Vassar hosts Indigenous land acknowledgement event

On Nov. 19, the College sponsored an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Practices event featuring Cherokee artist Joan Henry. She spoke to the community about what Vassar’s official land acknowledgement asks of non-Natives. In an effort to develop awareness among the Vassar community about Native culture and history, Henry discussed and sung about land acknowledgment practices and their importance to Native communities. “Glad you turned down the chance to stay warm in your dorms,” Henry joked as she took to the front of the room. 

Cushing House Fellow, Professor of English and Director of American Studies Molly McGlennen, who founded the Native American Studies program at Vassar, put together the land acknowledgement event with the help of her House Fellow Interns. 

Henry emphasized to listeners during her presentation that despite what their background is, there is always room to learn and educate themselves and others about Native land. “When we share—when we reach out and communicate—we get a much broader understanding of the world we live in,” said Henry. She added, “Whether you are Indigenous or not, our history is your history.”

An attendee, Zara Dershowitz ’25, walked away with that message. “Everyone has a responsibility to the land that they are on, regardless of their family’s origin,” she said. Dershowitz continued, “As Joan Henry said, we must be in a relationship with the place we are in—tell it your name and thank it.” 

Vassar officialized its acknowledgement just last May. “The main thing is to educate yourself about the Native nations from this place, who continue to be connected to and reside in this place,” McGlennen said. “Also, folks should pay attention to what the Vassar land acknowledgment is asking of them, especially what it pledges in the last lines.”

Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana added that while it is important to have land acknowledgements, it’s just a part of a bigger process. “We also recognize that this gesture requires us as an institution and a community and college to consider the ways in which we might commit to structural transformations that are substantive and meaningful to Native communities,” he said. 

McGlennen added, “I think, specifically, [land acknowledgements] ask settler people to reckon with the inheritance of a country that is built on the genocide of Native peoples and the continued colonial occupation of their lands.” She continued, “I hope people come away with a deeper sense of urgency to support Indigenous lives—that is, Native nations, their sovereignty, their land, water, and treaty rights, their dignity—are crucial and essential for the planet’s future.”

Dershowitz said she really enjoyed the event and she is sure to come to others in the future. She said, “I wrote down many of the things Joan Henry said because her wisdom is so applicable to all aspects of life.” 

Another attendee, Molly Dauk ’24, said the event enthralled them. “Almost every word that Joan Henry spoke seemed to strike the audience with power,” Dauk said. They added, “I loved how she integrated information on her Native background and corresponding rituals regardless of how much we knew about them—it was a learning process for everyone which connected us more to the community, the land and the talk.”

Dershowitz particularly highlighted the importance of language in Henry’s message. Through Henry’s presentation, a short film was played describing descendants from tribes living all over the United States. Afterward, Henry spoke in Tsalagi asking the powers around us to pay attention and help us in this journey. 

Dauk also thought the use of language, rituals, and artistic expressions was vital in Henry’s presentation. They said, “I now understand that it is our responsibility to not acknowledge the land as ‘not ours,’ but to embrace and try to understand the language that nature provides and tries to communicate to us.”

According to McGlennen, over 200 people attended. “It shows there’s a critical desire to learn more about Native Peoples’ land acknowledgment and how that illuminates a more honest telling of history and a more complex, intersectional assessment of a shared reality,” she said. McGlennen added that since she started working at Vassar in 2006, she has been creating and hosting Native events and has no intention of slowing down. 

“This series of events [is] intended to help the Vassar community come to understand, in more organic rather than administratively-defined ways, what our role is toward reckoning with its history and present reality relative to Native peoples,” said Alamo-Pastrana.

One Comment

  1. Here’s something ironic. I worked at an Indian Health Service hospital for 5 years in New Mexico that served 2 pueblos and part of the Navajo nation. I left that position 5 years ago and made a lot of friends there. On football Sundays, guess which jerseys showed up the most in our hospital among our patients – the Redskins. During baseball season, guess which baseball caps showed up the most in our waiting rooms – the Braves and the Indians. One Sunday I decided to ask one of the elders why he was wearing a Redskins jersey and why the Reskins were so popular in our area. His response was that he knew that their hearts were in the right place, but that those who opposed the use of these team names had lost touch with their culture and were too far removed from the rez. I must have gone catatonic for about 30 seconds. Since that Sunday I have assumed that I know nothing about anyone else’s culture.

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