Burial Ground Acknowledgements

Land acknowledgments as acts of institutional inclusion obscure the antagonism that follows from genocide

Mediocre sex elicits a deflation similar to the aftermath of an awkward land acknowledgment: the failure of relation even when everyone meant well. Or when one person thought it was “amazing” and the other just feels misunderstood. One person got off, either in orgasm or absolution, and the other is perpetually unsatisfied.

At this juncture in the analogy, what then is the climax of the land acknowledgment? If the answer is decolonization and the acknowledgment is a speech act, how does it act, and what further actions does it call for? Decolonization, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, is not a metaphor. Many leftists and left-adjacents know how to articulate the sentence, having circulated the essay in every Settler Colonialism 101 course since 2012, but posing what decolonization looks like in literal form has been less catchy. The land acknowledgment—a verbal statement usually preceding an academic or cultural event that names the prior and/or current Indigenous occupants of the land on which the event is convened, and in Canada names any treaty governing such land—is meant to concretize the acts of dispossession and conquest, so that presumably the public will know whom to give the land back to. And yet the acknowledgment has become a kind of side step. Well-intentioned people have looked up the names of Indigenous peoples and the extent of their territories but have not confronted the horror of why they did not know them in the first place.

There is a conspiracy theory about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining that is based not so much on the paranoia of pareidolia—stringing connections from disparate data points—but rather the paranoia of close reading. The theory arises from the fact of genocide. Accordingly, all of the supernatural forms of terror that haunt The Shining’s Torrance family are retribution for the deaths of Indigenous peoples in Colorado, where the film takes place. The central piece of supporting evidence is the glib reference to an Indian burial ground in the introduction to the film’s setting at Overlook Hotel.

Why this reading is considered a conspiracy and not an interpretive analysis is because the genocide of Native peoples in the United States is not generally part of institutionally accepted knowledge. But the fact finds a way. The repression of the mass death of Indigenous peoples that makes the United States possible appears again and again in the horror genre, formalized as it is for excavating the psyche. The presence of the Indian burial ground is so strong in its obfuscation that it appears even where it is not. I’m thinking of the kind of Berenstain Bears effect (previously called the Mandela effect, from the mass incorrect belief that Nelson Mandela had died in prison) that happens with the 1982 horror film Poltergeist where many fans cite the cemetery that the California housing-development setting is built on as an Indian burial ground. It is in fact pointedly mentioned in the film as not an Indian burial ground but a cemetery of settlers who come to haunt the suburbs. Poltergeist II, however, seems to pick up the public’s latent desire for some Native flair for their horror: It involves a Native American shaman character (played by Will Sampson Jr., famed for his role as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) whose job of course is to help Americans become un-haunted. Other horror movies have been even more explicit: Pet Sematary (1989 and 2019) and the whole spate of loosely related Amityville Horror movies (spanning 1979 to 2017) all narrate in properly spooky overtones the presence of pissed off, albeit dead, Indians. In edgy pop-culture products like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and comedian B. J. Novak’s Twitter, spoofing the “Indian burial ground” is an easy punch line.

Its assignment to the place of jokes and horror marks the burial ground as the unconscious of the United States. It is easy for many to imagine The Shining’s burial ground in Colorado, but as the other examples illustrate, it is also in Pet Semetary’s Maine and Amityville Horror’s Long Island. Similar horror-movie conceits could be set anywhere in the mass grave of the Americas. Answering to the unconscious fear of prior inhabitance or, more threateningly, current cohabitants is the conscious effort of the land acknowledgment. The awkwardness, the discomfort, the stumbling, the mumbling. These are the pains of coming into political consciousness. These twinges and hesitations are far preferable to the acknowledgments that unfold like guided meditations or monotone mantras as if acknowledging indigeneity imbued the scene with ready-made sacred atonement.

In 2016, Métis thinker and writer Chelsea Vowel penned the sharp critique “Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments,” addressing the limits of land acknowledgments as they had been circulating in Canada. In the United States of 2019, we have barely approached the practice at all. Having lived in Canada for two years and returned to New York City in 2015, I am already exhausted by attempts here to “get it right.” While the actions at Standing Rock and general rising awareness of the longue durée of apocalyptic ecological collapse have shaken many in the States to the presence and claims of Indigenous peoples, the political demands and nuances of such a presence remain largely ignored. For Vowel, though, land acknowledgments have been around long enough to be comparable to the rote repetition of safety instructions before a flight. Hayden King, a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, was part of the initial Canadian rush to acknowledge in 2013. He has some regrets. The land acknowledgment he helped draft for the university has become more of an alibi for the institution than an obligation to do things differently. While Vowel suggests such statements might “have the power to disrupt and discomfit settler colonialism,” acknowledgments are increasingly framed by institutions hoping to do better as an act of “recognition as a form of reconciliation.” (2015 was an official year of reconciliation in Canada, culminating in a truth and reconciliation commission on the role of boarding schools in coercing Native populations, largely through physical and psychic abuse, into assimilation to the Canadian economy and society. It’s not difficult to see such reconciliation efforts as directly tied to the recent refusal to name the mass disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people as genocide.)

Vowel also notes how land acknowledgments are mostly situated in urban spaces, where ongoing resource extraction is easier to understand in the abstract. The ugly infrastructure of the city comes from the other end of the resource-extraction process. We get the luxury glass mausoleums and transport tubes, while the oil and coal is all processed, pumped, and pipelined a bit farther afield. It is the rural juncture of these projects where blockades and other modes of interference are most effective, but these sites are not mentioned in acknowledgments from the urban center—though they link right up to the displacement of the Indigenous groups who are named. The land acknowledgments I’ve heard in NYC often make a point of emphasizing the history and ongoing presence of Indigenous transplants to the city. I’ve wondered if it is appropriate after we’ve acknowledged the lands of the Lenni Lenape who have mostly been violently relocated to Oklahoma, we could turn to the other processes that have made our convening possible. Indigenous presence is ongoing, as is dispossession in its many changing forms, in which more than the white settler are complicit. My presence in the city, for instance, is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—a neighborhood of swift and disastrous gentrification that has pushed Caribbean families out. Such entangled concerns can get lost in the optics of centering. Even as the real-estate company Nook has the audacity to logo themselves with a teepee and the new cafe in Prospect Park South is named Der Pioneer.

Two years after Vowel advocated going beyond acknowledgment, media outlets and civic organizations in the United States were just starting to catch on. In 2017, Teen Vogue published an explainer drawing heavily on the extensive guide created and distributed by the United States Department of Arts and Culture. USDAC’s acknowledgments have three components—identify, articulate, and deliver—with the intended goals ranging from recognizing the prior occupants of land as a counter to the doctrine of discovery and reminding audiences of ongoing colonization to enacting Indigenous protocols to open up space and prompting further action and relationships. The organization notes that downloads of the quasi-official manual spiked around Thanksgiving, signaling how much acknowledgments of violence are used to excuse one’s participation in those same violences. As long as we acknowledge our complicity, we do not have to act on it.

There is a genre of land acknowledgment that expresses gratitude to the Indigenous occupants of wherever such and such an art gallery is located for being caretakers of the land, without acknowledging how the actual practices of caretaking and stewardship are unable to take place to their full extent under occupation. How can we care for land that has been overlaid with private property? How can Indigenous people care for land when the words used to describe that land are almost entirely inaccessible due to the decimation of Native languages under educational coercion to speak, and only speak, English? I raise these questions not to wallow in the tired images of disappearance but to raise the fact of genocide. Indigenous peoples were not, as some acknowledgments seem to say, more benevolent landlords keeping up the property for future foreign investors. There were and are other ways to organize inhabitance, forms of communal organization that are continuously targeted for annihilation.

On June 17, Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir, tweeted “How about instead of land acknowledgments we do genocide acknowledgments.” A burial-ground acknowledgment would require speakers to research not only the names of the peoples whose lands “we gather on today” but also how many of them died to make that gathering possible. To speak genocide is not only to implicate the true, bloodied grounds on which acknowledgment then seems a flimsy antidote but also a sign that there are relations to form with others besides settlers, those who also know what it is to have life in the absolute taken away. One limit of the land acknowledgment might very well be the inability to articulate settler colonialism outside a settler/Native binary. In his book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Frank Wilderson points to genocide as the ground on which the Savage and the Slave might form and recognize a shared antagonism to the settler-master. It is perhaps understandable that some are reluctant to inhabit the “absolute dereliction of genocide” that for Wilderson is a space from which the Savage can relate with “the absolute object status of the Slave.” But that’s kind of the point: It is by confronting our ultimate disposability that we begin to stake out other ways to matter to each other. So far the scramble for slots in the hierarchy of humanity has fundamentally detracted from the force of our movements. To dwell with genocide is to refuse apology, and acknowledgment, and forms of repair that can never lead to a different world because they necessitate that the masters of this one are still speaking. The title of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s first collection of poetry tells us “the wound is a world.” From the rupture, rather than the smoothed-over terrain of sovereign personhood, there is a form that cannot be captured or assimilated into colonial categories of object and person status.

Not long after the Occupy Wall Street encampment in downtown NYC was set up in 2011, a small group meeting in the park advocated for a change in language, and ensuing emphasis in political commitment, from occupation to decolonization. This group distributed a handbill calling for people to “decolonize Wall Street” and also crucially relating the history of the particular wall that the street is named after, a wall built in the late 17th century to keep Lenni Lenape people out of a New Dutch settlement. The handbill emphasized the proximity of this wall to the site of the transatlantic slave trade. The wall to keep out Indigenous peoples, an act of enclosure as dispossession, is also near the African burial ground where 150,000 people were buried in the 17th and 18th centuries, most of whom were enslaved in New York during its development into a major trade center. This history illustrates the ways in which American capitalist accumulation was born of slavery and dispossession. Unfortunately, unlike in Oakland, the group did not gain much traction in the general assembly. And now decolonization is perhaps too easily taken up and emptied of its provocation. What this recent artifact tells us: There can be no decolonization without abolition. That is, there can be no decolonization without a full accounting for the structures of dispossession we supposedly acknowledge when we gather in political, academic, and arts spaces.

In her work “In the Clearing: Black Female Bodies, Space and Settler Colonial Landscapes,” a 2013 doctoral dissertation, Tiffany King argues that the settler-master’s capacity to imagine the “unending possibility” of property occurs through understanding the “Black female form . . . as a metaphor for terra nullius.” The settler colony is and was a plantation system. It was the enslavement of Black peoples, dependent particularly on brutally extractive and endless productive and reproductive labor from Black women, that made settlement possible. The transformation of land into property, which could then be seized, is inseparable from the transformation of people into property, who could then be banned from considerations of humanity. To account for the entanglement and co-constitution of slavery and settlement, as King further does in her book The Black Shoals, is to expand the notions through which we have received a kind of settler-colonial-studies common sense. The categories and the different logics that explain settler colonialism require elaboration. For instance, in a post-emancipation context, King finds a logic of elimination operating against not only Indigenous peoples but formerly enslaved Black peoples as well. In the contemporary period, such elimination occurs through mass incarceration and straight-up murder by the state. As King states in a later chapter of her dissertation: “In order to free the land, we must abolish the prison. Abolition of genocide and Black social death are intimately and inevitably tied.” If we cannot speak of settlement without also speaking of slavery, then we cannot talk about decolonization, about how we will live on this land after America, without beckoning to the life of the afterlife of slavery.

The 1969 documentary short You Are on Indian Land opens with the director, Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell, at a meeting to discuss issues of border crossing for Mohawk peoples whose reserve straddles the U.S. and Canada. He states unequivocally, “We don’t want to be Canadian citizens. We don’t want to be U.S. citizens.” I nearly cheered in the Film Forum theater. Because I don’t want to be a citizen at all. I want to belong but not like that. I consider myself an Indian without home. I have sometimes described myself as a diasporic Diné, but I’ve been reevaluating that recently in consideration of my U.S. passport. While I find it incredibly difficult to visit my traditional territories in the Southwest with any sense of comfort, having spent most of my life at a remove and now hardly recognized by my people, I can leave this whole country and then come back with ease. The incorporation of Native peoples into the United States occurred after the Indian Wars and came to pass in large part so Native men could then turn and fight the new enemies of the state overseas. Within this colony that is also a plantation that is also an empire, we all have our complicities. How do we, Indigenous people of the metropoles, acknowledge that, and to whom?
I began with the land acknowledgment as speech act metaphorized as sex act. To undo and continue this comparison, the land acknowledgment could perhaps better be understood as the phrasal foreplay that initiates sex. It sets us up for what kind of encounter we are going to have. I am trying to suggest we need other kinds of encounters. When sex is good or when being emplaced happens properly—it can be ceremony. It is what Tiffany King recognized as an intimate connection with others and coming into knowledge of that connection. It is contact done differently than the disastrous forms of contact that have typically followed from the 15th century Portuguese sailors in Guinea and Columbus in Hispaniola. But is that different contact even possible in the rooms we gather in where acknowledgments are uttered? I usually don’t feel good enough about my body to allow the intimacy of ceremony, let alone in a white cube with mostly white poets, or a Hilton hotel conference room with aspiring professionals nervous about their CVs. These spaces shape what can be uttered. I believe in the material force of the speech act and that that force can misfire. Until the space of ceremony is secured for those I want to be with, I’d rather dwell in the irreconcilable. I want antagonism over inclusion, in order to prevent, as Sandy Grande has cautioned in regard to “Indigenizing the academy,” making Indigenous practices and peoples open for further extraction. It is a tricky maneuver to insist on our existence both prior and present while slipping, ghostlike, out of the enclosure of visibility.

We don’t have to be dead to haunt the burial ground.