AIISP is a CALS-based unit that provides Indigenous-related academic, student support and outreach services to Cornell University.
For Cornell University's Ithaca Campus
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ (the Cayuga Nation). The Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign Nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
This land acknowledgment has been reviewed and approved by the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ leadership.
In addition to the Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ land acknowledgment but separate from it, the AIISP faculty would like to emphasize: Cornell's founding was enabled in the course of a national genocide by the sale of almost one million acres of stolen Indian land under the Morrill Act of 1862. To date the university has neither officially acknowledged its complicity in this theft nor has it offered any form of restitution to the hundreds of Native communities impacted. For additional information, see the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession website.
Cornell's continental impact
Through the Morrill Act land-grant process, in which the federal government deeded Indian lands stolen by force and fraud in the course of a national genocide to 52 land-grant universities, Cornell University became economically and morally tied to Indigenous Nations whose traditional territories were located in what are now the U.S. states of California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. The university also possesses land throughout New York state (experimental farms, research stations and the like) and retains mineral rights in the U.S. Midwest and Southwest. Further, some of the over 240 Nations that originally lived in these areas were forced into new locations through the agenda of settler colonialism, including forced migrations into what is now Canada. A full accounting of the scope of Cornell’s complicity in Indigenous dispossession must attend to all of these lands and peoples. For more information, please visit the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project website.
History of the Cornell Land Acknowledgment
Prof. Jolene Rickard (Ska:rù:rę'/Tuscarora) began work on a land acknowledgment for Cornell University during her term as Director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP). She noted that land acknowledgments had been adopted by many Canadian academic institutions and that they did useful work in reversing Indigenous erasure and foregrounding continuing Indigenous ties to ancestral homelands.
Rickard and AIISP began collecting examples from other institutions in 2010. She also took the position that any sort of recognition statement should be developed collaboratively as part of AIISP’s ongoing relationship with the original people of the Ithaca area, the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ (Cayuga Nation). In February 2018, AIISP faculty members met with Hoyáneh (sachem or chief) Sam George, a traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ leader, to discuss the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ position on a land acknowledgment and other matters. A draft acknowledgment was prepared by June 2019, with substantial input from Prof. Eric Cheyfitz.
The statement was lengthened in January 2020, approved by the AIISP faculty in April, and then sent to leaders in the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ community for their review. They recommended that the statement be changed to better portray the contemporary presence of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ in the region. An amended version that incorporated these changes was provisionally approved by Hoyáneh George in July 2020, at which point AIISP and several other Cornell units began to use it. Hoyáneh George circulated the statement to other members of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫɁ leadership and obtained their approval for the text on April 9, 2021. This final version was unchanged from the provisional rendition.
The University adopted this statement on May 18, 2021.
What is a Land Acknowledgment?
A land acknowledgment is a statement that respects Indigenous peoples as the original inhabitants of the lands we occupy, as well as recognizing their long history in and their enduring connections to their traditional homelands. Land acknowledgments draw attention to these ongoing ties and bring listeners’ thoughts both to histories of dispossession and violence and the resilience and continuing vitality of Indigenous communities who persist against great odds.
Land acknowledgments are locally-specific: they should be tailored to reflect where the speaker is physically located. Cornell University also has campuses in Geneva, New York, and New York City, where acknowledgments need to be different to reflect the original occupants of those particular lands.
If you need help determining which traditional territory you are situated in, a useful website is Native Land. For various historical reasons, including displacement, migration, group fission and fusion and genocide, determining original inhabitants is not a simple matter. The information contained in Native Lands is explicitly termed a “work in progress,” but it is a good-faith effort led by Indigenous researchers that can serve as a starting point for further investigation.
Resources for crafting and evaluating land acknowledgments
Best practices for land acknowledgements include collaborative production involving institutions and locally-affected Nations; meaningful, practical, and material engagement with affected Nations (on their terms); development of ongoing relationships; and periodic revisitation of the commitments made.
Acknowledgments of this sort are sometimes called “Living Land Acknowledgments.” For an example, see the acknowledgment and set of commitments developed by the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities in New York City. The results of their first two annual stock-takings can be found here: 2021 and 2022.
Beyond land acknowledgment: A guide, published in 2021 by the Native Governance Center, contains a step-by-step guide and links to multiple additional resources.
For an additional perspective on the crafting and meaning of land acknowledgments, see the video by Humboldt State University Professor Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok and Karuk). The first 26 minutes contain a general discussion, while the remainder of the presentation is specifically about the history of Indigenous peoples in California.
In Analysis: How well-meaning land acknowledgements can erase Indigenous people and sanitize history, anthropologists Valerie Lambert (Choctaw Nation), Michael Lambert (Eastern Band of Cherokee), and EJ Sobo point out some of the dangers of poorly-designed acknowledgments.
Indigenous Scholars Theresa Ambo and Theresa Rocha Beardall (a Cornell Ph.D.) have published a survey and analysis of land acknowledgmentpractices at U.S. land-grant institutions. See Performance or Progress? The Physical and Rhetorical Removal of Indigenous Peoples in Settler Land Acknowledgments at Land-Grab Universities (American Educational Research Journal, Volume 60, Issue 1, February 2023, pages 103-140). Some readers may encounter a paywall.
How does Cornell’s acknowledgment fare in light of these considerations?
As an educational institution, Cornell University faculty and staff have a particular obligation to making the Indigenous history of our location, and the current status of local Indigenous Nations, more widely known. One way to do this is to make frequent use of the land acknowledgment.
Cornell community members are encouraged to read the acknowledgment at the beginning of gatherings and events. It is particularly pertinent to use the acknowledgment at important events, such as welcome functions, graduation ceremonies, building dedications, and public occasions, but Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ leaders stress that such statements should be used as often as possible. It is also appropriate to include a land acknowledgment in course syllabi, and such statements increasingly are being used in academic publications, including scientific reports.
Use of the land acknowledgment should be done respectfully and not become merely routine.
It is not appropriate to create alternative statements, alter the acknowledgement, or invent ceremonial rituals when reading the land acknowledgment. Always use the names Indigenous Nations call themselves, rather than the names that are commonly used in the U.S. mainstream, as many of these are outsider terms (exonyms) that often are derogatory.
For pronunciation of the names of the original inhabitants of the Ithaca area, Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ is approximately Guy-yo-KO-no and Haudenosaunee is approximately Ho-di-no-SO-ni. Please also listen to Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ language teacher Steve Henhawk’s pronunciation in this video associated with his Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ language course at Cornell.
Mr. Henhawk uses Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ several times in the first portion of the video.