Reading Between the Battle Lines of Land Acknowledgements

'Moral exhibitionism,' cries for justice or declarations of patronage? Maybe prayers?

4 mins read
A group of people sitting at a table with a mountain in the background
Mike Lemos, Council member of the Kizh Nation, Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, providing the land acknowledgement for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument expansion celebration. Photo: Kizh Nation

In 2021, The Atlantic published an essay by staff writer Graeme Wood that concluded Native American land acknowledgements were “moral exhibitionism,” written to “relieve the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.”

In the greater Pasadena area, land acknowledgements can take on some additional characteristics that indicate political patronage with promises of forward-looking relationships.

For example, the Los Angeles County land acknowledgement, which is also used by the Museums of Natural History of Los Angeles County, tosses nearly all the tribes, no matter how solid or questionable their local ancestral claims, into “a public statement that acknowledges, corrects, and disseminates the true historical record of the County and its respective departments including testimony from local tribal governments and impacted communities and with respectful collaboration and consultation with California Native Tribes.”

The full LA County land acknowledgement says: “The County of Los Angeles recognizes that we occupy land originally and still inhabited and cared for by the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash Peoples. We honor and pay respect to their elders and descendants — past, present, and emerging — as they continue their stewardship of these lands and waters. We acknowledge that settler colonization resulted in land seizure, disease, subjugation, slavery, relocation, broken promises, genocide, and multigenerational trauma. This acknowledgment demonstrates our responsibility and commitment to truth, healing, and reconciliation and to elevating the stories, culture, and community of the original inhabitants of Los Angeles County. We are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on these ancestral lands. We are dedicated to growing and sustaining relationships with Native peoples and local tribal governments, including (in no particular order) the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California Tribal Council, Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians – Kizh Nation, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, San Fernando Band of Mission Indians.”

By comparison, the Pasadena City College land acknowledgement is considerably more oriented toward social equity than growing relationships.

The PCC acknowledgement reads: “Pasadena City College is a learning community within the indigenous homelands of people who have been known as the Gabrielieño Band of Mission Indians of the Sisitcanongna [pronounced “Shesh-i-i-kuan-ga”) Village and Kizh Nation. Tonight we acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this land on which we gather. We also honor the legacy of the African diaspora and recognize that the United States as we know it was built at the often-fatal expense of forcefully enslaved Black people. We are indebted to their labor and the labor of many Black and Brown bodies that continue to work in the shadows for our collective benefit. PCC and its faculty, staff, and students recognize that we are all simultaneously teachers, learners, and guests on these lands. This acknowledgment is a small part of an ongoing process of working to raise awareness about histories that are too often erased or forgotten, to recognize our place in this history, and to affirm our commitment to social justice, systemic change, and anti-racism.”

Careful readers will note the difference between “sustaining relationships” with specific tribal governments in the LA County acknowledgement and “working to raise awareness about histories that are too often erased or forgotten” in the PCC version.

Let’s compare press coverage of the ceremony to commemorate the expansion of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument with the land acknowledgement that opened the occasion.

Speaking of selective priorities, let’s compare press coverage of the ceremony to commemorate the expansion of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument with the land acknowledgement that opened the occasion.

The Pasadena Star-News characterized the event as an “outdoor party,” with politicians gushing about how honored they were to take this “historic step forward.”

The Star-News graciously proffered, waaaaay down in the article’s 16th paragraph, brief quotes from Mike Lemos, the designated representative of the Kizh Nation.

But what the Star-News didn’t mention were key details of Lemos’ opening speech, a land acknowledgement more a prayer for rights than an entertaining formality.

Lemos’ remarks included his hope that the Kizh tribe, which lacks federal acknowledgement, would not be excluded from recovering sacred ancestral artifacts from within the expanded National Monument. That is a real-world concern for the Kizh.

Here is Lemos’ speech:

Greetings, I'm Mike Lemos, Council member of the Kizh Nation, Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians.

The Kizh people are the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin, tracing back thousands of years.

As the indigenous lineal descendants of the Kizh (Quiichi), we are united in our dedication to shedding light on what we now call the Los Angeles Basin.

We speak not only as witnesses to the past but also as participants in the continuous process of recovering our heritage. Names like Topanga, Hahamonga, Cahuenga and Cucamonga resonate with the history of our villages, a testament to our enduring presence, as well as (in) Covina (Covinavit, covinanga) and Corona (Coronavit, coronangna).

Today, we come together in what is now the City of Irwindale, historically recognized as Rancho Azusa and originally known as Azusangna. We've gathered here to commemorate the extension of the San Gabriel National Monument — a site of deep significance for our people — as we were the first and only tribe honored during its first dedication in 2015. It is an honor to remember this day, not just as a celebration of our past, but also as a commitment to our future.

In the spirit of unity and remembrance, I wish to invoke a blessing, once offered by Chief Ernie Salas, to honor both our ancestors and the land that has sustained generations of our people.

Let us pray. To the four directions. The East. The South. To West. To North.

The east represents the light of wisdom, illumination, freshness, peace and understanding.

From the south comes the power of life, vitality, growth and warmth.

The west represents opportunity, autumn, rain, thunder and also death.

And from the north comes the cold, purifying winds, the cleansing of prosperity, the strength of endurance and the white snow and hairs of old age.

Nah-weha Aho, ah-ne tamet, quata, tai-ai canue-ta Aho!

And that’s a master class in land acknowledgements.

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Phil Hopkins

Phil is the Associate Publisher of Local News Pasadena. He is a 35-year resident of the city and his favorite local delicacy is the Combo Grinder at Connal's.
Email: [email protected]

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