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Henry: Land Acknowledgment is nothing more than acknowledgment

A sign that says "Listen to the origianl caretakers" is proped up along a barbed wire fence. The foothills stand just behind the sign.
A sign sits along a fence in the Hughes Public Open Lands space, just west of the Aggie Greens Disc Golf Course in Fort Collins, at a press conference held by members of the Hughes Land Back initiative Sept. 18. (Serena Bettis | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Students at Colorado State University hear the Land Acknowledgment so much that it has nearly lost its meaning. Much like the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school, the words are robotically recited but rarely pondered.

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The Land Acknowledgment covers two topics. For one, the institution was founded on land that belonged to Indigenous peoples, and two, the institution was erected by way of a land grant.

It’s understood well that the land we call Colorado today was inhabited and utilized by Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache and Shoshone peoples, but many students are not educated on what a land-grant institution is and how harmful it was and is to those same people.

Unfortunately, the Land Acknowledgment is only a lit match in a dark room, and what the institution needs to do is turn on the light switch.”

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the Morrill Act gave around 10.7 million acres of land to states and territories so they could build institutions of higher education. Around the same time, American settlers were massacring and forcibly removing tribes from their homes — these settlers were given a government grant to build colleges on stolen, blood-soaked lands.

CSU received 89,001 acres of land from the Morrill Act, according to High Country News. From there the institution was built upon ill-gotten land that belonged to Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute tribes.

The Hughes Land Back initiative is currently struggling with CSU over the 165-acre Hughes Open Space where the old CSU football stadium used to sit. Now that the stadium is gone, the land is not currently being used, and the initiative seeks to “ensur(e) unfettered Indigenous cultural access to the land,” according to their website.

Does the Land Acknowledgment at CSU accomplish anything beyond covering the institution’s backside? Kenny Frost, a private Native American consultant in the protection of sacred places and identification of sacred land, is concerned with the need to educate people about the land and its Indigenous history.

There is no mention of the Morrill Act in the acknowledgment or how much land CSU received from it. Most students will probably never go out of their way to investigate this.”

If the school wants to support its Land Acknowledgment with action, there would be no question of who gets ownership of the Hughes land. CSU currently plans to sell the land to the City of Fort Collins for $12.5 million if CSU can secure acreage elsewhere for its housing development plans.

Frost feels there needs to be education behind the Land Acknowledgment and the history of land-grant schools.

Frost said the rhetoric of modern-day politicians and educational institutions often feels like, “No, we don’t need to learn the history of the land. We can do whatever the hell we want.”

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Frost thinks the Land Acknowledgment needs more education behind it, saying the acknowledgment by itself threatens to overlook the Indigenous history of this place.

“This is basically the first step towards saying that whatever happened in the history books never did occur,” Frost said. “Without issue, that’s what they’re doing as an educational system.”

I had to do my own research on the significance of land grants. When professors simply recite the acknowledgment, they fail to educate students on the true significance of land grants. There is no mention of the Morrill Act in the acknowledgment or how much land CSU received from it. Most students will probably never go out of their way to investigate this.

In order to truly understand the history and significance of the land we now use for education, we need to be educated on what the land was used for before lecture halls and football stadiums were constructed. Unfortunately, the Land Acknowledgment is only a lit match in a dark room, and what the institution needs to do is turn on the light switch.

“As these words of acknowledgment are spoken and heard, the ties Nations have to their traditional homelands are renewed and reaffirmed,” the Land Acknowledgment states.

If this were true, our Indigenous community members who have ties to the Hughes land would not have to fight to get their land back. CSU has decided to act in a certain way to gain profit instead of finding a way to right wrongdoings of the past.

Another excerpt from the Land Acknowledgment states, “We recognize the Indigenous peoples as original stewards of this land and all the relatives within it.”

This sums up the entire acknowledgment — a mere recognition, nothing above nor beyond. It is a catch-all statement to please those content with surface-level political correctness, a Band-Aid that has been broken and rendered useless by CSU’s decision-makers.

The Land Acknowledgment is a step in the right direction, as those who crafted it likely had nothing but good intentions, but it will not be enough until the bigwigs at CSU decide to genuinely support Native American communities, including students and those whose ancestors lived on these lands long before white men took them away. Until then, the acknowledgment is nothing more than that — an acknowledgment.

Reach Brendan Henry at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @BrendanHenryRMC

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About the Contributor
Serena Bettis, Editor in Chief
Serena Bettis is your 2022-23 editor in chief and is in her final year studying journalism and political science. In her three years at The Collegian, Bettis has also been a news reporter, copy editor, news editor and content managing editor, and she occasionally takes photos, too. When Bettis was 5, her family moved from Iowa to a tiny town northwest of Fort Collins called Livermore, Colorado, before eventually moving to Fort Collins proper. When she was 8 years old, her dad enrolled at Colorado State University as a nontraditional student veteran, where he found his life's passion in photojournalism. Although Bettis' own passion for journalism did not stem directly from her dad, his time at CSU and with The Collegian gave her the motivation to bite down on her fear of talking to strangers and find The Collegian newsroom on the second day of classes in 2019. She's never looked back since. Considering that aforementioned fear, Bettis is constantly surprised to be where she is today. However, thanks to the supportive learning environment at The Collegian and inspiring peers, Bettis has not stopped chasing her teenage dream of being a professional journalist. Between working with her section editors, coordinating news stories between Rocky Mountain Student Media departments and coaching new reporters, Bettis gets to live that dream every day. When she's not in the newsroom or almost falling asleep in class, you can find Bettis working in the Durrell Marketplace and Café or outside gazing at the beauty that is our campus (and running inside when bees are nearby). This year, Bettis' goals for The Collegian include continuing its trajectory as a unique alt-weekly newspaper, documenting the institutional memory of the paper to benefit students in years to come and fostering a sense of community and growth both inside the newsroom and through The Collegian's published work. Bettis would like to encourage anyone with story ideas, suggestions, questions, concerns or comments to reach out to her at editor@collegian.com.

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