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‘Land is like a person’

The value of land acknowledgments through Indigenous voices


‘Land is like a person’

The value of land acknowledgments through Indigenous voices

"What does it look like to actually acknowledge the land that you’re on and then make up for everything that's been done to that land?" Nataani Hanley-Moraga said.

Hanley-Moraga, who is Diné and Hunkpapa Lakota, has lived in Arizona all his life. Now, he is a senior studying American Indian studies at ASU.

As a former Mr. Indigenous ASU, a student ambassador tasked with "promot(ing) the ideals of the Native American community," according to Sun Devil Sync, Hanley-Moraga was invited to countless events to give land acknowledgment statements. Such statements acknowledge the origin of the grounds ASU's campuses sit on — Akimel O'odham, or Pima, and Pee-Posh, or Maricopa, lands.

"I think ASU is really good at putting us on their brochures and their programs," said Rowan Moore, a doctoral student studying sociology who is Sicangu Lakota.

The drive to innovate overshadows the value of land recognition at ASU, Hanley-Moraga said. For him, the University merely saying that the origin of the land it’s on matters isn’t enough. It's the way ASU treats the land. It's the way ASU treats the communities that cared for it before the University did.

"We live in a time right now where things like land acknowledgments and appreciation of Indigenous peoples (is) almost like social currency," Hanley-Moraga said.

A history of the land

Plaques acknowledging the ancestral lands ASU sits on emerge from planter beds around campus. Taglines at the end of ASU emails allude to the area's Indigenous past. A video produced by ASU's Alliance of Indigenous Peoples has been adopted by the University and serves as a nod toward the school's perpetual occupation of Indigenous lands during graduation convocations.

Additionally, in 2015, University President Michael Crow published the "ASU Commitment to American Indian Tribes," in which he recognized that "Arizona State University is located in Indian Country."

Crow went on to acknowledge the tribal nations that inhabited the grounds ASU is located on for centuries and to affirm the University’s commitment to local Indigenous communities.

"We are dedicated to supporting tribal nations in achieving futures of their own making," Crow’s statement read.

Neither the video nor Crow’s statement is explicitly labeled as an official land acknowledgment on behalf of the University. When contacted, a University spokesperson offered Crow’s statement, along with the video, which she said was "official" in an email.

Entities within the University, like the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and the ASU Library, have also created their own land acknowledgment statements.

"The law school is located on the ancestral lands of the Akimel O'odham and further acknowledges that Arizona is home to 22 Tribal Nations that comprise 27% of Arizona’s total land base," the college of law’s acknowledgment states.

While ASU Library's land acknowledgment is similar, it adds that "ASU Library acknowledges the sovereignty of these nations and seeks to foster an environment of success and possibility for Native American students and patrons. We are advocates for the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge systems and research methodologies within contemporary library practice."

Jacob Moore, vice president and special advisor to the president for American Indian Affairs, believes land acknowledgments are the first concrete step toward land sovereignty for Indigenous communities.

"It does have to be diplomatic in that not only do you acknowledge those that are here now and those that have been here before, but also the fact that there are others that have passed through that region that may not necessarily be here," he said. 

"Are you going to bring out the Indians and then make this statement, and then somehow satisfy whatever guilt you might have and then send them on their way?"

In terms of content, Jacob said land acknowledgments are most impactful and valuable when they not only highlight the people who deserve sovereignty but also recognize the injustices Indigenous people have experienced.

"Does it commit to really addressing the injustices that hopefully are embedded in the statement, acknowledging that there were injustices, and to what degree is the institution willing to create a just future?" he said.

Furthermore, Rowan believes the populations who have historically oppressed Indigenous people should be delivering land acknowledgment statements as a sign of respect.

"It shouldn’t be Indigenous peoples' labor to acknowledge the lands for you," he said. "As settlers, you should be the ones doing that work."

To Hanley-Moraga, land acknowledgments mean nothing without dedicating the necessary work and time to fully appreciate the land that is being occupied. Land is sacred and deserving of respect and preservation, he said.

"Land is like a person," Hanley-Moraga said. "It's breathing. It's living. It's moving and changing. It's evolving."

"In order to encapsulate all that and respect the land as a person, rather than just a thing, there's work that’s required."

For him, this involves widely hiring Indigenous staff and faculty throughout the University, as well as creating on-campus programs for Indigenous peoples and land preservation.

Hanley-Moraga views ASU's efforts thus far as nothing more than "the bare minimum."

"We need to be listened to and taken seriously," Rowan said of Indigenous student voices at ASU. To him, community building is everything, and that starts with University officials.

"Having an initiative where you ... invite students from diverse schools to talk and to hear what we have to say is a great first step," Rowan said.

Fostering community

Hanley-Moraga knows community. In addition to being a self-described artist, poet, rapper, writer and scholar, he is also a student archivist at ASU's Labriola National American Indian Data Center. Labriola serves as an Indigenous library, with an all-Indigenous staff that aims to "provid(e) a culturally safe space within academia for critical learning, scholarship, creativity, and reflection for community healing," according to its website.

But for Hanley-Moraga, who originally studied economics, Labriola is more than a library. It's the place he'd escape to after classes at the W.P. Carey School of Business, where he felt his drive to give back to his Native community was not prioritized. To him, the business school felt like a Fortune 500 machine — an assembly line that wasn’t built for students with community-oriented objectives, like his.

After those classes, he'd head to Labriola, located in Hayden Library on the Tempe campus and in Fletcher Library on the West Valley campus. There, he would rant to the library's directors — the people who intimately understood the frustrations he was facing.

"They definitely heard me sometimes saying, 'Man, screw this program, screw these teachers, and screw this, and screw that,'" Hanley-Moraga said.

To this, Alexander Soto, Labriola's director, or Eric Hardy, the program coordinator, would explain that sometimes, the structure of programs works against Indigenous people, saying, "Everything you're going through is meant to happen that way so you don't get through," according to Hanley-Moraga.

The opportunities Labriola provided that allowed Hanley-Moraga to give back to his community ultimately pushed him to switch his major to American Indian studies. 

Labriola at its foundation is not about community; rather, it creates it, Hanley-Moraga said. It houses a collection of speculative fiction, poetry, creative writing and art. More than just a center for anthropology and history, it's a place to DJ and dance. It’s a "community approach to librarianship," he said.

"These institutions are not made for us," Hanley-Moraga said of students of color, including Indigenous students.

"It’s not really a place where we're given the ability to strive. It’s a constant uphill battle."

Rowan feels similarly, as he also emphasized that there is not enough space at the University for Indigenous students like him, such as those in the Indigenous LGBTQ+ community.

"Queer indigenous folks, there’s a lot of us here," he said. "We're just not represented well." 

Spaces like Labriola, however, are designed for Indigenous students and other students of color, as they help foster community, Hanley-Moraga said.

At Labriola, Hanley-Moraga's connection with Soto, with whom he shares a love for hip-hop, brought him back to making his own music. Beyond music, the community at Labriola brought him to seek ways to promote data sovereignty and to speak about the importance of protecting Indigenous intellectual property.

Like Hanley-Moraga, Kaihalla George, a senior studying political science and American Indian studies, was also hungry for community. She is Seneca and serves as the president of Alpha Pi Omega, an Indigenous sorority on campus.

She said there are layers to the feeling that she's out of place in a university setting like ASU: Not only is she Indigenous, but she's also a woman and a first-generation student.

Being involved in Greek life while being Indigenous is uniquely complex, George said. She said Alpha Pi Omega's outreach to other sororities on campus has improved, as her sorority hosts events that "showcase the resiliency of the beautiful cultures that we still have today and the differences we all have. We tend to just be generalized as just being Native American or Indigenous."

But to George, culture goes deeper than these baseline labels. It is expressed through dance, language, song and history, she said.

Coming from New York, she is one of several members of her sorority who are from out of state.

"My experience is a good example of the community away from home," George said of the connection she has discovered through Alpha Pi Omega, forged by bonding over "that feeling of being away from your homelands." 

Wherever one may find community, be it in a sorority, a library or beyond, Hanley-Moraga believes it must also be a fundamental factor in a fulfilling land acknowledgment statement.

"It needs to come from the community," he said. "It needs to be in the language. It needs to be real. It needs to be 100% honest. And then again, it needs to be backed up by action."

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Development Issue, which was released on April 3, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @abbygisela on X.

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