Territorial Acknowledgements and Indigenization: A Primer

Shannon Dea, Philosophy; FAUW vice president

Territorial acknowledgements

If you have received an email from me in the past year, you will have seen this statement in the footer: “I acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples. The University of Waterloo is situated on the Haldimand Tract, land promised to Six Nations, which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River.” You have likely heard a similar acknowledgement at campus events in the past year or two. The statement is a territorial acknowledgement.

While reasons for using territorial acknowledgements vary from person to person and from group to group, I now use a territorial acknowledgement in my email, on my course syllabi, at the beginning of research talks, and even in the footnotes of my articles for two main reasons: out of respect for the past and out of commitment to the future.

Respecting the past

I am showing respect for the past in two ways when I use a territorial acknowledgement. First, I connect myself with a centuries-old tradition practiced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (FNIM) people. Second, I show my respect for the people who preceded settlers (i.e., non-FNIM folks) on this land.

An explanation from Carleton University’s Centre for Indigenous Initiatives nicely captures both of these historical aspects of territorial acknowledgements: “Acknowledgement of the traditional territory is an important cultural protocol for many Indigenous peoples, nations and cultures both in Canada and abroad. The practice demonstrates respect for the traditional custodians of a particular region or area, and serves to strengthen relationships.”

For me, the actual uttering of the territorial acknowledgement is only part of the story. I have tried to learn about the Indigenous history of the land on which I live and work, and I try to think of that history when I perform a territorial acknowledgement.

This territory

Let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that the territory we occupy is part of a much larger place called Turtle Island. (Turtle Island is the Lenape, Iroquois, and Anishnaabe name for North America.) Today, about two million people in Canada claim Indigenous ancestry. That’s just under 6% of the population. About half of these two million people are so-called “Status Indians” (“Status Indian” is a legal designation laid out in and governed by The Indian Act. In general, Inuit and Métis people do not count as “Status Indians.” And many First Nations folks who are not Inuit or Métis are also not “Status”, for a range of reasons.)

At the University of Waterloo, we are only 70 kilometres away from Canada’s largest First Nations reserve, the Six Nations Reserve, just southeast of Brantford, which has a population of 12,000 people. (I took some of my students there in 2016. We learned a lot and were grateful for the hospitality we received.)

The “Six Nations” in the reserve’s name refers to the same people called Haudenosaunee in the territorial acknowledgement; the same folks are also called Iroquois. (I went to high school in a town called Iroquois 500 kilometres east of here. That gives you a hint of how large the Haudenosaunee territory is.) “Six Nations” refers to a confederacy of six Iroquois-speaking nations – the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora.

The reason that the territorial acknowledgement mentions three peoples, not just the Haudenosaunee, is that the territory on which University of Waterloo is the site of a complex history of First Nations migrations and settlement.

The most recent First Nations settlement in the area occurred after the American War of Independence. It was in fact a resettlement by the Crown, of Six Nations (so, Haudenosaunee) people who had remained loyal to Britain. After the war, the Crown (without consulting the Haudenosaunee) negotiated away the Haudenosaunee’s traditional lands in the U.S. In compensation, they promised the Haudenosaunee people 950,000 acres of land – a tract of land running the length of the Grand River, six miles deep on each side. (Notice that this tract included the traditional territory of the Anishnaabe and Neutral.) This promise is made in the Haldimand Treaty (1784). The associated tract of land is the “Haldimand Tract” of the territorial acknowledgement.

Today, less that 5% of the Haldimand Tract (about 46,000 acres) remains Six Nations land. How this happened is too long and messy a story to get into in this short post, but you can read some of the details at Solidarity with Six Nations. As well, keep your eyes peeled for future announcements of public talks by Phil Monture. He is a Six Nations scholar and activist who gives wonderfully detailed, generous public talks about the history and current contestation of the Haldimand Tract. He comes to the University of Waterloo once or twice a year.

Commitment to the future

I said earlier that, for me, performing a territorial acknowledgement is about both respect for the past and commitment to the future, but I haven’t said much yet here about the future. What I mean by “commitment to the future” is that, for me, acknowledging territory means making a commitment to do better as a settler.

You will no doubt be aware of the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. That report provided a detailed record of the testimony of FNIM survivors of settler-colonialism in Canada, and in particular of the centuries-long usurpation and destruction of Indigenous land, languages, cultures, and children by Canadian governments, churches, and individuals.

The TRC report culminated in 94 Calls to Action—94 practical ways in which, starting now, we can work to do better. Around the same time, Universities Canada issued thirteen principles on Indigenous education aimed specifically at the post-secondary sector. In short, there is much work to be done. For me, acknowledging territory means undertaking the commitment to do some of that work.

What are we doing at Waterloo?

You might ask, since University of Waterloo is part of Universities Canada, what is it doing in response to the TRC Calls to Action and the Universities Canada principles?

University of Waterloo is really only getting started at responding to the Calls For Action. There has been some local, lower-level stuff – initiatives by individual members of the University, or by particular departments and faculties. But it was in 2017 that UW really started to develop an Indigenization strategy.

Under the leadership of Associate Vice-President Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion, Diana Parry, UW has struck an Indigenization steering committee and five working groups (curriculum and academic programming; research; student experience; community engagement; and policy and procedures).

When UW sent out the call for membership in those working groups, more peopl
e wanted to join than there were vacancies available. So the University held four roundtables, involving over a hundred people, to ensure that any member of the university who wished to do so could have a voice in the University’s Indigenization Strategy. Now that they’ve been constituted, the five working groups are doing environmental scans in their respective areas, before developing next steps. You can follow this work on the Indigenization Strategy website.

At the same time, the University appointed Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre Director Lori Campbell as the University’s Director of Indigenous Initiatives. Lori will attend FAUW’s Council of Representatives meeting on February 13 to talk about the work that lies ahead.

FAUW, too, is beginning to find ways to respond to the calls to action. We have begun using territorial acknowledgements at events. We struck an Indigenization committee that is working on both supporting Lori’s work and supporting FAUW members who wish to learn more about Indigenization. In the future, you can expect to see more blog posts like this one explaining aspects of Indigenization, and the development of new resources for FAUW members who wish to do and learn more.

If you would like to be part of FAUW’s Indigenization efforts, contact Laura McDonald. And check back here in the future for some ideas about things you can do to support Indigenization at Waterloo.

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