In honor of July 4 this year, the makers of the popular frozen comfort food Half Baked lived up to the name on the carton. “This 4th of July, it’s high time we recognize that the US exists on stolen Indigenous land and commit to returning it. Learn more and take action now,” Ben & Jerry’s posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, which added a “readers’ context” note, a form of communal user fact-checking, below the post that said: “Despite Ben and Jerry’s supposed commitment to returning land they feel was stolen, they have yet to reach out to the tribe whose land their HQ is on, and arrange a return of the land to them.”
Land acknowledgments, the public pronouncement that you are on stolen land and are very sorry but not sorry enough to vacate the property, are all the rage these days. From corporations to universities to government agencies — the Smithsonian even provides a link to a helpful map for finding whose stolen land you occupy — a new mantra has emerged to sandwich the perfunctory mentioning of pronouns and the usage of pride flags and Black Lives Matter slogans on social media.
Acknowledgments do appear at first glance to be a result of the recognition or at least political awareness of the injustices that Europe and European nations did to various peoples and groups in the imperial era, an awareness that has germinated and grown ever stronger since the radical tumult of the 1960s. But it is an odd sort of virtue-signaling to acknowledge one’s own complicity in an atrocity while in the same breath promising to continue participating in it.
Concentrated, at least for now, among the Anglo countries of Canada, the United States, and Australia, their emergence among non-indigenous peoples is closely tied to events that led to “awokenings” of varying kinds: America’s “Great Awokening,” the resurfacing of Canada’s debate over forced family separation among the indigenous beginning in the 19th century, and Australia’s abandonment of the legal standard of terra nullius, the idea that the land colonized by the crown was (legally) uninhabited.
So what’s the harm with this latest woke performance?
Let’s set aside how many Americans and non-Americans don’t care for having their country’s sins shoved in their face at every opportunity, regardless of context or timing or any attempt at balance. One problem is that land acknowledgments are yet another brick in the DEI wall, a new item in an ever-lengthening loyalty oath for those in good standing. There’s a bitter irony in the side that once damned oaths of anti-communism in the same spaces now enforcing something no less doctrinaire, partisan, and polarizing on pain of firing and social damnation. The Puritans who settled the New World and started the process of driving the Native Americans out would be proud.
But the Puritans at least tried to practice what they preach when it came to personal conduct. The new morality of land acknowledgments is all preaching, an exercise in moral exhibitionism by mostly affluent professionals seeking superiority — especially over the folks who just want ice cream and fireworks on the Fourth of July.
So much for the direct political effects of land acknowledgments. But there are deeper historical problems with their underlying assumptions.
For starters, “indigeneity” as understood in popular parlance (few read the academic debates on the subject) is a deeply flawed concept. Alongside the “noble savage” and other romantic ideas about non-European peoples, many think that whoever was where they were when Europeans arrived were always there, from time immemorial, almost as though they were grown from the soil in a new spin on the biblical creation story.
This is rarely the case. The history of humanity, both civilized and nomadic, is one of conquest and movement, dispossession and replacement, acculturation and assimilation. The happy accident of any given people having won the game of territorial musical chairs just as European explorers or traders or settlers showing up and being considered native since eternity generally does not mesh with what we know from the historical and archaeological evidence.
Few places exemplify this fallacy more than one of the most famously contested places in the world, the Holy Land. Archaeology and history attest to the settlement, conquest, and cultural changes that took place over millennia. The same is true for many places around the world, not just outside Europe but even in it. Simply asking what a Central or Eastern European city’s name is can give you a window into how the snapshot of currency bias conceals more than it reveals and always has.
Is it the city of Bratislava (Slovak) or Pressburg (German)? The city of Vilna (Russian), Vilnius (Lithuanian), or Wilno (Polish)? So many of these places changed hands through conquest, annexation, and “ownership,” through cultural impact or population presence, that it’s hard to speak of any purely “original” owner whose claims trump everyone else’s.
To be fair, some advocates of land acknowledgment seem to realize this problem. The Yale University land acknowledgment guide mentions every native tribe known to have occupied or controlled a particular area — those that are still around, anyway. But even then, it’s very much a case of survivor bias, with the most recent or last remaining conqueror claiming to have been the owner since time immemorial rather than communing with all the pre-modern peoples who inhabited the place or passed through it, most of whom are long gone.
Which brings us to the core problem of the whole business: the insistence that Natives and relatively indigenous peoples, even those who conquered and killed and displaced others themselves, are the only stewards of the land worth acknowledging, while all the settlers and immigrants who came after, especially but not only from Europe, are forever invalid and unworthy of mention except to be damned repeatedly.
In and of itself, like the deeper popular awareness of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow in our day, the insistence that Westerners take heed of the sins of their own civilization in their treatment of those who were there before — the broken treaties, the murders, the land theft and social engineering — can be well intentioned. But like every other brick in the DEI wall, the fundamental error of the woke project in general and land acknowledgments in particular is insisting that the story of America or Canada or the West in general is nothing but misdeeds and abuse of others and that the West did nothing worth appreciating as regularly as the sins we “acknowledge.”
But this simply isn’t true. The peoples who came from other lands were often great stewards of the land themselves, not just by establishing cities and laws but also in treating and preserving the land itself — as farmers, ranchers, scouts, park builders. Even their relations with the Natives were not always ones of abuse. Like many a conquering nation before them, Americans thought it a compliment to name children after great Native leaders (William “Tecumseh” Sherman, anyone?) and preserve many of the old names and places rather than snuff it all out.
One prominent example comes from the German Americans, whose contributions are often overlooked. In addition to bringing beer culture and classical music to a Puritan America, they often brought a liberal set of politics to the land of the free, including a penchant for abolitionism and even a serious respect for African American music, as can be seen in the pioneering work of music critic Henry Krehbiel, the dean of New York musical curation in the Gilded Age.
Germans also made a vital contribution to fortifying the American Great Plains as one of the world’s breadbaskets when German Mennonite colonists from Russia, fleeing a forced draft, brought a hardy strain of wheat known as “turkey red” to the U.S., helping the country better grow food even during harsh weather. This breadbasket, cultivated by both native-born and immigrant Americans, would help to save millions and perhaps tens of millions of Europeans after the catastrophes of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
A healthier form of “land acknowledgment” would acknowledge both the place of Natives in stewarding the land and the work of the settlers and immigrants who developed it, such as the Germans and others. A civilization that does nothing but loathe and cease to believe in itself is not long for this world. A civilization that has a healthy balance between crass triumphalism and self-criticism will do just fine.
Fortunately, America already has a national holiday, established amid its greatest national crisis, when people can set aside their differences and deeply appreciate everything about the country and everything to be thankful for. It’s a day much like the July 4 Ben & Jerry’s so rudely interrupted in the name of raining on everyone’s parade.
It’s called Thanksgiving.
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, the Bulwark, and Commentary.