor Kristin Lin researched the complex history, interviewing Native American leaders and paying them stipends for their work. With pastor Jim Bear Jacobs as a guide, the staff toured spots of significance, including O-He-Ya-Wa-He, a sacred Dakota burial site. Then Lin wrote a land acknowledgment that includes this line: “The United States’ land seizures were a project of spiritual destruction that denied the Dakota free and unhindered access to the land that fundamentally shapes their identity and spirituality.”
In February 2019, Tippett introduced the idea at the top of the podcast, which nabs some 50 million plays and downloads a year. "I think our show has this platform to open up conversations,” Lin said. By weighing its own location, the show might encourage listeners “to be open and receptive to considering and reflecting on the place where they are.”
In the University of Minnesota Duluth’s student center, a bright mural tells the story of how Minnesota came to be. It’s an Ojibwe story, marked by birch trees and canoes. It’s also a land acknowledgment.
Last year, as the university was crafting its statement — the first adopted by a U campus — leaders asked local artist Moira Villiard to paint a visual version. Dozens of students helped her, filling a brick wall and a stretch of sidewalk with a turtle and fish.
“It’s a great opportunity to dig up some older stories ... that just aren’t visible but that are probably the most deeply connected to the spaces we’re in,” said Villiard, who grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Ducheneaux praised UMD’s statement for promising action (“We affirm tribal sovereignty and will work to hold the University of Minnesota Duluth accountable to American Indian people and nations”) and saying that the school is on “traditional, ancestral and contemporary lands of Indigenous people.” The best statements, he said, dig into history but also recognize: “We are still here today.”
The MacRostie Art Center sits in downtown Grand Rapids, between the Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Mille Lacs reservations and “within homeland of the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe Nation.” That acknowledgment gives a little history lesson, noting the land was “ceded in the Treaty of Washington, commonly known as the 1855 Treaty ... ”
It was important to name the treaty and the rights it affirms, said Kayla Aubid, MacRostie’s gallery director. People “need to leave with action steps,” she said. It shouldn’t be “some empty, hollow script.”
A citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Aubid consulted with locals and a language teacher on the statement and pronunciation of Ojibwe words. “People who are going to start doing this, they must do the research,” she said. “They must build the relationships. If you want to create equity, you need to do the work.”
Some arts institutions are still doing that work. Walker Art Center hasn’t yet adopted a statement but is talking with members of the Indigenous community about one, said executive director Mary Ceruti. In the meantime, artists have made acknowledgments on an ad-hoc basis.
“Post-‘Scaffold,’ we have committed to a healing process,” Ceruti said. A land acknowledgment is just one part of that, she said.
Some of Minnesota’s land acknowledgments can be traced back to a director’s trip to Australia, an author’s talk in New Zealand. For Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj, it was attending a play in Canada.
At the Stratford Festival in Ontario a few years back, he was struck by the practice. “I thought it was beautiful to hear a large cultural institution, similar to us in many ways, thank the original stewards of the land,” he explained in the program for “A Christmas Carol,” the first production to include the statement in preshow announcements.
The Guthrie had been working for several years with Indigenous Direction, a consulting group that helps theaters present work about and with Native people. Guthrie leaders asked its co-founders, Larissa FastHorse and Ty Defoe, how the theater might draft its own acknowledgment.
It’s a question they’ve gotten often the past few years, FastHorse said. Some theaters start that process but are slow to finish it: “They’re afraid of what their subscribers will think.”
But because the Guthrie had already connected with Native communities, staffers were ready to fashion the acknowledgment — and audiences were ready to hear it.
Land acknowledgment is “really people acknowledgment,” FastHorse said. “And to me, people acknowledgment is like a gateway drug. Once you have to constantly acknowledge eight shows a week that this land is someone else’s land, it starts opening your brain up to: Who are these people? And how am I engaging with these people?”
Growing up in St. Paul, Isabella Star LaBlanc was a theater kid. A Native kid. She regularly went to the Guthrie, but didn’t see people who looked like her in the audience or on stage.
“I never saw any stories that felt like my own,” said LaBlanc, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota stage actor. But in recent years, as part of performances with Indigenous Direction, she’s helped tell those stories. There are more to come; the Guthrie recently won a pair of grants to continue its work with Native communities.
“It feels very exciting that all of a sudden this place that felt inaccessible to me now feels like a place that is really working to embrace who and what I come from,” LaBlanc said.
On a recent weekend, she attended two shows at the Guthrie. Before each, she heard the land acknowledgment. It felt a little like being seen.