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LOGAN — In a move to recognize its unique history, Utah State University finalized its first official land acknowledgment statements, indicating that school facilities exist on spaces originally occupied by Indigenous peoples.
"As a land-grant institution, Utah State University campuses and centers reside and operate on the territories of the eight tribes of Utah, who have been living, working and residing on this land from time immemorial," the statement reads. The tribes include the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indians, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Northwestern Band of Shoshone, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute, Skull Valley Band of Goshute and the White Mesa Band of the Ute Mountain Ute.
"We acknowledge these lands carry the stories of these nations and their struggles for survival and identity. We recognize elders past and present as peoples who have cared for, and continue to care for, the land. In offering this land acknowledgment, we affirm indigenous self-governance history, experiences and resiliency of the native people who are still here today."
The process of creating the statement, along with 28 others recognizing the various Utah State branches throughout Utah and beyond, began in Dec. 2020, Marilyn Cuch, of the Hunkpapa Lakota, director of statewide education for USU and chairwoman of the acknowledgment committee, said.
She said the committee was asked to consider four objectives, including to:
- Develop guidelines for the use of the land acknowledgment statement.
- Identify the tribal and native nation leaders, as well as student leaders who would be consulted on the use of the statement.
- Gather feedback from students, alumni, faculty and staff and Utah tribal leaders.
- Gather feedback on a land acknowledgment webpage that the committee created.
"We wanted to make sure that we included all of the land acknowledgment statements for every one of our statewide campuses — that meant taking a look at all of the areas that our centers reside on, any of our campuses that we have, and having it written and approved by the Utah tribal leaders that considered those lands their ancestral lands," Cuch said.
The committee met monthly throughout 2021, as well as with indigenous faculty, staff and students, and feedback was provided to tribal leaders, up until the final approval from the USU President Noelle Cockett.
"Recognizing our past provides marginalized voices the chance to be heard and brings additional awareness and education of land acknowledgment to all parts of the state," she said in a news release Thursday.
Cuch said the process was taxing, replete with revisions.
"It was so worth it, I was very honored to be able to be a part of the committee," she said, adding that a land acknowledgment statement is especially important when considering the history of a land-grant institution like USU.
"If you look at the amount of land that the university is using for higher education research, teaching and learning, you're looking at a lot of tribal land that was taken and is now being used for the very purpose of educating everyone, including tribal nations," Cuch said. "If we don't acknowledge and say 'the land belonged to the Indigenous peoples originally and it was taken away for educational purposes,' we're not telling the history of Utah State University."
"As an Indigenous Lakota woman, I have to say that the truth is there and we're not telling that side of the story if we don't acknowledge that it happened in the first place," Cuch said.
She hopes the statement becomes more than just a statement, with action behind the words.
"I believe that there are areas of having shared governance with our tribal entities and that means having them on executive committees or even having them (be) a part of conversations of programs — it also involves collaborative decision making — having more of your faculty that is Indigenous, it allows for inclusive space on our campuses where we have space set aside to meet the needs for our Indigenous students," Cuch said, adding that to do this, there needs to be funding to support things like native student clubs and organizations.
"We now are looking at needs for more recruitment, retention, research and graduation for our native students and also our native faculty — so when we do that, that means there's also support — there's pieces for money, there's pieces for money, there's pieces for policy, there's pieces for governance. That really means we need to have a diverse conversation with people at that table who have a diverse perspective, from an Indigenous perspective," she said.
"My greatest passion in getting this forward and making sure that it's done in the right way is to honor our elders, honor our relatives that have passed on and to do it in a good way that represents the Utah tribal nations."