Projection on Burrard Street Bridge, at Senakw, Vancouver, BC. Photo courtesy of Cheryl L’Hirondelle.
By Dylan Robinson
* Written for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research Conference, May 30, 2018
Plenary presentation “Rethinking the Practice and Performance of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement”
Please cite only with permission of author: dylan [dot] robinson [at] queensu [dot] ca
“I’d like to acknowledge that we are on stolen land.
I’d like to acknowledge that we are on borrowed land.
I’d like to acknowledge that we are on overdue land.
I’d like to acknowledge that we are on pickpocketed land.
* * *
I’d like to acknowledge academic colonialism.
I’d like to acknowledge activist colonialism.
I’d like to acknowledge that we are on bureaucratic land.
I’d like to acknowledge poetic colonialism.
I’d like to acknowledge drinking a glass of water ten minutes ago and not
having to boil the water first.
I’d like to acknowledge the ice on the inside of the walls when I lived in
Labrador in the 1970s as part of the military occupation of Innu/Inuit/
I’d like to acknowledge not having mould in my son’s room.”
From Clint Burnham’s NO POEMS ON STOLEN NATIVE LAND (2010)
To acknowledge something is often to name that which has been previously ignored. To acknowledge Indigenous territories and lands that we are uninvited guests upon—to speak, affirm, declare—is to begin to name specific histories of colonization and continued non-Indigenous occupation of Indigenous lands. In this naming, a lot hinges on the language we use to describe how we occupy the lands we live and work upon. The way we name our positionality—as guests, uninvited, visitors, settlers, invaders, arrivants—speaks to how we understand the terms of occupation, and relationships to Indigenous peoples. A lot depends upon these specific word choices, but also upon our phrasing, the tone of our voices, and the time we take as we speak about how we occupy space, and whose space we occupy. A lot depends on how the specifics are named, and how these specifics express why we are naming these things in the first place. Much also depends on how we acknowledge our hosts, whether they be Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Stó:lō, Wuikinuxv, xwelmexw. I’d like to acknowledge what happens when you stumble over our nations, our names—when Indigenous language falls carelessly out of the mouth, shatters upon the ground—is heard as a certain kind of acknowledgement too.
There are innumerable things we might acknowledge, as the excerpts from Clint Burnham’s poem demonstrate. One of the most important forms of acknowledgment is that which is addressed to the Indigenous peoples upon whose lands we gather upon, an address that often puts into question the relationship between the speaker and addressee. But land acknowledgment is certainly not the only thing that needs acknowledging. The exceptional moment—the conference, the event, the first time a class meets—these are not the only places where acknowledgement might take place. To move beyond the mere spectacle of acknowledgment as a public performance of contrition, we must take into account acknowledgement’s site- and context-specificity. As xwelmexw, I understand our protocol (a word often used instead of acknowledgment), and that of neighbours across the coast, as always relational: it changes depending on who is in the room, what those specific relationships are historically, and in the present moment, what is going on in ever-changing natural world and other-than-human relationships there. I know this too from the Kanien’kehá:ka people whose land I am now a visitor upon—“the words that come before all else” give thanks in the specific instance of our gathering: the time, the place, the land, the waters, the skies. To read and repeat prescriptive acknowledgement without variance runs counter to the very principle of acknowledgment.
How then, might we become more specific about our acknowledgments, particularly in the academic and artistic contexts in which we work? What might happen, for example, if we were to start department or annual association meetings with a form and language of acknowledgement that is specific to that space, and specific to the work done by those people around the table? What would it mean to “decolonize the department meeting” in both form and content? What would result from starting such meetings with an honest acknowledgement of how much decolonizing work our departments or associations have done over the past month or past year? Some? Any? Not enough? What would happen if we oriented such meetings within the colonial histories of our disciplines or art form, and used such a re-orientation as the impetus to undertake substantive decolonizing action?  Do you know the colonial history of the discipline or art form you work within?  Do the ways in which your discipline perpetuates heteronormative/settler colonial/anti-BPOC values impact your daily life? Do you feel these norms viscerally, in the pit of your stomach, as your heart races, as your breath is knocked out of you?
What happens when we formally acknowledge in a department meeting the lack of a decolonized core curricula? I name “core curricula”—the core history, the theory, the artistic practices—in particular, since it serves as a the “ground” for the discussions we want to build upon with our students. If we think of our curricula as the “the ground”, we might then also consider core curriculum as the educational equivalent of land. It might then follow that in order for decolonization not to merely be a metaphor (Tuck and Yang), curriculum might need to be one of the things “given back”, where curriculum is the ground that we provide through the courses, the texts, and the performances we teach. Substantive forms of redress that Indigenous people call for are not reducible to the singularity of “the land”, but include other foundations, other ground.
What foundations are you (perhaps inadvertently) reinforcing? What ground are you occupying, and inviting others—your students, your colleagues—to occupy? Foundations are equally reinforced by refusals to refuse. You might, to yourself and others, acknowledge that you need to give over these foundations, this ground. Perhaps you need to give them over entirely, and then work to rebuild. To give these over, entirely, does not mean you will no longer teach what you love to teach or that which you feel has value—Brecht, Shakespeare, Stravinsky, the Beatles—but instead that you might practice forms of “settler refusal” for the perpetuation of settler colonial structures that demand a “fitting in” of non-Western, Indigenous, and BPOC work into an pre-existing, era-based progressions, into the canon. What it means is not increasing “other” content, but a refusal to place other content within a structure that “settles” Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices.
More broadly, what I am proposing, paradoxically, is that we decolonize what acknowledgment has become, in its formalization, bureaucratization and rote presentation, by considering how acknowledgement’s form has a place within our lives and work that is always in-relationship with the specificity and context of its use.
Structure for Acknowledgment
By Dylan Robinson
I am sitting in a room. Limestone walls surround.
inside and outside of the structure I sit within
This building, this house, this room,
is one of many
I am living in a city—“often called the Limestone City”—
says the city,
I sit inside many “of the many charming limestone buildings,”
says the city,
“many of which help tell the story of Canada”
These charming limestone walls—this charming city—built from quarries
Quarried from the lands of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people
Built from the lands of the Haudensaunee, the Anishinaabe
Structured by colonial design
to allay anxieties of impermanence
I am sitting in a limestone room that hums
with the subfrequency of colonial quarry and cut—
this audible-inaudible sound—resonates my body
My body—xwelmexw body, swiyeqe & yes xwelitem starving person’s body—
in this room, these buildings, that amplify the story of Canada
I am listening in a limestone building, trying not to feel the story of Canada
resonate through my body
I am trying instead to hear the seepage of water through stone
I am trying to hear the labour of quarry, cut and chisel
I am trying to hear if these walls are also still the land
I am trying not to hear these walls declare their immovability,
declare their charming structure, their necessary structure,
I am trying to hear their structure burn down
while the building itself remains
 These are rhetorical questions; they are also invitations for action.
 On the colonial histories of academic disciplines and scholarly associations see Tamara Levitz: http://www.american-music.org/publications/bulletin/2017/VolXLIII3-Fall2017.php. See also Tuck, E., and M. Guishard. 2013. “Uncollapsing Ethics: Racialized Sciencism, Settler Coloniality, and an Ethical Framework of Decolonial Participatory Action Research.” In Challenging Status Quo Retrenchment: New Directions in Critical Qualitative Research, edited by T. M. Kress, C. S. Malott, and B. J. Portfilio, 3–27. Charlotte, nc: Information Age Publishing.
 Tuck and Yang note, “Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically.” (“Decolonization is not a metaphor”, 8).
PHOTO: Projection on Burrard Street Bridge, at Senakw, Vancouver, BC