The Unitarian Church of Evanston has recently adopted a Native land and Black labor acknowledgment that is read before each Sunday service. Credit: Kristin Lems

If you visit or attend events at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Northwestern University, the Evanston Public Library, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and other Evanston establishments, you are likely to see or hear “land acknowledgments.” What are they and how do they work?  

Land acknowledgments are a way of recognizing that Native American inhabitants living on the land we now call home were removed in wrongful and violent ways – sometimes through broken treaties, discriminatory laws, outright theft with the support of the law and even violence.

Although many of us may have heard of the infamous Trail of Tears that sent thousands of Cherokees on a deadly trek across many states, fewer may know about how Native inhabitants were displaced from our own area, the land at the southern end of Lake Michigan, including Chicago and our home, Evanston. 

“Chicago has always been Indian country,” said Josee Starr, operations director of the Mitchell Museum and an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (Three Affiliated Tribes) of North Dakota. Starr cited a film, Chicago Has Always Been Indian Country, documenting the long Native history in the area around Lake Michigan.

One of the ways to recognize this reality is through land acknowledgments.

Varied land acknowledgments

Several Evanston organizations have adopted land acknowledgments, and they vary in length and tone.  Although many are too long to print here, key phrases and sentences highlight some of the intent and the scope of such statements.

Image accompanying Northwestern University’s land acknowledgement by Brittany Tainter. Credit: Northwestern University

The Mitchell Museum has posted a detailed and strong statement beginning with the statement: “The land that the Mitchell Museum occupies today is the unceded, ancestral homelands of the Council of Three Fires: the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Odawak (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi) Nations.” The word “unceded” underscores the nonconsensual nature of the land transfer.

The Evanston Public Library has a well-researched land acknowledgment which was first read aloud at its board meeting on Nov. 16, 2022. It cites a number of individual tribes living in the larger northern Illinois/Wisconsin area and takes care to include current peoples: “We acknowledge and honor the original people of this land, as well as the Indigenous people that still call this area home, and support their continued work for justice, self-determination, and sovereignty.”  

There are many other meaningful land acknowledgments in use locally. Since March 2021, District 65 has started its meetings with a broad statement that recognizes organized violence against Native tribes as well as the enslavement and historic contributions of “peoples of Africa and their enslaved descendants.” 

In a similar vein, since October 2022, the city’s Reparations Committee has opened its meetings with an “ancestral acknowledgment” that honors Black ancestors’ sacrifices and includes a commitment to beginning the process of repair.

One church’s journey

One noteworthy local effort comes from the Unitarian Church of Evanston, whose land acknowledgment is found on its website and spoken at the start of every Sunday worship service.

After acknowledging the original people of the land, it adds “we name these realities with honor for all the ancestors and with respect for our descendants, with gratitude for the animals and plants sustained by this land, and with deep appreciation for the land we use as sacred space.”

The Rev. Susan Frances, assistant minister for congregational life, was the primary steward of the land acknowledgment project.

In an interview, she explained that the language of the acknowledgment – all five editions of it! – evolved as her understanding of its purpose and use deepened and widened.  

The Rev. Susan Frances, assistant minister for congregational life, was the primary steward of the Unitarian Church of Evanston’s land acknowledgment project. Credit: Unitarian Church of Evanston

At the Unitarian Church, the original land acknowledgment was read during the first fall worship service (which was online, during the pandemic) on Sept. 9, 2021, by the Rev. Eileen Wiviott, the church’s senior minister.

The acknowledgment generated a great deal of interest, curiosity and conversations from churchgoers, Frances said. Seeing the interest, she sought a deeper understanding of the specific history of the land and started by looking for statements from local universities, where she figured the history would be carefully researched. 

One of the acknowledgments, at the University of Illinois Chicago, had links to many resources and included primary documents. Another source was Evanston’s Mitchell Museum, a leader in this movement, and a third was the Evanston History Center.

After researching the history of the land on which the church stands, Frances crafted two documents: a “long form” land acknowledgment, posted at the congregation’s website, and a shorter version read each Sunday morning.  

But Frances said she felt that wasn’t enough, especially because the primary sources didn’t necessarily reflect a Native point of view. She sought out videos of interviews with Native elders who spoke about the land and what having a land acknowledgment means to their Indigenous communities.

Starr, the Mitchell Museum operations director, said that Native peoples’ understanding of land is historically different and goes beyond mere property. Unlike maps that delineate property lines, “Native Americans didn’t think of the land as linear,” she said. “We didn’t think of land the same way. We lived with the land, rather than with hard boundary lines.”

At the Unitarian Church, Frances said viewing the video interviews helped her understand that a land acknowledgment had to do more than bring historical stories of Native peoples’ relation to the land to life – it also had to share the deep knowledge of the land embedded in Native traditions and explore how they could be realized in the current era. She asked herself, “How are we living into those values, right now?” 

As she pondered this, Frances revised the church’s language again, calling for a shared space that is “habitable for native species” and urging us to be “responsible stewards for the earth.”

As the text evolved, so did her consciousness: Frances said she realized that it was still not enough to learn from sources removed from our local area, and that she needed to move into “direct relationship” with the area’s Indigenous communities.  

‘Respectfully listen’

During this time, the congregation hosted an exhibit of photographic portraits of Native women by photographer Joseph Kayne, who uses a rare Wet Plate Collodion Tintype technique. 

At the exhibit’s September 2022 opening, Starla Thompson, an educator and enrolled member of the Forest Band of the Potawatomi, spoke along with the photographer about the power and responsibility of representing Native communities with integrity.

The exhibit remained up for six weeks, and made a deep impression on those who viewed it. Frances talked with Thompson about the church’s land acknowledgment, which led to the congregation creating a Native Communities Solidarity Team.

Lay leaders from this team have reached out to the American Indian Center and the Mitchell Museum as the congregation develops the next iteration of its land acknowledgment, which will include its commitment to active solidarity with local Native communities.

At the Mitchell Museum, Starr has worked with groups including the Rotary Club of Evanston to help develop land acknowledgments. She also talks to museum docents and tour guides about the importance of starting a tour with an acknowledgment. 

Starr said that when tour guides speak to people from around the country and around the world, they help visitors understand that Indians are “not all one group … there are 570 recognized tribes” and that “12 tribes lived here together.” Starr said she sees many tourists begin to connect to their own neighborhoods and start to understand where the names of their cities came from. 

For groups interested in adopting their own land acknowledgments, Starr added that it is important to “do your research, reach out to community and Native people and respectfully listen.”

Adding Black labor acknowledgment

As with many works-in-progress, at the Unitarian Church one good thing led to another. When a new version of the church’s land acknowledgment was being introduced, two members of the congregation, one Black and one white, independently contacted Wiviott to say that they would like to hear a statement that acknowledged the enslaved Black labor which “built our country’s culture and economy.” Each had heard such a statement at local theaters and thought it was important. 

With the input from the church’s racial justice task force, Frances and others began to dig into Evanston’s Black history files and the congregation’s own history concerning Black lives.

On Jan. 15, 2023, a combined Native land and Black labor acknowledgment was added to the weekly worship service. 

While some might ask what difference such a statement makes, Frances said that the words are a start – they can speak truth and prevent a sense of erasure and invisibility.

She said that both the Native land and Black labor acknowledgments “proclaim to the world that we are in solidarity.”  And, she added, “social change moves at the speed of relationships.”  

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  1. Thank you to Kristin Lems and Rev. Susan Frances for sharing this background on the process involved in the Native land and Black labor acknowledgement. It is so important to name our history and our collective hope that will make us more united in purpose.

  2. Thank you for this great article. Helpful to know the background of these acknowledgments, and to think about how they can prompt us to better deal with the consequences of our history.