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On March 8, the District 65 School Board discussed a proposed “Resolution on Native Lands and the Contributions of Enslaved Peoples.”
School Board President Anya Tanyavutti said consideration of the “land acknowledgement is an opportunity for us as a Board to have an important conversation and set an important vision for how we acknowledge the harm and trauma that has occurred, and we can use that acknowledgement to set a vision for how we repair and can be a school in support in the pursuit of sovereignty and liberation.”
“I think it’s really important, we want to be clear that this discussion tonight is not a blindly and flat symbolic gesture. This is a gesture that is rooted in commitment to justice, values of justice, and a commitment to set a vision into action. After this discussion, we will be getting a social studies update, which will be related to the repair that needs to follow such an acknowledgement.”
Six panelists were invited to attend the meeting and speak about the importance of a land acknowledgment and its purpose.
The proposed resolution, which would adopt the land acknowledgment, contains 24 recitals, which give the context and scope of the document, the first of which says that the District 65 School Board “offers a land acknowledgement to the Native American peoples of the great lakes region which has become Illinois and a recognition of the contributions of African peoples and peoples of African descent to the development of Illinois and the United States.”
The recitals also state that, “a land acknowledgment is a formal statement given at the beginning of organized events, celebrations, or activities, to recognize the enduring relationship between Indigenous Peoples and lands stolen from them”; that “land acknowledgments serve to illuminate ongoing Indigenous presence, uphold Indigenous sovereignty, as well as recognize and counter settler colonial legacies of violence, erasure, and land expropriation”; and that “the purpose of these statements is to show respect and honor to the Indigenous Peoples whom the land of the United States has been home to since time immemorial; and the Indigenous people of the continent of Africa involuntarily transplanted to this land.”
Many of the remaining recitals contain findings that are included in the proposed Land Acknowledgement itself, which is quoted in full below.
The Proposed Land Acknowledgement
“This is the land of the Council of Three Fires, the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa. This land also served as an important meeting place for Miami, Ho-Chunk, the Menominee, Inoka, Sac, Fox, Peoria and other Tribal nations. We acknowledge Evanston, and its founder Johns Evans, are tied to the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people; the removal of Cheyenne and Arapaho people for railroads and westward expansion upon which John Evans developed his wealth and founded Evanston. And we acknowledge education has been the core tool of the United States to enact cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples from Indian boarding schools to current schools and standards that perpetuate ongoing systemic racism in the form of Indigenous absence. The systemic invisibility of Indigenous peoples facilitates non-Indigenous people’s knowledge, perspectives, and attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and contributes to indigenous peoples ongoing struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and just presence and representation in broader society. This land was violently taken under settler colonialism through genocidal actions and open warfare, and the great lakes region which has become Illinois and Chicagoland is still currently home to thousands of Native people who are actively struggling for sovereignty, self-determination and justice.
“The genocidal acts of settler colonialism extended to peoples of Africa and their enslaved descendants. The horrors of slavery that happened upon this land, the land that encompasses Illinois and the United States; the transatlantic slave trade was an act of genocide that involved the forced removal of people from their continent of origin, Africa, trafficked humans across the middle passage to the Americas, separating enslaved people from their elders and homeland; slavery involved the cruel and inhumane treatment of peoples of African descent for generations and forced the enslaved into brutal living conditions and the performance of gruesome labor that sowed the foundation of the United States. Despite Illinois having developed as a state that prohibited slavery, slavery was an accepted practice before and after Illinois received statehood; the vestiges of slavery remain present throughout the United States and directly affect the descendants of enslaved peoples; the descendants of the enslaved help define the African diaspora; rich, and heterogeneous communities descended from African peoples. After the abolition of slavery, white supremacy, and racist violence against descendants of the enslaved and members of the African diaspora remained common throughout the United States and went largely unchecked by the justice system; the pattern of violence against peoples of African descent in the United States shows that the pursuit to end State-sanctioned violence against Black people continues and causes struggle daily for liberation in resistance to continued social, political, and economic anti-Black racism and oppression.
“We honor those that have come before us as leaders and stewards, by whom the land of Illinois was cared for and protected. We encourage everyone consuming this message to continue expanding their knowledge through awareness of local mutual aid models for survival and engagement with some online and local resources such as the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative and The Shorefront Legacy Center.”
The recitals also state, “this acknowledgement raises awareness about histories that are often suppressed or forgotten”; that “it promotes ongoing awareness and action against racial injustices”; and that it is “consistent with the Board’s mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
As part of the proposed Resolution, “The Board commits to providing curricular experiences for its students that engage students in discussions that interrogate systems of oppression, prioritize historically marginalized communities that our students are a part of, to affirm students’ personal experiences, include diverse and accurate representations of protagonists, and are culturally sensitive, fair and unbiased.”
The District is in the process of revising its social studies curriculum in line with the commitment.
Under the proposed Resolution the Board commits to read the Land Acknowledgment at the beginning of each Board and Board Committee meeting.
The panelists talked about the purpose of a land acknowledgement and discussed the need to educate students about the history of this country in an accurate way and to do so in a way that shows resiliency and resistance.
David Stovall, Professor, Black Studies, Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois/Chicago, said a land acknowledgment highlights “those folks who have been the targets of white supremacy, actually making the claim that their lives and understandings should be centered.”
He said understanding history is critical and “we need to know who has come before us.” He added, “A land acknowledgement is not just knowing who has been here before us, but also the responsibility in knowing what it means to be responsible to the things that have happened before us.”
Morris “Dino” Robinson, the founder of Shorefront, said, “What the acknowledgement does is this recentering, some historic context of how this land was developed, how this land was prioritized, taking away land from the Indigenous, bringing in another set of people to work the land without compensation. Without acknowledging that these things did happen, and moving forward with our children in the school system on this land, we’d be doing a disservice if we don’t really truly educate, especially in the social studies arena, of the complexities of history and the multi layered levels of history.”
Abdel Shakur, a District 65 parent, said shortly after one of his children entered District 65, his child’s school was celebrating the pilgrims and talking about how good a friend they were to the native people. He said when he looked at pictures of prior year’s celebrations of the celebration, “you see these Black and Brown children, Black children, becoming settlers, and it just kind of like blew my mind. I have a Black boy. And just imagine him thinking that he could go back in history and become a settler. It’s just like such a disconnection from actual reality and history.”
Mr. Shakur said, “We were just kind of really aghast. And one of the real problems was it put us in kind of an adversarial space with our classroom teacher, and then also with our child in some ways. … We found immediately that we were put on the spot and trying to preserve our children, in terms of their identity and their understanding of themselves, and even their understandings of reality.
“And I think what’s really cool about this land acknowledgement, and all the work that’s been done is that it really is about establishing a shared reality – fundamentally, to make the kind of decisions as a community that we can make that value human life, that value the environment, that value justice, that value all these things, that in some of those mythical pilgrim assembler tales is kind of like twisted up.”
Megan Bang, a Professor at Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy, says her family is Ojibwe. She raised an additional concern about how the negative aspects of history are taught. “I think that we can’t move forward without harm. But I don’t want us to keep raising kids – that they first learn about our negations in order to learn about our liberation. And partly this is because we teach from short periods of time. So part of what I’ll say about this is we have to do this, but we have to see ourselves beyond settler time. And settler time usually decides what story of ourselves we teach or how we see ourselves. So I’m really appreciate what you just said, about what it means to see ourselves over long periods of time and recognize that indigenous absence is a global problem.
Dr. Bang continued, “I think that for me, this movement, you have to recognize we have to actually reckon with our actual histories. But I will tell you that I do hope that while I’m really happy about the acknowledgement for grown folks, what it means to translate a land acknowledgement into powerful liberation for young people – so we don’t develop systems that say, first get dominated so that I can educate you to be liberated enough – can’t be the thing that we pass on. My five-year old granddaughter who is entering in, doesn’t need to be harmed first, in order to learn about that. So part of this, for me is about understanding, from what paradigms, from whose histories and legacies? And what scales of time are we preparing our young people to know about?
Dr. Stovall said, “There is something that’s unsettling that folks in the District are going to have to do, and there’s no running from this. So now, once you’ve engaged this, you have the responsibility of teaching resistance. There’s no running from that. And I think a lot of times, to Megan’s point, we teach history in this very short, nice, very short time periods – I mean if we even instructed the social studies educators to even engage in these particular periods, especially when you talk about history in a Western Hemisphere. So now, you have to engage in the responsibility of teaching a resistance and actually teaching against the master narrative of white supremacy. And that’s a tough thing. That’s a tough thing to do when the majority of your educators in the District are White, and there’s no running from that.
“I think we have to be clear around what it means to teach not just from a different perspective, not just from both sides of the story, but from multiple views, and that multiplicity, there is a responsibility. And when you start to teach from that space of responsibility, you are instantaneously tied into the resistance. So, that’s an important space in the elimination of harm, because in too many instances, we are only fed the stories of imperial colonial domination. We are only fed the stories of enslavement. You do not see the capacity of your people to live, survive and thrive. So I think that is a head-on challenge that the District has to come face front to if you’re going to operate in ways that are responsible to something like a land acknowledgement.”
Sergio Hernandez said, “It is it is an honor to be part of a Board that is willing to do this hard work in the face of resistance from the colonizers, … resistance from folks who actually moved into this town for the diversity and then didn’t want to be this diverse.” He added, “We want this diversity, we want our lived experiences to be included. … We move not just to have the statement happen, but really live in how our educators teach our kids and really acknowledge their lived experiences and really reach out to them and their families.”
Joey Hailpern said, “Thank you for bringing this before us, giving us an opportunity to think on this, to read about it, to engage in this conversation, but also for it being a start, and a very important start to what’s to come. I agree that it’s a lot of work. It’s a multifaceted work. But it must be done. And it must be done now.”
Soo La Kim said, “When my children started in District 65, and I heard about the fact that pioneer days with a 40-year-old curriculum was still in place, I was kind of taken aback.” She said she was excited to be at this moment and to hear about the work being done “to bring us to this point where we can think about our social studies curriculum in a new way.” She added that she thought “there needs to be cross-group solidarity and collectivity. When we are talking about new curricula, it needs to be interest disciplinary.” As an example, she said, “If we’re talking about climate justice, we have to link up with other social justice movements, and it has to be connected to the history of this land.”
Elisabeth “Bis” Lindsay-Ryan said, “I really appreciate the need for us to move from this being a vision to this being a reality and embedding this throughout our institution and seeing all of those synergistic ways that we can deal with the intersectionality of these topics and eliminate the whitewashed history and dissenter whiteness in all of our curriculum.”
Suni Kartha said this is the right time to do this. “When we are in the midst of a pandemic that is showing us just how deeply and profoundly inequities impact our communities, is when we have to say, we cannot go back to what was; and because for some people that’s what’s comfortable, we must take this opportunity to move forward and be better. And I firmly believe that this is the first step in a journey that we’ve been taking.” She said the Board should set a timeline and appropriate expectations.
Rebeca Mendoza questioned whether the land acknowledgement should be read at the start of every meeting, “something that’s so painful, and is a reminder, for me, personally, of a very difficult experience that I had here in this City as an immigrant. I’m curious if there’s a more sacred space that something like this can be shared at.”
She added there be a “redundancy of doing it at every single meeting, and every committee. To me, it feels like it loses a sense of sacredness, and again, for me personally, it strikes, it strikes pain to have to read that at the start of every meeting.”
The School Board is expected to vote on the Land Acknowledgment at its next meeting.