Ask ELi: What’s Behind the Land Acknowledgment of the Indigenous History of East Lansing?

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Photos from Michigan State University.

Clockwise from the top left: Dylan Miner, Christie Poitra, Elizabeth LaPensée, and Kevin Leonard. These MSU scholars have been drawing attention to the history and present-day lives of Indigenous people in this region.

While he was Mayor of East Lansing, Aaron Stephens on occasion began City Council meetings with a reading of a Land Acknowledgement statement. Chuck Grigsby, Chair of the Human Rights Commission, now also reads it at the start of that commission’s meetings. The statement occasionally used by the City of East Lansing is this:

“The City of East Lansing occupies the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.”

The intermittent appearance of this statement led the ELi editorial staff to wonder – what is the history of this Land Acknowledgment, and what is the story behind it?

As this is a week when we celebrate Thanksgiving, the national holiday tied to the meeting of European settlers and Indigeneous people, we thought it would be a good week to unpack this issue.

The City seems to be following MSU’s lead on this.

East Lansing, including Michigan State University’s land — and most of the Great Lakes Region — occupy the Lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi people, who inhabit the Great Lakes Region and are bound together through common language, culture, kinship, and diplomacy.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The historical marker outside East Lansing’s City Hall refers to the “Chippewa and Ottawa Indians [who] lived along the Red Cedar River” and to “the Indian trail that became the Grand River Road.”

From what we can ascertain, the City’s Land Acknowledgement statement, which speaks to the history of these people, is specifically drawn from the one written by Indigenous faculty at MSU with feedback from students. That statement seeks to draw attention to the history of Indigenous people who lived in the East Lansing area and were displaced with the establishment of what ultimately became Michigan State University.

In practice, there doesn’t seem to be much momentum or action around the City’s Land Acknowledgement. Since Stephens left for graduate school, it’s not been read aloud at Council, although it still appears at the top of agendas.

But the hope among MSU advocates of the acknowledgement has been that the MSU Board of Trustees will officially adopt the Land Acknowledgement statement there, and that the University will enact more policies and programs that take responsibility for the ways in which MSU has benefitted from Indigenous displacement, according to Kevin Leonard, MSU Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and President of EAGLE (Educating Anishnaabe: Giving, Learning, and Empowering), the MSU faculty and staff advocacy organization for Indigenous people.

MSU is a land-grant university, but some wonder if it should be called a “land-grab” university.

The Anishinaabeg ceded the land to the United States in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw, but they did not cede their rights to live on and use the land. Nevertheless, the United States government then designed and deployed legal means to remove Indigenous peoples and reallocate lands to European and European-American settlers. 

The 1819 Treaty of Saginaw ceded four million acres of Indigenous land to the U.S. government, while simultaneously reaffirming the usufructuary rights of the Anishinaabeg people.

“That’s basically a legalese way of saying that the U.S. government formally recognized that the Anishinaabeg could continue to hunt, fish, gather, and enjoy the privilege of making sugar on ceded lands as they always had,” explained Michael Albani, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at MSU, specializing in U.S. and Native American History with a geographic focus on the Great Lakes Region.

“[The 1819 Treaty] fits into the larger context of U.S. history and the federal government’s taking land as eminent domain,” explained Jen Andrella, a Ph.D. candidate in United States History and Native American Ethnohistory at MSU. “[It] was an effort to erase Indigenous peoples and their sovereignty over their land.”

Eminent domain is the decree allowing a state or federal government to take away property with justifiable public cause. 

“One article of the 1819 Treaty specified that recognition of these rights would extend only ‘while it [the ceded lands] continues to be the property of the United States.’ The U.S. government, therefore, could undermine these rights by transferring Indigenous lands to private parties and reclassifying them as private property,” said Albani.

In 1855, the State of Michigan gifted a portion of the land that it received from the 1819 Treaty to the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, which later became Michigan State University. When the land was set aside to serve as a college, Indigenous people had been using the area south of the Red Cedar as a summer encampment.

Alice Dreger for ELi

Located near MSU’s Library, this historical marker records the nearby finding of Native American artifacts from thousands of years ago, “with Native American presence in the campus area continuing into the 1850s.”

The foundation of MSU helped inspire the federal Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, but Kevin Leonard says that MSU might more accurately be called a “land grab” institution since it came to be through the practice of federal land redistribution and Indigenous displacement.

In recent years, MSU faculty have developed a Land Acknowledgement Statement, which is still being vetted by Indigenous communities in Michigan.

MSU scholars Christie Poitra, Dylan Miner, and Elizabeth LaPensée are active members of Michigan’s Indigenous communities. One way they have asserted the rights of the Anishinaabeg is through writing a Land Acknowledgement Statement for Michigan State University. The current, provisional statement was written in October 2018, and reads:

“We collectively acknowledge that Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. In particular, the University resides on Land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. We recognize, support, and advocate for the sovereignty of Michigan’s twelve federally-recognized Indian nations, for historic Indigenous communities in Michigan, for Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and for those who were forcibly removed from their Homelands. By offering this Land Acknowledgement, we affirm Indigenous sovereignty and will work to hold Michigan State University more accountable to the needs of American Indian and Indigenous peoples.”

This statement was prepared by Poitra, Miner, and LaPensée in consultation with Indigenous faculty, students, and staff.

“The statement was great as it was. Students have tweaked it since and made it a little more aggressive,” Leonard told ELi.

Emily Proctor, who is a Tribal Extension Educator and citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, is now bringing the current version of the statement to representatives of each federally recognized tribe in Michigan, according to Leonard.

Once the feedback is gathered by February or March of 2022, the Indigenous community on campus will take a final look at the statement before it makes its way to MSU Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Jabbar R. Bennett and President Sam Stanley. The Board of Trustees are then expected to vote on whether the University will officially adopt the Land Acknowledgement.

Land Acknowledgement Statements are designed to be acknowledgements of responsibility. So what are the City of East Lansing and MSU doing with these statements?

In terms of the City of East Lansing, we have not seen any particular action beyond the intermittent reading of the short version of MSU’s Land Acknowledgement, which covers the history but names no specific responsibility.

With increased attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in East Lansing, there has been a little more attention paid to Indigenous people than we’ve seen in the past. For example, the “LAN” letters in the new “Greetings from East Lansing” mural include an image featuring a Native American village along the Red Cedar River.

The “Greetings from East Lansing” mural is behind Harrison Roadhouse.

When asked if he thinks the City of East Lansing should be using an adaptation of the Land Acknowledgement Statement written by the Indigenous community at MSU, Leonard said yes, so long as the City understands what comes along with the statement.

Reading a statement of this type, Leonard said, is itself a call to take responsibility. Reading an Acknowledgement can have a positive impact by bringing attention to this history of displacement, but reading a statement to raise awareness is not enough, he said.

The City, he said, could support events on campus or provide property to start a communal living space for Indigenous students. He also suggested that the City could assist in finding or supporting subsidized accommodations or meals for members of the Indigenous community who come to East Lansing annually for a powwow.

He also advocated for communities, such as the City, penning their own statements.

At MSU, if the Trustees adopt the Land Acknowledgement statement officially, Leonard told ELi, that should also result in MSU becoming accountable to addressing what he sees as Indigenous erasure at MSU.

“Just reading it is cool if MSU is going to acknowledge that it benefitted from our lands and ancestors being pushed off [the land], but what will that do for staff?” asked Leonard.

Leonard cited some positives that have already been achieved, including revising MSU’s Smoke and Tobacco-Free Policy to permit the “Native American spiritual, ceremonial and cultural tobacco use” on campus. Tobacco is one of four sacred medicines, the other three being sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.

Stanley and Bennett have been receptive to the concerns of the Indigenous community at MSU, Leondard told ELi, including getting the ball rolling to establish an advisory committee of faculty, staff, and students.

But there is more that can be done, said Leonard, who believes that the University is more amenable to taking action that does not have a large price tag associated with it.

Leonard said that none of the administrator-level positions at MSU, including permanent deans, are held by Indigenous people. Miner, who played an instrumental role in writing the Land Acknowledgement statement, is currently an interim dean at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

The lack of Indigenous representation among MSU leadership means the Indigenous community does not have a voice at the table, Leonard said. He would also like to see MSU hire more Indigenous faculty, particularly in the STEM field, and establish a Tribal Liaison at the Vice President level – something several other universities, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison –  have already done.

And although MSU has ten scholarships available for Indigenous students who reside outside of Michigan to attend MSU with in-state tuition rates, Leonard would like to see complete tuition reciprocity for Indigenous students. This means that Indigenous students in the United States and Canada could attend MSU and pay in-state rates since their ancestors may have initially resided in Michigan before being displaced.

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