Land Acknowledgements Seek to Honor Native American Ties to Ohio

The practice of recognizing Indigenous people and the territories they once lived on isn’t new, but advocates say there is a right and a wrong way to do it.

Brittany Moseley
Columbus Monthly
Alex Wesaw, director of American Indian relations at Ohio History Connection, works with more than 40 native tribes.

When Two Dollar Radio hosted its first in-person event in a year and a half, co-owner Eric Obenauf did something new: He opened the evening with a land acknowledgement. “We would like to acknowledge that the land on which Two Dollar Radio Headquarters is located is the contemporary territory of the Shawnee, Miami and Hopewell Nations,” Obenauf began. He went on to mention the Indian Removal Act of 1830—the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to territory west of the Mississippi River—and to pay respect to those with “strong ancestral ties” to the area and to Indigenous people who call Central Ohio home, even if there are no federally recognized tribes located here. 

Related:What are tribal land acknowledgments?

Obenauf got the idea to create a land acknowledgement for Two Dollar Radio after attending a publishing conference in Toronto in 2018. He spent about two years considering the idea and doing the necessary research before he felt comfortable sharing the independent publisher’s statement. 

“I didn’t want to offend anybody,” Obenauf says. He consulted Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led Canadian nonprofit that created an interactive online map that allows users to type in an address and see which tribes used to live on the land. Other websites Obenauf turned to include those for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the State Department and the Native Governance Center.

Find more Columbus stories:Subscribe to Monthly's weekly newsletter, Top Reads

“I wanted to make sure that what we had was thorough and well researched, and that ... it wouldn’t impair the awareness that we were trying to draw to the cause through a land acknowledgement in the first place.” 

For Obenauf, part of that cause is to amplify Indigenous voices. Two Dollar Radio has published two books by Indigenous authors: “Born Into This,” by Adam Thompson of Tasmania and “A History of My Brief Body,” by Billy-Ray Belcourt of Canada. 

On its website, the Native Governance Center outlines several steps for writing a land acknowledgement. Among them: Do your homework; use appropriate language; and, most importantly, consider why you’re doing one in the first place. Obenauf uses the phrase “contemporary territory” in Two Dollar’s land acknowledgement. He says it “pertains to the possibility that the land has not been ceded by some or all of the Indigenous peoples forcibly removed from the land.” 

“[Land acknowledgements] recognize the relationship that exists between Indigenous people and their ancestral and contemporary territories,” says Ohio State professor Christine Ballengee Morris. “Additionally, it speaks to the colonial acts past and present.” 

Ballengee Morris notes that where specific tribes once lived is still debated. She cites the Cherokee, from which she descends, as an example. In the acknowledgement she crafted for OSU’s American Indian Studies program—which she oversees—she doesn’t mention the Cherokee because she’s not certain they lived in the area, but says others disagree with her. 

Ohio State doesn’t have a formal land acknowledgement, but several people interviewed from the university say it’s in the process of writing one. Some of the schools and groups at Ohio State have crafted their own acknowledgements, which can be found on their web pages and in faculty and staff email signatures. 

Although there is no official record of Central Ohio businesses and organizations that give land acknowledgements, a few that do are the the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Greater Columbus Arts Council, Three Creeks Produce, The Bee Collective, Community Grounds, Columbus Mennonite Church and Cartoon Crossroads

One place you will not find a land acknowledgement is the Ohio History Connection. “We work with at least 45 tribal governments spread throughout the country. And they each have opinions about how to go about doing them, how they should be written,” says Alex Wesaw, the organization’s director of American Indian relations. 

He continues, “I think our actions and our relationships that we have with the tribes [are] more important than a land acknowledgement statement, because we would not want to inadvertently leave a tribe off, and then somehow feel like we’re not telling the right story, or we’re not including them in history.” 

Wesaw says OHC is open to crafting a land acknowledgment if the circumstances are right. But for Wesaw, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, it comes back to the importance of action over words. 

“If someone approaches me and asks for advice for writing a land acknowledgement statement, I say, ‘What are you really doing to help increase the knowledge and awareness of tribal governments or American Indians in a region?’” he says. “‘What are you doing to show that you are … working with tribes to make meaningful progress to help people understand that tribes may have been removed, but they’re not extinct?’ We’re still here is what’s critical, and I think far too often, if something’s not in front of someone’s face, they tend to forget about it.”

This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.