The Duck of Minerva

Why Land Acknowledgements?

9 April 2022

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.