Where Do We Stand?

City Council meetings, School Board meetings; not only do we begin with the pledge of allegiance, we begin with the declaration that we are on unceded land, taken from the Tongva and the Chumash tribes. With the understanding that ‘literature is news that stays news’ it’s taken a while for the story to come around to headline status. 

November is Indigenous History Month, and the happy fairy tale of the first thanksgiving has dissolved under the weight of historical facts. Being conscious of our need to change is the first part of making those changes. 

Our new habit of beginning public meetings with the declaration that we are standing on stolen land is one that I’m sure does not happen all over our country – although I have been told it happens in parts of Canada. It has brought my attention around to the awareness that acknowledging that factual history of this country – as opposed to the popular legends or the cherished myths – it the key to our collective future. 

It’s really not new, but it does depend on who wrote the textbooks or designed the curriculum. Where I went to grade school in New Jersey, we learned more about the Lenni Lenape tribe than we did about about anything on the other side of the Hudson River. My history lessons were also very heavy on the American Revolution, as many battles were fought in New Jersey. Anything that did not happen in New Jersey was not worthy of space in a textbook. Whoever wrote those textbooks felt firmly that there was New Jersey, and then there was the rest of the world. 

Having been to school in several other states, I came early to the evidence that history is (where are we?) or (who are we?) 

The annual open air art exhibit of Desert X 2021 offered a take on the Hollywood sign as a part of the thought-provoking displays in the desert near Palm Springs this past year. Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist and musician, took on the concept of signage and used it to provoke some real thought on the question of memory and land. “The 45-foot letters of Never Forget reference the Hollywood sign, which initially spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND and was erected to promote a whites-only development.”

Calling the work Never Forget also echoes the motto of WWII Holocaust that took millions of lives. The six million Jews who were murdered were in the same camps with another four million people who the Nazis killed – to consider only six million leaves out the Polish patriots, the French feminists, the Hungarian homosexuals and the Italian anarchists who met the same fate. You did not have to be of any particular ethnicity to be murdered by Nazis. Just disagree. 

Galanin makes more than a creative statement. “Never Forget asks settler landowners to participate in the work by transferring land titles and management to local Indigenous communities. The work is a call to action and a reminder that land acknowledgments become only performative when they do not explicitly support the land back movement.”

Just as advertising can be an inspiration for art, we can use these words to open up our perspective. But the challenge is that – like the pledge of allegiance – they may just become rote repetition.  Understanding that we are on stolen soil should prompt us to do more than just acknowledge the problem. 

But it’s a start. 

Judith Martin-Straw

The Actors' Gang

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