Recognitions of Place: Roundtable Discussion with Charlotte Davidson and Tiffani Kelly
Dr. Charlotte Davidson (asdzáán/she/her/hers) is Diné and is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, also known as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. In NASPA, Charlotte serves as the NASPA Indigenous Relations Advisor; Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community (IPKC) co-chair; Indigenous Engagement Workgroup co-chair for the 2021 NASPA Virtual Conference; and is the 2021 NASPA Power and Place Symposium co-director. Charlotte is also a member of the 2019-2022 NASPA SERVE (Supporting, Expanding, and Recruiting, Volunteer Excellence) Academy cohort.
Tiffani Kelly (she/her/hers) is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and serves as the Assistant Director in the Native American Cultural Center at Colorado State University. In NASPA, Tiffani serves as the IPKC co-chair and the Indigenous Engagement Workgroup co-chair for the 2021 NASPA Virtual Conference.
As higher education professionals who serve as members of the 2020-2021 Indigenous Engagement Workgroup, we want to highlight the role and function of land acknowledgments in the building of NASPA annual conferences. It is important for student affairs educators to hear from and listen to Indigenous voices and perspectives regarding how Indigenous notions of place impact Indigenous peoples’ participation in NASPA. In this educative spirit, we have invited Charlotte Davidson, and Tiffani Kelly to a roundtable discussion as a way to explore the topic of place in relation to the creation, integration, and impacts of land acknowledgments.
What is your personal definition of a land acknowledgment, and does a universal description exist?
CHARLOTTE DAVIDSON (CD): Recognitions of place are dynamic, contextually rooted, and assume many forms. While a universally shared description does not exist, they are one small step in knowing the land beneath our feet. My personal definition of a land acknowledgment continues to evolve in relation to my experiential understandings of place (e.g., lands, skies, and waters). At the time of this writing, I characterize a land acknowledgment as a socio-cultural practice that not only expresses the distinct relationship Indigenous peoples have with geographical contexts, but critically seeks to decenter settler colonial logics regarding the formations of place, community, and belonging.
TIFFANI KELLY (TK): My personal philosophy about land acknowledgments is about relationships. It is a practice and ongoing recognition of my role and relationship to place: the land, water, sky. For me, a land acknowledgment is not a welcome, but an ongoing recognition of relationship. Therefore, there is no universal description because this relationship can and should change, and is a unique appreciation to that geographical location and peoples.
"It is absolutely critical for groups who are interested in including a land acknowledgment to understand the commitment and time that is necessary to do this in a good way. It requires one to build relationships, be vulnerable, practice humility, and engage in an ongoing commitment to this work."Tiffani Kelly, Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community Co-Chair
How do land acknowledgments contribute to a sense of belonging for Indigenous peoples at NASPA conferences?
CD: While most attendees may feel “at home” attending a NASPA conference, there continues to be an absence of spaces and practices that support the community realities of Indigenous peoples. One way to attend to this absence is through land acknowledgments. When developed critically, land acknowledgments promote a discourse of recognition and inclusion. What I mean here is that land acknowledgments serve as an avenue for different cultural voices to be heard and integrated within a professional learning environment. Toward this end, land acknowledgments connect attendees with local stories that often convey a sense of continuity and shared identity (we are all guests on Indigenous lands).
TK: If we think about land acknowledgments from a lens of centering Indigenous peoples and recognizing land as a relation and participant in the space, then I believe this leads not only to a sense of belonging, but also begins to change the way institutions are accountable to Indigenous communities. It can create a deeper sense of belonging and affirmation of our own Indigeneity, which I think can allow for Indigenous practitioners to see themselves and their relationship to higher education differently. This can ultimately create a better and more inclusive educational space, one where we draw power from our physical place to truly encompass, make visible, and center Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous knowledge, and Tribal Nations.
Share your perspective on who or what goes missing in the integration of land acknowledgments in NASPA conferences?
CD: In many instances, I have witnessed well-meaning colleagues sidestep a commitment to cultivating a place-conscious praxis, which requires a willingness to divorce oneself from approaching a land acknowledgment as an item on an inventory checklist. Two of the many tragic consequences of this (in)action is the witting or unwitting complicity with the invisibility of Indigenous peoples within NASPA and the tokenization of land acknowledgments at NASPA conferences. NASPA staff, NASPA leaders, and NASPA members can change these persistent outcomes by serving as accomplices and advocating for the full and equal participation of Indigenous members in NASPA.
TK: I have experienced being a participant in an audience when the sharing of a land acknowledgment was approached from a task or checklist item. What is shared then lacks truth, commitment, reflection, and engagement from and with Indigenous communities. I believe it is absolutely critical for groups who are interested in including a land acknowledgment to understand the commitment and time that is necessary to do this in a good way. It requires one to build relationships, be vulnerable, practice humility, and engage in an ongoing commitment to this work; it cannot just be a one time, short time-slot in an agenda.
What is the ideal approach for integrating a land acknowledgment into NASPA conferences?
CD: The administration of land acknowledgment practices should not recreate harm toward Indigenous peoples. “Not recreating harm” is central to many Indigenous worldviews and Indigenous place-making practices. As a principle, “not recreating harm” presents us with new possibilities and challenges; it serves as a starting point to bring intellectual traditions together instead of relegating Indigenous knowledge systems to the margins. In my view, “not recreating harm” is rooted in recognizing that what is needed are transformative actions, not false generosity, that lead to respecting and receiving Indigenous epistemological traditions and practices as contributions to NASPA and the profession.
TK: As I mentioned earlier, I believe it is essential to engage in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities and Tribal Nations whose land the conference space is located on. The physical space we live, learn, and grow is personal, and those experiences must be approached in a relational way that is specific to those Indigenous communities and place. Even as we move virtually, this process requires collaboration to create something that allows for reflection and critical analysis. This process prompts us to think beyond land acknowledgments and begin to develop practices, protocols, and accountability to our Indigenous students, communities, and Native Nations.
How can a land acknowledgment cultivate place-based sensibilities within a virtual multi-geographic space?
CD: Seemingly, virtualized conditions have become a justification for conditioning (socially and spatially) students, staff, and faculty away from experiencing and enacting recognitions of place. Put another way, remote learning and development are new excuses for Indigenous erasure. Regardless of the online spaces we occupy, our feet rest on the back of Ni’hoosdzáán (Diné term for Mother Earth); this belief is not a static notion, but an active relationship, whether one is conscious of this or not. To claim, then, that geographical encounters do not occur within virtual settings reflects a reluctance to take responsibility for creating a critical and better-informed profession.
TK: Even though many of our programs and experiences have moved virtually, we are all still planted somewhere and occupy space in complex ways. Our relationships with each other have become even more important as we try to stay connected virtually, and this energy should also be put into how we analyze our own relationality to land. These practices, whether in person or virtually, help us envision a future in higher education that consciously considers and includes Indigenous worldviews and communities.
How can NASPA members become socialized to understand Indigenous forms of place-making in higher education?
CD: Indigenous forms of place-making are (mostly) shaped by environment-based worldviews and concern the primacy of relations between peoples and places. As you can imagine, translating this labor into socialization experiences in higher education is not an easy task. Integrating place-based knowledge into any institutional context requires the active involvement, cultural guidance, and personal perspectives of the Indigenous higher education community on your campus. The aim for professionals is to identify with Indigenous Peoples a place-informed praxis; one that unmasks the social forces and conditions that perpetuate institutional experiences of exclusion, suffering, and harm. Most importantly, a place-informed praxis should address the structural relationship between higher education and settler colonialism.
TK: My advice is to be intentional about reading and taking the time to learn from Indigenous communities and scholars who are talking about this; understand that Indigenous education and engagement does not narrow your thinking to just that community, but it actually broadens our understanding of ourselves, our worldviews, and our relations. A great place to start is by reading Power and Place: Indian Education in America by Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat.