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Against Land Acknowledgements

· 8 min read
Against Land Acknowledgements
Photo by Marie-Michèle Bouchard on Unsplash

Regular readers of Quillette may recall my 2018 article “Why Women Don’t Code,” which led to another describing how I was “Demoted and Placed on Probation.” After a year of probation, I was reappointed for a three-year term, only to entangle myself in a new controversy over indigenous land acknowledgments. These are sombre declarations intended to acknowledge that land now used for some event or purpose was once inhabited by indigenous tribes (some acknowledgements add that the land was unjustly taken). They are rather like ritual acts of expiatory prayer, usually recited by rote from a standardized text. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether or not the speaker actually agrees with the sentiments expressed; what’s important is that the required words are spoken.

As Jonathan Kay noted in a 2020 article for Quillette, this convention has been common practice in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada for some time, but has only begun to make an appearance in the US in the last few years. Lately, I have been encountering these land acknowledgments all over the place. One of the slides included in a Title IX training course required of all students, faculty, and staff at the University of Washington reads:

As you begin this course, it is important to spend time acknowledging that many of us learn, live, and work on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people. UW benefits from the careful stewardship of this place from Indigenous people, past, present, and future.

Let us all continue to advocate for Indigenous people and communities as we engage in our lifelong work together as a dynamic and inclusive community of learners, educators, and leaders.

This course will invite you to think about identity and power. We encourage you to think of Indigenous identities throughout.

Title IX is the section of US law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, which has nothing to do with indigenous land issues, as far as I can see.

At first, I just ignored these performative displays—they are faintly annoying and serve no practical purpose, but they struck me as basically harmless. As their appearances become more persistent, however, I began to worry that they represent affirmation of a specific ideology. As such, they constitute a flagrant violation of the institutional neutrality recommended by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report in 1967. The report was prepared by a faculty committee tasked with examining “the University's role in political and social action,” and it affirmed “the University's commitment to the academic freedom of faculty and students in the face of suppression from internal and/or external entities while also insisting on institutional neutrality on political and social issues.”

When I point this out to other faculty, they usually just shrug and say, “Well, I’m not a fan of land acknowledgements, but it’s not a big deal.” This kind of passive acceptance leads to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the “dictatorship of the small minority.” A small but vocal minority cares deeply about an issue, but because others don’t care much either way, the vocal minority ends up imposing its will on everyone else. The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me.

A document of “best practices for inclusive teaching,” produced by the Allen School’s diversity experts, recommends the inclusion of an indigenous land acknowledgment to course syllabi. They provide the following example:

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.

In December, I sent a message to our faculty mailing list announcing that I planned to append my own version of the land acknowledgement to the syllabus for my winter course. I included the text I had in mind and made it clear that I wanted feedback because I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Nobody responded. So, when classes started this week, I posted my syllabus with the following declaration under the heading “Indigenous Land Acknowledgment”:

I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.

I am a Georgist, and according to the Georgist worldview, Native Americans have no special claim to any land, just like the rest of us. But since few are familiar with that economic ideology, I leaned instead on a principle described in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, now known as the labor theory of property or the “homestead principle.” To the Georgist idea that land is owned in common by all living people, Locke added that by mixing one’s labor with the land, one encloses it from the shared property because people own the products of their labor. If, for example, you make the effort to grow corn on an acre of land, you come to own that acre of land, so long as there is still plenty of land left for others to use.

One can certainly object that the labor theory of property is not applicable here. Scholars disagree about how it may or may not apply to Native Americans. But I have been unable to find much evidence that Native Americans ever made productive use of the 350 acres on which the main campus of the University of Washington now stands. The university archives have a picture of the land in its “wild state,” which had to be cleared of trees—an extremely tedious job—and graded to make it suitable for the construction of buildings. As far as I can tell, it was a dense forest during the years that Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of this region.

In any event, it doesn’t really matter whether or not my beliefs about Native American land ownership make any sense. The point is that by encouraging faculty to include a land acknowledgment, the DEI experts invited each of us to express our own opinions on the topic. After all, shouldn’t such a declaration be sincere? A foreseeable outcome of this approach, of course, is that some teachers will take the opportunity to express views about historical land claims and ownership that others find objectionable. But this is the whole problem with land acknowledgements in the first place, and the reason for the Kelvin Report’s insistence that a university remain neutral on social issues.

I don’t know how many of the 600 students in my class cared about or even noticed the land acknowledgment on my syllabus. But it was noticed by enough of them to produce two Reddit threads and some Twitter chatter:

The Director of the Allen School contacted me and asked me to remove the land acknowledgment at once. I refused. There followed a negotiation during which I argued that faculty should be treated consistently. At one point, she offered to have all land acknowledgments removed other than the one developed by UW and included in the best practices document:

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.

It’s not clear what exactly is being acknowledged by this banal statement alone, but a footnote on the webpage of the University’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity clarifies its purpose: “This language template is spoken by UW leadership during events to acknowledge that our campus sits on occupied land. We recognize that this is a difficult, painful and long history, and we thank the original caretakers of this land.” I told the Director that the UW statement is political, and that if others were going to be allowed to make this statement, then I should be allowed to make my own.

First, the Director had the IT staff remove my syllabus from the university’s website and replace it with a statement that read: “Note: The course syllabus has been temporarily removed due to offensive statements. We apologize for the inconvenience.” A day later, the syllabus was replaced with a version that redacted the land acknowledgment. The Director also emailed my students with a message that began:

Yesterday, it was brought to my attention that the CSE143 syllabus contained an offensive statement under the heading of ‘Indigenous Land Acknowledgment’. I apologize for that. It is extremely important to me and other faculty in the Allen School that CSE 143, and all our classes, be inclusive environments.

As has become usual in the DEI context, that word “inclusive” sounds tolerant even as it is used to enforce conformity. The Director went on to provide three different options for students who wished to file complaints about me. The following day, she informed my students that a new section of the course taught by a different instructor would be made available, and that any students who wanted to switch could do so.

I have been asked by colleagues and friends why I am making such a big deal out of something so trivial. Some of them have concluded that my intransigence is just a stunt and that I’ve been needlessly rude for good measure. But I can ask the same question in reverse. Why is this such a big deal to my critics? The first official message about all this was copied to two deans and a vice provost, so this has obviously been discussed at a high level within the university. I was told that my land acknowledgment is offensive even though I didn’t insult anyone. I was told that it created a “toxic environment” in my class and the university Twitter account declared itself “horrified.” Toxic? Horrified? Really? And now students are being offered the option of a different instructor. So, who is making a big deal out of this?

I contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and on January 11th, they sent a letter to the university protesting its response. As a state school, FIRE pointed out, the University of Washington is bound by the First Amendment, which means that any limits on speech must be content neutral:

First, the Allen School’s requirement that faculty must use the university’s chosen land acknowledgment statement or refrain from speaking on this topic in their syllabi is an impermissible viewpoint-based regulation, violating the First Amendment rights of all faculty. Second, UW’s censorship of Reges’s syllabus and creation of an alternative course section are retaliatory actions taken against Reges due to his views, violating his First Amendment rights.

It remains to be seen whether or not the university allows itself to be moved by such arguments.

In the meantime, others should join me. What would happen if everyone took the time to write what they actually believe about land ownership and historical moral responsibility, instead of simply repeating a mantra they have been handed by a DEI bureaucrat? A plethora of opinions would inevitably emerge and the absurdity of these rote declarations would immediately become apparent. That would at least be a more honest way of honoring the people who occupied this land before Europeans arrived.

But that is probably a forlorn hope. The university administration’s ballistic response has put everyone else on notice—make trouble for us and we will make plenty of trouble for you. They know as well as Nassim Nicholas Taleb does that the desire for a quiet life is what allows dictatorships of small minorities to prevail.

Stuart Reges

Stuart Reges is a Teaching Professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington where he teaches introductory programming classes.

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