Breaking Down and Understanding The JMU Land Acknowledgment Statement

In the Shenandoah valley, there has been a lot of chatter about the addition of the Indigenous Land and Enslaved People Acknowledgement Statement to university teachings and events. Most recently, the Rockingham County Public Schools (RCPS) started investigating an elementary school field trip to a dance performance at the Forbes Center for Performing Arts. Paula Harold, the grandmother of a third grader at John Wayland Elementary School, brought up concerns about the land acknowledgment statement read during the pre-performance (read more about this here). The land acknowledgment statement, co-written by Black, Indigenous, and BIPOC JMU faculty members, was written in order to open the dialogue about the historical truth behind James Madison University in order to address systematic racism and “wounds of the past.” 

To better understand the land acknowledgment statement and its importance, one must understand every word that is addressed in the statement. Below, I will go through each paragraph of the Indigenous Land and Enslaved Peoples Acknowledgement and explain what each paragraph means. 

Paragraph 1: We invite you to recognize the written histories of the Shenandoah Valley, the city of Harrisonburg, and our university’s namesake, James Madison, as fractured.

What this means: History has been shaped and recorded by white men throughout history. This means that many histories of those who do not share the same privilege have been systematically erased. To acknowledge histories that have not been whitewashed, the narrative must start by talking about the actual historical events that have happened, especially the events that were gruesome and embarrassing fo the United States of America. America was built on Native American genocide, and the land that JMU resides on has been directly a part of a long mistreatment of indigenous and enslaved communities. By addressing the true histories, the acknowledgment opens a dialogue to talk about the truth behind our “fractured” histories. 

Paragraph 2: Let us acknowledge then that we are currently on the land of the Indigenous Siouan, Algonquian, and Haudenosaunee communities who lived here for many generations and who continue to be systematically erased by policies and practices that remove their histories from this place.

What this means: The land JMU resides on was stolen from the indigenous Siouan, Algonquian, and Haudenosaunee communities. The United States was built on indigenous communities and the genocide of those communities. The systematic mistreatment of indigenous and enslaved people has promoted the power of white men, causing racism, structural inequality, and genocide against the original builders of The United States of America, and the communities who were here long before colonization occurred. By acknowledging the histories, this statement actively opens the dialogue to talk about the histories that were erased and the people who were mistreated. This paragraph also acknowledges the land that the United States Stole form the indigenous communities who were her belong before the colonizers.

Paragraph 3: Let us honor the enslaved people who built the wealth and foundation of James Madison.

What this means: We must honor the people who came before us. JMU resides on land and wealth built by indigenous and enslaved communities, and the university would not be here without their efforts and their creation of this land. The university’s success must be attributed to those who built the land and wealth around us and we must give credit to those communities who have suffered under systematic racism and oppression in order to build the land we reside and learn on. 

Paragraph 4: Let us recognize the histories of Virginia and the United States as complicit with the racism of white supremacy.

What this means: America was built on white supremacy and racism. There is no question about how we have a long history of genocide and racism in the United States of America. During the Black Lives Matter movement’s head in 2020, the conversation was centered around recognizing the power white people have in America, as it was built and created for white men. Without recognizing how America was founded, we can not address the structural inequality built into our constitution and the foundation of America. The colonization by European settlers caused mass genocide of the Navties on America’s land from disease, war, and even sexual abuse. 

The United States resides on stolen land from indigenous communities. Between 1600 and 1700, 75% of the Native population in Virginia died after the spread of Smallpox from European settlers. This was just the beginning. According to the Holocaust Museum in Houston, “When European settlers arrived in the Americas, historians estimate there were over 10 million Native Americans living there. By 1900, their estimated population was under 300,000. Native Americans were subjected to many different forms of violence, all with the intention of destroying the community.” 

Paragraph 5: We recognize that these difficult histories persist in present-day racial realities and privileges at this university. We commit to dismantling racism in spaces of our work. We invite you to work beside us to create change.”

What this means: Those who wrote this statement understand that this statement won’t lead to action, but it hopefully will lead to dialogue. To address systemic racism, we must first understand the systems that have been put in place in order to silence and erase communities for many years. By acknowledging the truth of history, the statement hopes to open the conversation about racism and systemic practices in all aspects of JMU’s education and teachings. The statement recognizes that the long history of oppression happened, and in order to address and change it, we must first speak and acknowledge it. This statement is said before every Forbes center performance, and maybe a third grader won’t understand the depth of it, but it is a good start. We must honor those who came before us and practice every day being anti-racist to adjust the oppressive policies that were created long ago on the land that we stole.

The full Indigenous Land and Enslaved Peoples Acknowledgment t can be read here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s