When the Tempe Union High School District Governing Board meets tonight, March 3, something possibly unprecedented among Arizona school districts will become a regular part of its meetings.
Immediately after the welcome, Pledge of Allegiance and moment of silent, the board will have a “land acknowledge statement” reminding people that district facilities sit on the ancestral lands of two Native American tribes – the Akimel O’odham and Piipaash.
The addition was approved without comment at the board’s last meeting on Feb. 17 and it is unclear what the statement will precisely say.
District spokeswoman Megan Sterling noted that in the past when each board member has a chance to deliver a report on their district-related activities, board President Brian Garcia “has recognized Indigenous Peoples Day and Native Americans.”
“Tempe Union sits on the ancestral lands of the Akimel O’odham and Piipaash peoples,” she said.
“Language to that effect – honoring the ancestral lands that TUHSD is on – will be placed in the public content section of the Land Acknowledgement agenda item. This acknowledgement will be on every agenda going forward until/unless a future board decides to change policy.”
Though Garcia did not return a request for comment and Sterling said she has not heard of any other district instituting a regular land acknowledgment statement, such declarations are gradually taking hold among public entities across the country.
“Many organizations of all kinds are doing land acknowledgments,” said Dr. Traci L. Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
“It is very appropriate and respectful,” Morris explained. “There are many Native Americans living in your district that will be honored by this acknowledgment.”
She noted that her emails carry, along with her contact information, a statement.
“I acknowledge that ASU sits on the ancestral homelands of those American Indian tribes that have inhabited this land for centuries, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) peoples,” Morris explained in an email.
“I also acknowledge and pay respect to Indigenous elders – past, present, and future – who have stewarded this land throughout the generations.”
The Maricopa peoples have several spellings for their tribe, including those used by Tempe Union and Morris.
Land acknowledgements have become commonplace in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada as well as among tribal nations in the U.S. The National Hockey League opens all its games in Canada with a land acknowledgement and some teams do the same playing in the States.
It’s only been within the last year or two that the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture began recommending they be adopted by local, county and state governments.
“Acknowledgment is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth,” it says.
It also suggests words like “genocide,” “land stolen” and “ethnic cleansing” are appropriate terms to use.
“Imagine this practice widely adopted: imagine cultural venues, classrooms, conference settings, places of worship, sports stadiums, and town halls, acknowledging traditional lands,” the department states.
“Millions would be exposed – many for the first time – to the names of the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of the lands they are on, inspiring them to ongoing awareness and action.”
The department also notes that acknowledgements help counter the “’doctrine of discovery’ with the true story of the people who were already here” instead of celebrating foreign invaders.
The department also said that beyond reminding people that land acknowledgments “begin to repair relationships with Native communities and with the land,” they also “remind people that colonization is an ongoing process, with Native lands still occupied due to deceptive and broken treaties.”
The Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh tribes comprise Gila River Indian Community population and it wasn’t very long ago that some members reminded Ahwatukee and Arizona that their beliefs and tradition were still subject to disrespect.
That occurred in 2016 before the federal appellate courts signed off on construction of the South Mountain Freeway.
The GRIC had filed a lawsuit, along with a separate one by a group of Ahwatukee homeowners, to stop the freeway from being built.
The tribes contended the freeway was cutting into and desecrating South Mountain, which they hold sacred.
At the August 2016 meeting of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee, about a dozen GRIC members appeared with signs protesting the freeway to express their anger over the freeway as Arizona Department of Transportation officials gave an update on the project.
Several tribal members stopped the meeting briefly with a tribal dance against the project.
Later that fall, about 50 tribal members appeared outside Desert Vista High School during an open house ADOT was holding on the freeway project that they were planning to attend.
But a small contingent of uniformed and plainclothes Phoenix police officers turned them away, preventing them from even entering the high school cafeteria where the open house was being held. Part of the community’s legal argument was that the freeway was trampling on sacred burial grounds and other sacred sites, an allegation ADOT denied and that the courts rejected.
The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture said a land acknowledgement “by itself is a small gesture.” But it adds that an acknowledgement “becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationship and informed action.”
“But this beginning can be an opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights, a step toward equitable relationship and reconciliation.” ′