Breach of consent: why land acknowledgements should make the settler uncomfortable

Breach of consent: why land acknowledgements should make the settler uncomfortable

By the Olaf Messenger Editorial Board

“We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place,” reads the third sentence of the land acknowledgement statement drafted by Associate Professor of English Joan Hepburn and adopted by both the Northfield city council and St. Olaf College.

This sentence, which concludes the statement, drew contention from members of the public during discussions surrounding adoption. Some Northfield citizens and city council members disagreed with the use of “we,” which indicts all citizens in “ongoing injustices,” another phrase disputed during the statement’s ratification. In fact, the emphasis placed on the continuous harm done to Indigenous people in our community, as well as the “legacy” of unanimous complicity, are paramount facets of Northfield’s land acknowledgment statement, insofar as they point the college and town toward upending a settler-colonial paradigm.

A land acknowledgment statement serves many purposes, all of which build toward mending oppressive systems. The work begins with a call to be mindful of the spaces we occupy and how we enter into these spaces through unique and common trajectories. When we begin meetings with such a sentiment, we reorient ourselves toward the tacit systems affecting the world around us.

Through the current land acknowledgment statement —  a meditation on the “ongoing injustices” perpetrated against Indigenous people —  we can see our perpetual abuse of Indigenous people’s consent. If this third sentence wasn’t included, we would fail to recognize that each day we replicate a world wherein the space we occupy appears justly acquired. The Cannon River, the land of the town and Manitou Hill are lands stolen without a chance for Indigenous folk to dissent.

And who co-opts the breach of consent? We. Us, the living white men and our “junior partners” — a term that American writer Frank Wilderson III invokes to describe non-white and non-male identities that perpetuate anti-Blackness, and that we here modify to exclude Indigenous people. Although we did not execute the original theft of land, we nevertheless participate in the paradigm it created where we possess the land and Indigenous folk have dispossession.

Would you give up your land? Given the lack of success of the land-back movement to date, we’ll fill in a “no” for you.

Each “no” stands in the face of Indigenous people who were not allowed their own “no.” As settlers we ride free on our ability to choose our place on a land not given freely. 

A land acknowledgment statement should push us to look up at the clock and see that settler time is still ticking. It should tell us that so long as we can set our watch by the standard of settler colonialism, we have work to do. It should make us uncomfortable, and we need to confront this discomfort.

In this regard, the ratification of a land acknowledgment statement needs to present an aimed critique to diagnose the very concept of acknowledgment. Don’t statements of recognition exist within the same paradigm of settler colonialism that erases recognition?

So long as the settler gets the microphone —  and the legislative pen —  the land acknowledgment maintains the status quo. We’re veering off the rails here, but we must. It’s vile that white men and their junior partners are not stepping up. We want to be clear and praise how Hepburn, especially in her invoking the longevity of the injustices we are perpetuating, presents the best land acknowledgment we can get, one that begs to be unwritten.

We must look closely at how the third sentence of the land acknowledgment statement inspires us to action and compels us to embody a fourth sentence that implements justice for Indigenous people in all areas of life. A sentence that is less about writing and much more about unwriting. A sentence wherein speaking for Indigenous folk shrivels up, to be replaced with a stage and a hot mic where the oppressed can speak.

The Editorial Board is composed of the Opinions Editors whose shared views are informed by journalistic research, dialogue and individual perspectives. The Editorial Board stands apart from the newsroom and does not represent The Olaf Messenger as a whole.


In an effort to prompt discussion surrounding the third sentence of the land acknowledgement statement, Associate Professor of English Joan Hepburn, the statement’s author, posed seven questions to members of the St. Olaf, Carleton and broader Northfield community. Hepburn inlcuded the questions in the introduction of the speech she delivered to the St. Olaf community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. 

If you want to do some such close looking, we compel you to engage in dialogue with the following questions from Hepburn:

1. What is the goal of a land acknowledgment?

2. What about the word ‘we” in the third sentence is a source of disquiet or discomfort?

3. What is at stake in saying that we take responsibility for past injustices from which we still benefit?

4. Should an acknowledgment cause us any discomfort?

5. Without declaring responsibility, how can we achieve understanding or social change?

6. How do we begin to redress our history of discrimination, or address the invisibility of First Nations in American history, or stop racial and other biases?

7. How do we begin to credit diversities of people who contribute to the shaping of our cultural, economic, social, even literary identities?