Examining the Debate Over Native American Land Acknowledgments

A civil rights lawsuit filed by a University of Washington computer science professor has called attention to a largely academic debate over land acknowledgments — formal statements that recognize Indigenous custodianship of geographic areas on which institutions stand or events take place.

Evolving out of the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, land acknowledgments are becoming increasingly common at U.S. universities and sporting events.

Yale University, for example, developed this statement:

“Yale University acknowledges that indigenous peoples and nations, including Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Niantic, and the Quinnipiac and other Algonquian speaking peoples, have stewarded through generations the lands and waterways of what is now the state of Connecticut. We honor and respect the enduring relationship that exists between these peoples and nations and this land.”

Native American students at Stanford University in Stanford, California, put together a video statement acknowledging the institution’s location on the the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe (below):

 

In 2020, the University of Washington acknowledged its location on the traditional land and waterways of the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot Nations and encouraged faculty to include land acknowledgments on individual course syllabuses.

But Stuart Reges, a computer science professor at the University’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, opposes land acknowledgements and posted a dissenting statement on his course outline which read, “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”

He now faces disciplinary action by the university for that statement. In his lawsuit, Reges alleged his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

The labor theory he cites was proposed by English philosopher John Locke in 1690, who suggested that by laboring and making the land more productive than it was in its original state of nature, an individual assumes the right to own that land.

“Locke said that in the case of land, if you grew corn on an acre of land, then by mixing your labor with the land, you come to own the land,” Reges told VOA. “So, if you believe in the Locke idea, then it wasn’t Native tribes that made productive use of this land. It was the people who founded the university.”

 

What is the Locke Theory of Property?

For help in understanding this little-known theory, VOA reached out to Kyle Swan, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Sacramento, who has written about Lockean property rights.

“I think he [Reges] is making some mistakes in the way he applies Locke’s theory,” he said. “Locke was talking about the commons, earth in its original state, when nobody owned anything yet.”

In a later chapter of his “Second Treatise of Government” titled “On Conquest,” Locke said property could only be legitimately acquired when it was not already owned by someone else.

“Why were they making contracts to acquire land from the natives if the natives didn’t already own the land?” Swan asked. “They wouldn’t do that if they believed that the lands were unused, unoccupied and unowned.”

“The second thing is that the person appropriating something from the commons, they have to do that in a way that improves it through their productive activity — gathering berries, hunting, fishing,” Swan said. “And finally, in acquiring the land, they have to leave enough and as good [land] for others.”

Locke also posed a condition in cases of conquest, said Swan, reading directly from Locke’s essay: “The inhabitants of any country, who are descended and derive a title to their estates from those who are subdued and had a government forced upon them against their free consents, retain a right to the possession of their ancestors.”

“In other words,” Swan said, “if what you have is a conquest rather than a legitimate transfer of territorial rights, then Locke says that the original inhabitants retain their claims to it.”

Their different interpretations of Locke notwithstanding, Swan said he believed Reges had the right to exercise free speech.

Ties to current politics

Reges said he believes land acknowledgments support a “particular view” of American history that “has no place in the classroom.”

“You could call it the Howard Zinn view of history — that the United States is evil, and we stole the land, we are guilty, and so forth,” he said.

Zinn was a controversial historian and author of “A Peoples History of the United States,” which re-examined history through the experiences of those normally neglected in textbooks — African and Native Americans, immigrants and the working classes.

Critics condemn Zinn as a Marxist trying to turn Americans against their country. His name often comes up in discussions about critical race theory (CRT).

Reges isn’t alone in his views. In a July 18 article in Newsweek magazine University of Chicago Law School professor M. Todd Henderson called land acknowledgments “ahistorical nonsense,” and like Reges, invokes Locke’s theory of property rights.

“No one has a claim on land except if they put it to productive use and are capable of defending it. … Nearly every plot of land on Earth is inhabited today by groups of people that displaced other people who lived there before,” Henderson said.

Graeme Wood, a writer for the Atlantic and a lecturer at Yale, criticizes land acknowledgments as superficial and showy.

“The acknowledgments never include any actual material redress — the return of land, meaningful corrections of wrongs against Indigenous communities — or sophisticated moral reckoning,” he wrote.

A Native American perspective

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), president of the Morning Star Institute and former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, scoffs at these criticisms.

“People who enjoy their privilege are like sea anemones. At the slightest ripple in the water, they withdraw and turn into something that looks like a very carefully protected stone,” she said. “Every time Native peoples began to own something or control something or aspire to — or even just be — in a certain place, there’s always a backlash against any sort of exercise of our treaties, our sovereignty, our inherent rights, our original rights that pre-date everyone else’s here in this hemisphere.”

She pointed out that opponents of land acknowledgments and CRT say they want to save their children from feeling guilt.

“What we’re doing — different people of color — is trying to stop our kids from thinking badly of themselves. That’s what happens if you’re treated badly, if you’re treated like second-class citizens, even though you have treaties, even though you have absolute rights and you’re constantly denied them. Pretty soon, their kids start thinking it’s them, that they are the bad persons.”

“So, yeah,” she added. “We are trying to save our kids.”

 

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