Image accompanying Northwestern University's land acknowledgement by Brittany Tainter

If land is a palimpsest upon which nations and civilizations write their brief story, few of these are fully erased. There are some traces of the Pottawattamie tribe that occupied this area when voyageurs landed at what is now Lighthouse Beach.

Over the past few years, several universities and other organizations have publicly recognized that the land they occupy belonged earlier to Native Americans by publishing land acknowledgements. Many land acknowledgements, such as Northwestern University’s, describe land acknowledgements in these words from

“To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on, and a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. It is important to understand the long standing history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: Colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation. It is also worth noting that acknowledging the land is Indigenous protocol.” 

Since 2018, Northwestern University has had a land acknowledgement on its website. The University posted the acknowledgement in January and made it part of the June 2018 commencement ceremony, said Jasmine Gurneau, Manager of Native American & Indigenous Initiatives in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern.

She said the land acknowledgment “has had multiple iterations and sources, including the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force, Multicultural Student Affairs, and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

“Native American and Indigenous initiatives increased at Northwestern as a result of student advocacy. Our land acknowledgement is one of the many efforts that have resulted from their efforts, including the creation of the John Evans Study Committee.”

Northwestern’s acknowledgement also states that the campus “sits on the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa as well as the Menominee, Miami and Ho-Chunk nations. It was also a site of trade, travel, gathering and healing for more than a dozen other Native tribes and is still home to over 100,000 tribal members in the state of Illinois.”

Brittany Tainter, who designed the poster shown here for Northwestern’s land acknowledgement, is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe of Ojibwe. Her statement accompanies the image on Northwestern’s website. It states in part, “Adorning the lake are wild rice and wild onion, both of which hold a special place within each tribe. The onion plant is native to the Chicago area and can be attributed to its naming. Wild rice is a sacred plant and food to Great Lakes tribes, tied to migration stories. …Today, Indigenous peoples continue to protect and remain in relationship with these relatives and will do so until the end of time. It is vital to honor these beginnings and recognize the ongoing dedication and importance of Indigenous culture within our communities and within the land that we gather, live, learn and work on.”

A disturbing chapter in Northwestern’s history is the involvement of John Evans, one of its founders and eponym of the City and later governor of the Territory of Colorado, in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. On Nov. 29, 1864, the U.S. Army cavalry under Colonel John Chivington killed approximately 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans, most of them women and children. Two federal investigations faulted both Gov. Evans and Col. Chivington. Although Gov. Evans was not in Colorado at the time, he was forced to resign his position as governor. He remained in Colorado and was one of the founders of the University of Denver.

A few years ago, Northwestern convened a nationwide committee to study “the involvement of John Evans in the Sand Creek Massacre and in the history of Northwestern University.” Carl Smith, Northwestern professor emeritus of English, American studies and history, chaired the group.

The committee’s findings are summarized on the Northwestern website. In 2014 then-Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper formally apologized to descendants of victims of the massacre, saying, according to the Denver Post, “We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that which is inexcusable. … On behalf of the state of Colorado, I want to apologize. … We will not run from this history.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...