Against Land Acknowledgements

Regular readers of Quillette may recall my 2018 article “Why Women Don’t Code,” which led to another describing how I was “Demoted and Placed on Probation.” After a year of probation, I was reappointed for a three-year term, only to entangle myself in a new controversy over indigenous land acknowledgments. These are sombre declarations intended to acknowledge that land now used for some event or purpose was once inhabited by indigenous tribes (some acknowledgements add that the land was unjustly taken). They are rather like ritual acts of expiatory prayer, usually recited by rote from a standardized text. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether or not the speaker actually agrees with the sentiments expressed; what’s important is that the required words are spoken.

As Jonathan Kay noted in a 2020 article for Quillette, this convention has been common practice in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada for some time, but has only begun to make an appearance in the US in the last few years. Lately, I have been encountering these land acknowledgments all over the place. One of the slides included in a Title IX training course required of all students, faculty, and staff at the University of Washington reads:

As you begin this course, it is important to spend time acknowledging that many of us learn, live, and work on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people. UW benefits from the careful stewardship of this place from Indigenous people, past, present, and future.

Let us all continue to advocate for Indigenous people and communities as we engage in our lifelong work together as a dynamic and inclusive community of learners, educators, and leaders.

This course will invite you to think about identity and power. We encourage you to think of Indigenous identities throughout.

Title IX is the section of US law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, which has nothing to do with indigenous land issues, as far as I can see.

At first, I just ignored these performative displays—they are faintly annoying and serve no practical purpose, but they struck me as basically harmless. As their appearances become more persistent, however, I began to worry that they represent affirmation of a specific ideology. As such, they constitute a flagrant violation of the institutional neutrality recommended by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report in 1967. The report was prepared by a faculty committee tasked with examining “the University's role in political and social action,” and it affirmed “the University's commitment to the academic freedom of faculty and students in the face of suppression from internal and/or external entities while also insisting on institutional neutrality on political and social issues.”

When I point this out to other faculty, they usually just shrug and say, “Well, I’m not a fan of land acknowledgements, but it’s not a big deal.” This kind of passive acceptance leads to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the “dictatorship of the small minority.” A small but vocal minority cares deeply about an issue, but because others don’t care much either way, the vocal minority ends up imposing its will on everyone else. The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me.

A document of “best practices for inclusive teaching,” produced by the Allen School’s diversity experts, recommends the inclusion of an indigenous land acknowledgment to course syllabi. They provide the following example:

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.

In December, I sent a message to our faculty mailing list announcing that I planned to append my own version of the land acknowledgement to the syllabus for my winter course. I included the text I had in mind and made it clear that I wanted feedback because I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Nobody responded. So, when classes started this week, I posted my syllabus with the following declaration under the heading “Indigenous Land Acknowledgment”:

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.

I am a Georgist, and according to the Georgist worldview, Native Americans have no special claim to any land, just like the rest of us. But since few are familiar with that economic ideology, I leaned instead on a principle described in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, now known as the labor theory of property or the “homestead principle.” To the Georgist idea that land is owned in common by all living people, Locke added that by mixing one’s labor with the land, one encloses it from the shared property because people own the products of their labor. If, for example, you make the effort to grow corn on an acre of land, you come to own that acre of land, so long as there is still plenty of land left for others to use.

One can certainly object that the labor theory of property is not applicable here. Scholars disagree about how it may or may not apply to Native Americans. But I have been unable to find much evidence that Native Americans ever made productive use of the 350 acres on which the main campus of the University of Washington now stands. The university archives have a picture of the land in its “wild state,” which had to be cleared of trees—an extremely tedious job—and graded to make it suitable for the construction of buildings. As far as I can tell, it was a dense forest during the years that Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of this region.

In any event, it doesn’t really matter whether or not my beliefs about Native American land ownership make any sense. The point is that by encouraging faculty to include a land acknowledgment, the DEI experts invited each of us to express our own opinions on the topic. After all, shouldn’t such a declaration be sincere? A foreseeable outcome of this approach, of course, is that some teachers will take the opportunity to express views about historical land claims and ownership that others find objectionable. But this is the whole problem with land acknowledgements in the first place, and the reason for the Kelvin Report’s insistence that a university remain neutral on social issues.

I don’t know how many of the 600 students in my class cared about or even noticed the land acknowledgment on my syllabus. But it was noticed by enough of them to produce two Reddit threads and some Twitter chatter:

We became aware of this offensive statement a few hours ago, were horrified by it, and are working on getting it removed from the syllabus. Meanwhile, we have removed the document from the course website.— Allen School (@uwcse) January 5, 2022

The Director of the Allen School contacted me and asked me to remove the land acknowledgment at once. I refused. There followed a negotiation during which I argued that faculty should be treated consistently. At one point, she offered to have all land acknowledgments removed other than the one developed by UW and included in the best practices document:

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.

It’s not clear what exactly is being acknowledged by this banal statement alone, but a footnote on the webpage of the University’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity clarifies its purpose: “This language template is spoken by UW leadership during events to acknowledge that our campus sits on occupied land. We recognize that this is a difficult, painful and long history, and we thank the original caretakers of this land.” I told the Director that the UW statement is political, and that if others were going to be allowed to make this statement, then I should be allowed to make my own.

First, the Director had the IT staff remove my syllabus from the university’s website and replace it with a statement that read: “Note: The course syllabus has been temporarily removed due to offensive statements. We apologize for the inconvenience.” A day later, the syllabus was replaced with a version that redacted the land acknowledgment. The Director also emailed my students with a message that began:

Yesterday, it was brought to my attention that the CSE143 syllabus contained an offensive statement under the heading of ‘Indigenous Land Acknowledgment’. I apologize for that. It is extremely important to me and other faculty in the Allen School that CSE 143, and all our classes, be inclusive environments.

As has become usual in the DEI context, that word “inclusive” sounds tolerant even as it is used to enforce conformity. The Director went on to provide three different options for students who wished to file complaints about me. The following day, she informed my students that a new section of the course taught by a different instructor would be made available, and that any students who wanted to switch could do so.

I have been asked by colleagues and friends why I am making such a big deal out of something so trivial. Some of them have concluded that my intransigence is just a stunt and that I’ve been needlessly rude for good measure. But I can ask the same question in reverse. Why is this such a big deal to my critics? The first official message about all this was copied to two deans and a vice provost, so this has obviously been discussed at a high level within the university. I was told that my land acknowledgment is offensive even though I didn’t insult anyone. I was told that it created a “toxic environment” in my class and the university Twitter account declared itself “horrified.” Toxic? Horrified? Really? And now students are being offered the option of a different instructor. So, who is making a big deal out of this?

I contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and on January 11th, they sent a letter to the university protesting its response. As a state school, FIRE pointed out, the University of Washington is bound by the First Amendment, which means that any limits on speech must be content neutral:

First, the Allen School’s requirement that faculty must use the university’s chosen land acknowledgment statement or refrain from speaking on this topic in their syllabi is an impermissible viewpoint-based regulation, violating the First Amendment rights of all faculty. Second, UW’s censorship of Reges’s syllabus and creation of an alternative course section are retaliatory actions taken against Reges due to his views, violating his First Amendment rights.

It remains to be seen whether or not the university allows itself to be moved by such arguments.

In the meantime, others should join me. What would happen if everyone took the time to write what they actually believe about land ownership and historical moral responsibility, instead of simply repeating a mantra they have been handed by a DEI bureaucrat? A plethora of opinions would inevitably emerge and the absurdity of these rote declarations would immediately become apparent. That would at least be a more honest way of honoring the people who occupied this land before Europeans arrived.

But that is probably a forlorn hope. The university administration’s ballistic response has put everyone else on notice—make trouble for us and we will make plenty of trouble for you. They know as well as Nassim Nicholas Taleb does that the desire for a quiet life is what allows dictatorships of small minorities to prevail.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/01/12/against-land-acknowledgements/
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The blowback shows that the author is correct in his assessment: no one, evidently, provided reasoning for why the author’s land use statement is incorrect, let alone offensive. This really is just the Politburo forcing conformity upon others. Stay the course, Mr. Reges.

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These land acknowledgments sound like “compelled speech” – fight on in the spirit of JBP!

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We are in the midst of a quite Cultural Revolution- it puts me in mind of the recent Ai Weiwei interview on PBS where the interviewer was nonplussed to discover that he saw the threat of authoritarianism coming not from Trump, but rather from the ideological conformity and newspeak demanded by the politically correct. All of this only matters insofar as it allows them to push out anyone who they feel has unearned privilege, according to their deranged sacrificial pyramid of oppression and victimhood.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Some years ago i was at a lecture at my hospital, i forget the topic. the lecturer gave a preamble that stressed the prior indigenous occupation. I spoke up and said something like "that sounds like an acknowledgement of a spiritual relationship of the previous occupants with the land. If you are to say a prayer at the start of a lecture i would also like to say a Hindu prayer. (I am not a Hindu) The poor bugger was very surprised and sort of agreed that would be appropriate (what else could he say) and then others spoke up who also wanted a prayer said in their religious traditions. I said i just wanted to make a point. These other prayers did not happen but i think audience agreed with me and the point was made. I also think that is an approach that may make such acknowledgments unacceptable.

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I agree more of us should start using similar versions of the land statement. A group of us recently started including a freedom of expression acknowledgement in our syllabi on the principle that if they come for one of us for defending expression they have to come for us all.

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While no doubt land acknowledgements have become such a farcical practice that even indigenous people object to their misuse that doesn’t necessarily invalidate their utility in appropriate settings. Like many things context matters. Is the context of an educational setting appropriate for creating awareness of the cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples and the processes of colonisation and subjugation that have contributed to that erasure inappropriate? I would have thought that would be an ideal place especially if it’s something already practiced for other forms of discrimination. But I think it’s important to make a distinction of when in the educational setting this is appropriate & that’s when it’s relevant to the syllabus which it didn’t appear to be at UW.

However the author does appear to have a common defensive misunderstanding of the intention here to be one of a “special claim” rather than one of understanding about cultural loss. The fact that he tries to diminish & mock a factually consistent historical indigenous world view of land ownership/caretaking by comparing it to modern day accepted standards of land ownership show cases how clueless he is about what this issue is really about but does tell us much about him & how hysterically threatened he is. Yes, his ‘trolling’ was insensitive mostly because it’s another form of erasure.

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I would ask the same question. At worst, land acknowledgements are silly but harmless. At best, they acknowledge a complicated and often tragic history, paying respect to the original inhabitants of the land. Even if the author is within his rights, picking this fight seems rather churlish and uncharitable.

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Why do you assume that the people being acknowledged were necessarily the “original” inhabitants? There was a piece in Quillette last spring about Canada’s official cover-up of (or refusal to fund research/publish results) showing that the people who today claim they were the “original” inhabitants of one of the eastern provinces weren’t, and that other people, to whom today’s claimants are genetically unrelated, were there earlier.

Is what happened after the arrival of Columbus to the people who lived in North America prior to that arrival tragic? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that people who today claim that it was specifically their ancestors who were displaced in a particular geographic location are correct. Or that their ancestors themselves did not displace someone else at an earlier point in time.

I have no problem voluntarily admitting that I studied at a university built on land that was once used by people who were displaced by Europeans, even if those people who were there before didn’t own it in the sense that we now use the term “own”, and even if the specific plot on which the university now stands wasn’t often used by those people. But I have a problem with compelled speech to that effect.

SCOTUS decided years ago that public schools can’t compel students to recite the pledge of allegiance. I don’t see much difference with “land acknowledgements”.

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Sorry, not seeing the compelled speech. Are students being forced to recite the land acknowledgements? Are professors required to include them in their syllabi or intone them before class?

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That’s what we said about PC – mere polite platitudes that made everyone feel good. But then PC gave birth to wokeness which is basically just PC implemented. In a comparable way, Acks might seem harmless, but once you’ve admitted that the Indians own all the land then it is just a matter of time until you have to start paying rent to your landlord.

My niece works for the BC government. Here’s two of her Acks:

“I acknowledge that my place of work lies on the unceded traditional homelands of the Squamish Nation”

“The Co-Chairs gratefully acknowledged that this meeting is being held within the unceded, traditional, ancestral territories of the Squamish), Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.”

Note the word ‘unceded’. This basically admits that whitey’s presence is illegal, he is a squatter under his own laws.

Yes. My niece Em signed up for a course in early childhood education and instead was given a course in FN victimhood. Included were mandatory recitations and required essays such as: “My personal apology to the Indigenous First Peoples.” Em is woke, but even she was somewhat disturbed that her course in early childhood education contained no mention of childhood education whatsoever and was entirely concerned with Victimhood, visits to the local longhouse, watching a canoe be carved, and so on.

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Interesting, you didn’t respond to my initial question. Thanks for the concession.

In this particular case, the author is not being compelled to make a “land acknowledgement”, but according to him, in other places such statements are compulsory. Moreover, the university’s response has been “my way or the highway”, i.e. if you’re going to make a land use statement, then it better be consistent with what Divisiveness, Insanity and Exclusion people tell you to say, or the university will censor you. That’s extremely problematic from the perspectives of both free speech and academic freedom.

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Instead of these organizations just admitting they are on stolen land, why don’t they transfer title to the local Indian bands and negotiate a rental agreement? If you feel so bad about benefiting from colonization, why don’t you just stop?

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It is brutally simple: kiss the ring and confess your sins or face the auto-da-fe.

Here’s a link to a US law blogger commenting on Rege’s position:

The bottom line is “. . . the University of Washington obviously does think they [syllabus statements] are a place for ideological messages unrelated to the class topic—if they are ideological messages the University likes.

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What would happen if everyone took the time to write what they actually believe about land ownership and historical moral responsibility, instead of simply repeating a mantra they have been handed by a DEI bureaucrat?

I’ll take the author up on this suggestion: I think the land acknowledgements are entirely correct, and that the University of Washington should therefore be evicted from its current campus, and the land and buildings given to the indigenous Coast Salish people as reparations so they can operate a hotel and casino on the site. Maybe a dog track, too.

On a more serious note: I donated a couple bucks to FIRE last year, and I’m feeling pretty good about that decision after reading this. Best of luck to the author, however this plays out.

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The prayer analogy is a good one.

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No, “at worst”, when publicly-supported institutions ban dissenting views regarding these land acknowledgements, they are violating the first amendment.

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Censoring the author was “churlish and uncharitable”.

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I applaud the author. “You, sir, are a steely-eyed missile man!”. It takes guts to stand up to the people who use the word “racist” as a weapon.

I’ve got several friends who work at the University of Washington - deans and instructors. I hear from them that this crap gets worse every year. It’s seeping into the Foster School of Business (my daughter is a graduate), as well as into the Engineering department. The School of Medicine is far gone - totally “it’s OK to riot during a pandemic! Racism!”

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