AOTUS: Acknowledging Our History

July 20, 2021

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

 You may have noticed that more and more cultural heritage institutions are opening their meetings with a simple acknowledgment of the people who lived on the land long before European settlers arrived. This is usually a brief, factual statement that is given as part of the welcome at the beginning of meetings and conferences. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian describes land acknowledgment as “a traditional custom that dates back centuries in many Native nations and communities. Today, land acknowledgments are used by Native Peoples and non-Natives to recognize Indigenous Peoples who are the original stewards of the lands on which we now live.”

 As an archival institution, the National Archives has a responsibility to acknowledge the history of the land on which we are situated. Felicia Garcia, in her Guide to Indigenous Land and Territorial Acknowledgements for Cultural Institutions, notes, “Indigenous Land and Territorial Acknowledgements pertain to all places, especially to libraries, archives, museums, and universities, because it is their ethical obligation as educational institutions to create truthful and factual representations. These acknowledgements have an educational function that makes them universally applicable, regardless of an institution’s particular focus. They are about respecting and recognizing Indigenous peoples, and their relationships to land through the protocols of naming people, elders, ancestors, and the times of past to future.”

 NARA’s First Land Acknowledgment

 For our April 2021 conference on artificial intelligence and archival description, we invited participants from universities, libraries, and archives across the country. I decided to provide a land acknowledgment as part of my welcoming remarks. I participated in the digital conference from my office in NARA’s flagship building in Washington, DC. We researched the history of the land and discovered that the Nacotchtank people had lived on this land before colonial settlement. I made this simple statement:

 Greetings from the National Archives and Records Administration. I am pleased to welcome you to this conference on artificial intelligence co-hosted by NARA and Virginia Tech. NARA has many archival facilities, federal records centers, and Presidential Libraries in locations across the country. Today I am speaking to you from our iconic flagship building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, which is situated on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples.

 After that meeting, I wrote NARA’s first blog post that focused on land acknowledgment.

 My initial post was read by staff who contacted me and offered to participate in researching land acknowledgments for our other facilities. We reached out to additional NARA staff who might be interested in researching  information about the land their facilities were on, and within a couple of months, we had researched almost every NARA facility across the country.

 I began blogging regularly about the people who were on the land before us, and the blog series currently includes the National Archives Building in Washington, DC; the National Archives at College Park, Maryland; the National Archives in Seattle; the National Archives at Boston and the Boston Federal Records Center; and the Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover Presidential Libraries. I plan to continue this series of land acknowledgment blog posts through the fall of 2021.

 Our land acknowledgment efforts are in alignment with NARA’s recent work through our Task Force on Racism as well as our work in responding to the administration’s Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Our land acknowledgments are basic first steps in recognizing the importance of our shared history and acknowledging that the past is prologue.

 For more information:

 An interactive map from the Native Land website has been a helpful starting point for our research. Type in your address and see whose ancestral lands you reside. Also helpful is the information provided by the Library and Archives of Canada, who have been at the forefront of Indigenous heritage efforts for years. Thanks to funding from a generous anonymous donor, the National Archives has been able to digitize all of the ratified Indian Treaties, and we have made them available through a partnership project on the IDA Treaties Explorer as well as in the National Archives Catalog. An additional 18,000 BIA photographs are available through our BIA Photographs Finding Aid.

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