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Loyola Acknowledges Indigenous Land as Activists Fight for Indigenous People’s Day Recognition

Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition - IllinoisLoyola released an official land acknowledgement, recognizing the Indigenous tribes the land Loyola was built on originally belonged to. The statement was written by a comittee of faculty, staff and students.
A dancer performs at an event hosted by Chicago’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition.
Courtesy of Les Begay

 As Chicago activists push for the city to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, Loyola officials and student government acknowledged the native lands the university is built on. But some Loyola students and local activists think the university should do more to support Indigenous people.

University officials shared a Land Acknowledge Statement (LAS) — which formally acknowledges Indigenous land the university is built on — in a school-wide email Oct. 7. The email is signed by Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney and Provost Margaret Callahan and mentions Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“Ahead of Indigenous People’s Day, we are grateful and humbled to share with the community the University’s approved Land Acknowledgement Statement,” the email reads. “The LAS is a formal statement recognizing Indigenous People as immemorial stewards of the land on which our campuses are located. The LAS pays respect to the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional lands.”

The email includes the university’s LAS.

“The Loyola University Chicago community acknowledges its location on the ancestral homelands of the Council of the Three Fires (the Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribes) and a place of trade with other tribes, including the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Menominee, Sauk, and Meskwaki,” part of the statement says.

“We further recognize our responsibility to understand, teach, and respect the past and present realities of local Native Americans and their continued connection to this land.”

Chicago is home to 65,000 Native Americans, the third largest urban Indigenous American population, according to the American Library Association. About 0.1% of Loyola’s student body is composed of students who identify as Native American — or 23 out of over 17,000 students — according to Loyola’s Fall 2019 Diversity Report.

Loyola hasn’t reported having a Native American-identifying faculty member since 2014, according to the report. Between 2009 and 2014, the university reported employing one Native American faculty member.

The student government of Loyola Chicago (SGLC) has publicly recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in previous years. The university, however, has been criticized for preaching social justice but failing to officially honor and acknowledge Indigenous peoples and history.

SGLC President Ella Doyle, who has Indigenous background and holds dual citizenship with the Cherokee Nation, said she thought she was the only person who cared about Indigenous people and issues when she came to Loyola.

Doyle said she took her first step toward raising awareness on campus about indigeneity through SGLC. Doyle was the chief sponsor of a unanimously passed SGLC resolution in February 2020 that called on the university to “recognize and celebrate” Indigenous Peoples’ Day. SGLC also passed a resolution last month to recognize Indigenous land at every on-campus sports game.

“That’s made me really proud as a senator, as a speaker and now as their president,” Doyle, 20, said.

Doyle said she’s looking forward to speaking with Loyola administrators about taking more tangible actions to support Indigenous people beyond the LAS, which is still an “important first step” for the university.

“While things like land acknowledgements are inherently performative, they are necessary to start these conversations that will lead to tangible advocacy for indigeneity and Indigenous people,” Doyle said.

Chicago’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition — a group formed in March 2020 calling on local officials to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day — protested Oct. 11 in Rogers Park’s Pottawattamie Park (7340 N. Rogers Ave.).

“It’s a frustrating battle to continue to fight for our existence,” said Les Begay, the coalition’s founder.

The White House released two statements this month in which President Joe Biden honored Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day. Biden proclaimed the second Monday of October a day that both commemorates Christopher Columbus’ voyage and reflects on “the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.”

Begay said land acknowledgements like Loyola’s are important because they recognize the land’s original inhabitants, but they aren’t enough.

“Universities definitely need to do more,” he said. “It’s got to be more than just announcing that at the beginning of a meeting or putting it on your website. It has to go deeper than that. It has to [be] working with native communities in your area or outside your area, contributing to them financially or volunteer-wise.”

Begay said universities also have a responsibility to teach an alternative perspective of Indigenous history.

“Typically the American history that you learn is about the white settlers that came in and conquered the native people because they were in the way or they were savage,” he said. “I think universities could do a lot with that.”

Chair of Loyola’s History Department Dr. Brad Hunt said the department has “had a long-standing [and strong] interest in Indigenous history, in large part because Chicago is an important crossroads of Native American tribal activity,” and a history professor was involved with drafting the LAS.

History professor Dr. Theodore Karamanski said Loyola has offered American Indian history courses since the 1970s, and Karamanski himself has been teaching them since the late 1980s.

“In terms of American history, that’s a very early date for this field of specialization,” Karamanski said. “American historians egregiously ignored American Indian history for a long time.”

While the Loyola’s LAS is a useful reminder to the public that Chicago was home to native communities before its skyscrapers were built, Karamanski said “in terms of righting a wrong, it’s not enough.”

“It’s just words,” he said. “What is the value of it? I think it’s useful to remind people in the general society that this was once native ground, and that their possession of this land was terminated in a way that really allowed them little choice.”

Loyola’s LAS was created by a committee of students, faculty and staff, and the efforts were headed by Dr. Michael Schuck, a professor in Loyola’s theology department and the School of Environmental Sustainability. The group began working on the statement in September 2020, Schuck said.

Schuck said the committee is an outgrowth of an environmental justice course he taught during the fall 2020 semester.

“It was a service learning course and the students were doing an internship with the Lakota People’s Law Project,” Schuck said. “We thought it a good project to promote, create [and] build a land acknowledgement statement for the university.”

Schuck said one student out of five on the committee identifies as Indigenous, and he encourages any students with Indigenous background to contact him and get involved.

Schuck said the LAS committee consulted with Indigenous initiatives around the Chicago area, including the American Indian Center and Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. The committee drafted several versions before the official statement was finalized last month and approved by Rooney and Callahan, Schuck said.

The American Indian Center of Chicago didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Jasmine Gurneau, the director of Northwestern’s Native American and Indigenous Initiatives, said she has met with Schuck over Zoom and talked with him about Northwestern’s work with Indigenous communities.

Gurneau said Northwestern differs from Loyola because its efforts didn’t start with a land acknowledgement statement — it started with initiatives such as faculty hires and establishing an Indigenous research center.

“I want to say that’s been part of what has made us so successful,” Gurneau said. “It’s because our land acknowledgement goes beyond just the acknowledgement.”

Gurneau said universities also have a responsibility to build relationships with local Indigenous communities.

“If we’re contributing to Indigenous erasure then we’re not fulfilling our responsibilities as an educational institution,” Gurneau said.

Schuck said Loyola’s LAS “is a symbolic incubator for more to come” and the committee will be meeting to plan future projects and “bring the land acknowledgement statement to life.” Some of the committee’s goals include hiring an Indigenous artist to create a piece of artwork honoring Indigenous people and organizing a one-day conference for the fall 2022 semester about the “complex” relationship between Indigenous people and the Jesuits, Schuck said.

The committee is also working with Loyola’s library to acquire the Lakota People’s Law Project archive, which details 50 years of the history of the Lakota people — an Indigenous tribe — Schuck said.

Matt Lorenz, a senior majoring in environmental science and political science, joined the LAS committee while in Schuck’s class last year. Lorenz said the class focused on how environmental justice specifically affects Indigenous populations.

Lorenz said it was “interesting and important” to see how environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand, and joining the LAS committee through Schuck’s class was a “natural progression” for him.

“It’s really important to note that the Land Acknowledgement Statement is just a starting point for greater work being done towards rectifying wrongs to Indigenous people,” Lorenz, 21, said.

Shriya Patel, a senior majoring in environmental science and political science and a member of the LAS committee, said the LAS is “a first step in the right direction” and needs to be followed by action.

“We can say … we’re committed to these things, but it’s not followed up by concrete action if we’re not taking the steps to ensure that we are hiring and are more accessible to Indigenous students and faculty and making sure that we’re doing what we can to reflect on this horrific past and the role that we have in it as an institution [of higher education],” Patel, 22, said. “Sort of just trying to remedy the past but also making sure that in the future, we are being more accessible and giving recognition where it’s due.”

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