The International Studies Association (ISA) is the world’s premier organization of international affairs scholars. Last week, it held it’s annual convention in Nashville.
When attendees entered any of the meeting rooms, they found a “land acknowledgement” statement on the projection screen.
The Committee on the Status of Representation and Diversity recognizes that Nashville, Tennessee, was a part of the Trail of Tears during the 1830 Indian Removal Act. As a result, we acknowledge the violence that dispossessed many from their homelands – dispossession that continues today. Furthermore, we support Indigenous sovereignty, and we pay respect to the Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek peoples and their enduring connection to this land. Lastly, we recommend that ISA members living and working on stolen, unceded, and/or occupied lands reflect on their own complicities, familiarize themselves with the Indigenous histories of the local area, and acknowledge the heritage and custodianship of the land . . .
I wondered about this statement, so I asked questions in two of the meetings. What did the assembled scholars think about this statement? Who decided to disseminate this statement this way? The response was telling: evasion by the panelists and one of the meeting chairs, followed by individuals approaching me afterward to share their own questions. One friend commented, “I’m sorry I didn’t support you, but I was too chicken.” If ISA was aiming to promote discussion of the issue, the effort failed.
No serious scholar would minimize the suffering caused the Native American peoples by the genocidal policies of the British and white Americans in past centuries
What, then, was going on there? Why a land acknowledgement? According to the Native Governance Center, “If [in doing a land acknowledgement] you’re hoping to inspire others to take action to support Indigenous communities, you’re on the right track.” According to advocates of such statements, then, they aim to advocate, not educate.
Why did ISA choose to advocate this particular cause in every meeting room? No serious scholar would minimize the suffering caused the Native American peoples by the genocidal policies of the British and white Americans in past centuries. Neither, however, would we minimize the suffering of Black Americans under the systems of slavery and Jim Crow, many of whom also suffered in and around Nashville. If we want to understand contemporary American politics, we might also want to pay attention to narratives of the suffering of Nashvillians under Union military occupation during and after the Civil War, or that of contemporary disabled veterans. Furthermore, as international studies scholars, we should also be mindful of the suffering of persecuted groups around the globe, such as Afghan, Southern Sudanese and Ukrainian refugees in the current century, or the descendants of Jewish, German, Palestinian, and Bengali refugees (among many, many others) from the last one.
In each case, of course, we are not talking about history anymore, but about historical narratives of a particular sort — mostly narratives of victimization and dispossession. While the Native American narrative seems benign, such narratives often aren’t: similar narratives of victimization motivated Milosevic’s predation against the Serbs’ neighbors, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this year.
The conundrum will become even starker the next time the ISA meets in, say, Warsaw. Whose narrative should be projected in every meeting room there?
The ISA’s land acknowledgement narrative has its own problems. One is the fact that by casting the Native Americans solely as victims, it glosses over their own agency — for good or ill. This surely includes dispossession of some tribes by others. The ISA statement thus lacks not only comparative history but also local historical depth. It also distorts moral responsibility, groundlessly attributing “complicities” in the events of two centuries ago to contemporary conference-goers. The charge is absurd: people cannot be considered complicit in every atrocity committed in past centuries in every community they visit. Finally, the statement is feckless: it does nothing concrete to help any Native Americans.
The conundrum will become even starker the next time the ISA meets in, say, Warsaw. Whose narrative should be projected in every meeting room there? Should it focus on the historical Polish suffering at the hands of Germans, Russians and Austrians? On the Germans evicted from western Poland after World War II? The Jews slaughtered in the Warsaw Ghetto? The Germanic and Baltic peoples dispossessed by the Poles’ Slavic ancestors two millennia ago?
The right answer is to put ISA’s scholarly mission first. ISA should not enshrine the narrative from any particular group’s potted history, but instead organize an annual series of panels and roundtables featuring debates about interpretations of local history — debates that include local historians from different communities, and which address the normative implications. Most attendees would be more favorably influenced by such panels than by preachy statements.
Since Stuart Kaufman seems disappointed that the ISA’s land acknowledgement did not spark conversation, I will try to continue it here. Let me first note that my panel included scholars from Canada, where such acknowledgements are reportedly routine, and our conversation was more about what took the ISA so long to do this.
One could quibble with the above characterization of the acknowledgement. For example, I did not read the statement as portraying Native Americans as victims but acknowledging they had been victimized and dispossessed of land, which by itself is silent regarding their agency. But it is the issue of “complicity” that begins to reveal the disconnect between advocates of land acknowledgements and Stuart’s perspective as articulated in his post.
From my initial forays into settler colonialism and settler memory, the key issue seems to be about what is past and what is present. Stuart’s reflection very much puts the issue into history. Dispossession happened in a distant past that merely helps us understand the present. The land acknowledgement characterizes it as an on-going state, a present injustice that needs to be addressed. As part of this, it recognizes that Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek peoples are still around and feel an “enduring connection” to the land. The corollary is that American universities as well as other property owners currently benefit from stolen land. So, if I currently benefit from stolen property, am I complicit in this system of injustice? The land acknowledgement does not answer the question, but it asks us to reflect on it. As academics, we certainly have the capacity to reflect on complicated issues.
And these issues are connected with other contemporary issues, including ones ISA members study. Scholars of settler colonialism in the US have looked at issues of land claims in relation to Standing Rock as well as the US Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Questions of when is property no longer consider stolen is central to debates about art looted during World War II and during colonialism (controversies around the Benin Bronzes may be the most prominent example at the moment). And as Stuart mentions the suffering of Black Americans under systems of slavery and Jim Crow, I’ll note the discussions of reparations as well as whether systems of racial discrimination are entirely in the past or whether continue in different forms.
So instead of thinking about the history of a place, I understood the land acknowledgement as a call for us as scholars to reflect on what past injustices may be unacknowledged parts of our present and what it means for something to be truly in the past.
Stephen Deets’s response is thoughtful but it moves the goalposts around quite a bit. My main point is that singling out one set of people’s historical trauma for attention throughout the conference is an intensely political act. Stephen has no answer to the question of why that selection was made; he just assumes its justice. I don’t, and in fact it’s not clear.
The question is whether ISA is endorsing truth or myth. Perhaps the Cherokee and other peoples do feel an “enduring connection” to the land around Nashville, but that doesn’t mean they have a valid claim to it. Putin, after all, feels an “enduring connection” to Ukraine, but Russia’s claim to it is not valid. From what I have found, the Choctaw and the Chickasaw lived quite a bit to the west of Nashville, while the main Shawnee settlement in the area was abandoned in the 17th century. The Cherokee were mostly to the east. Central Tennessee was mostly unpopulated in the 17th and 18th centuries, perhaps for the same reason Kentucky was–because the Iroquois drove out the inhabitants so they could use it as hunting grounds. Who is complicit now if the main villains were the Iroquois? That’s what I meant about tribes dispossessing each other. The Land Acknowledgement’s historical narrative looks to me like myth, pretending to be about specific tribes, Nashville, and 1830, but really an ahistorical lumping-together of different tribes and different events into an overall narrative of racial resentment. Racial resentment doesn’t lead to good places.
As for the notion of contemporary “complicities,” two points. First, the statement does not ask “what past injustices may be unacknowledged,” in Stephen’s words. It assumes contemporary “complicities.” But there cannot be any if no one was actually dispossessed by the settlers who build Nashville. Furthermore, the United States was built almost entirely by the dispossessed–English religious dissenters, Irish refugees from the Potato Famine, enslaved Africans, etc. What makes the Native American experience different from the first two groups’ is not the initial dispossession but the subsequent relentless, systemic racial discrimination that removed opportunities for the Native Americans to rebuild their lives as white Americans were able to do.
All of that, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with the land around Nashville. Racism is real, present, and immensely destructive, but the Land Acknowledgement doesn’t even call it out specifically, let alone do anything useful to help.
Finally, I’m glad Stephen mentioned the issue of reparations, because I think it helps bring out the unstated stakes of this debate. Personally, I’m inclined to think that reparations for racial discrimination–against both Blacks and Native Americans–is probably justified because those racist structures and attitudes are still present and still harmful. However, I am convinced that achieving anything labeled as “reparations” is politically impossible, and any attempts to push for it or to promote white guilt just feeds the backlash of white racial resentment that got us President Donald Trump. I don’t like the land acknowledgement because it represents the sort of excessive wokeness that is death to progressive politics. It makes a bad argument for a good cause, and it’s lousy political tactics to boot.
I’m glad to see this discussion, and I wish there had been more–or any–discussion about this issue at ISA in Nashville. Having that land acknowledgment posted in every room without any context or discussion seemed like an exercise in box-checking that wasn’t likely to satisfy anyone. As I recall, at the ISA conference in Toronto in 2019, a similar statement was provided in the program, but in addition panel chairs were encouraged to discuss it at the beginning of each panel, and there was at least some minimal background provided so that attendees like me, who weren’t familiar with such statements, could understand what it was about.
As Stuart points out, it’s ironic that ISA would post the land acknowledgment this way, without any effort at education or discussion, since having such discussions and facilitating education is what we’re all about as students and scholars. I hope that next year, in Montreal, ISA will make more of an effort, such as discussing the policy ahead of time at the ISA Governing Council, hosting one or more panels on the issue, and providing conference attendees with more to go on than just such a statement.
Such efforts by ISA won’t answer the bigger questions that Stuart and Stephen are discussing here. What is the purpose of such land acknowledgments? Should they be used more widely in the U.S., as I understand they are in Canada and elsewhere? No matter what one thinks of the particular statement used by ISA in Nashville, there are important issues here that deserve more discussion, and I hope the Nashville conference can spark such a conversation.