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Land Acknowledgments Are Becoming Common. But Colleges Are Finding More To Do For Their Native Students

Two students descend from a staircase leading to a library building, surrounded by trees and flowers.
Members of the Kumeyaay Nation can use facilities at Southwestern College, in Chula Vista, free of charge.
Southwestern College )
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Land acknowledgments, which recognize indigenous people as an area’s traditional stewards, are now ubiquitous at California colleges and universities. Here in Los Angeles, for instance, it has become increasingly common to acknowledge that the land remains home to the Tongva and their descendants. In addition to official statements, colleges also make land acknowledgments at graduation ceremonies, before lectures and even in email signatures and syllabi.

About 130 miles south in Chula Vista, gatherings at Southwestern College typically start by asking participants to pause and recognize that they are on the Kumeyaay Nation’s current, traditional and ancestral home. Leticia Cazares, one of the school’s board members, led efforts to make the land acknowledgment official last year.

“As a Latinx individual with indigenous roots,” she said, “I felt that it was critical to institute this.”

Then, Cazares and her colleagues set out to do more. The college consulted with local tribal leaders and, after a recent vote, permanently waived facility rental fees for members of the Kumeyaay Nation, granting them access to everything from classrooms to a new performing arts center. Depending on the size of the space and the number of attendees, these facilities are typically rented for $100 to $1,000.

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Inviting Change

Joely Proudfit directs the California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marcos, where she is also a professor. When teaching online, she invites students to use the chat feature to share the names of the original inhabitants of the land where they reside.

It’s a small gesture, said Proudfit, “but it invites inquiry, which is a crucial step toward addressing the erasure of our state’s indigenous people.”

In 2019, Proudfit was part of efforts to develop a land acknowledgment for the university. In partnership with the American Indian Studies department at neighboring Palomar College and local tribal leaders, Cal State San Marcos produced a toolkit: “Land Acknowledgement: You’re on California Indian Land, Now What?” In it, readers learn about land acknowledgment as an entry point for fostering stronger relationships with indigenous people. Other institutions, including UCLA, have developed similar guides.

“We wanted people to really understand why we do this; when, where and how it should be done; and how important it is to do this in collaboration with the tribes,” said Proudfit. In recent years, she has served as a consultant for dozens of other campuses, businesses and organizations interested in crafting similar statements.

“But we also want to go beyond optical allyship,” added Proudfit, who lauded the move at Southwestern College. She hopes that other higher education institutions will also complement their land acknowledgments with action, including free tuition for local indigenous students and language revitalization programs.

Institutions of higher learning should be required to offer the language of the indigenous people of that land —
Luiseño/Payómkawichum, Kumeyaay, Cahuilla,” she said. “These institutions had a hand in destroying our languages, they should have a hand in rebuilding them.”

What questions do you have about higher education?