By Siobhan Burke
On an evening in early June, before the sun had gone down, a bonfire blazed outside Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. Handmade quilts lined the steps of the outdoor amphitheater. Anyone walking down Grand Street could come in and take a seat.
As a group of singers arranged themselves around a large cylindrical drum, the choreographer Emily Johnson stood up to speak a few careful, welcoming words.
“I’d like to acknowledge and pay my deep respect to Lenape people and elders and ancestors — past, present and future,” she said. She gestured toward the ground and in the direction of the East River. “I acknowledge and offer deep gratitude to this Lenape land and water that supports us, as we’re gathered here right now together, and I invite you to join me in that acknowledgment, that respect and that gratitude.”
In recognizing Manhattan’s original inhabitants — the Lenape (pronounced len-AH-pay) — and their ancestral homeland, Lenapehoking, Ms. Johnson was taking part in a ritual that, with her guidance, has become increasingly common at New York performing arts spaces in the past year.
Routine at public gatherings in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the custom of Indigenous land acknowledgment, or acknowledgment of country, has only recently started to gain traction in the United States outside of tribal nations. In New York City the practice is sporadic but growing, occasionally heard at high-profile cultural and educational institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and New York University. A land acknowledgment of sorts has even made it to Broadway, embedded in the prelude to Young Jean Lee’s play “Straight White Men.”
“Five years ago, it was uncommon to hear any mention of Lenape in Manhattan,” said Joe Baker, the executive director of the Lenape Center, a nonprofit promoting Lenape language, art and culture. Today, though: “You hear Lenapehoking. You hear Lenape. You hear an acknowledgment of the original people.” (Lenapehoking encompasses New York City, New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York State.)
Ms. Johnson, 42, a Native Alaskan artist of Yupik descent, has been the catalyst for much of that progress in the city’s dance scene. Her own work casts a wide, generous net. Last summer she devised an overnight ceremony for 300 participants on Randalls Island; her 2015 “Shore in Lenapehoking” concluded with a communal feast on the banks of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Wherever she tours, she publicly honors — and engages with — the Indigenous people of that place.
And behind the scenes she has been working to strengthen relationships between predominantly white institutions and Indigenous communities, to ensure that more Indigenous voices are heard at all organizational levels, from the artists onstage to the board of directors. That process, she said, begins with institutions recognizing where they are: on land taken from Indigenous peoples.
“In some ways it’s simple,” she said in an interview at an East Village cafe. “But it’s a very important step.”
While a land acknowledgment may sound unusual to someone hearing it for the first time — especially in the context of a theater before a show — the practice has a deep history among Indigenous peoples, stretching back to “before these borders were here,” Ms. Johnson said.
“As an Indigenous person, you wouldn’t come onto another Indigenous person’s land and begin to hunt or fish or farm or build a house,” she said. “You would engage in a protocol of: Can I be here? There would be an exchange and either a yes or no, and that protocol I think is why we could, for example, live without building a wall.”
This year, at least four downtown performance spaces have begun regularly acknowledging Indigenous land, in spoken or written form. At Performance Space New York, a standard preshow curtain speech now reminds (or informs) visitors that the theater “is situated on the Lenape island of Manhahtaan (Mannahatta) and more broadly in Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland.” At Danspace Project and Gibney, a similar statement is printed in programs.
At Abrons, a sign in the main lobby goes further with a promise of action, noting that the center is “committed to resisting colonialism and imbalance with Mother Earth through the support of Indigenous-led programming and Indigenous artistic practices.” Abrons staff members also speak the acknowledgment at public events.
Ask the leaders of these institutions why and how they’ve adopted the practice and Ms. Johnson’s name will likely come up. Ali Rosa-Salas, Abrons’s director of programming, said the center developed its acknowledgment after hosting part of the First Nations Dialogues, a meeting of international presenters and artists that Ms. Johnson helped to organize in January. (Performance Space was also a host.) One long-term goal of the dialogues was to increase global support for Indigenous artists. Land acknowledgment, Ms. Rosa-Salas said, “seemed like a first actionable step.”
Many others, it seems, have thought similarly. Last year, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture — a self-described “people-powered department” with no government affiliation — published “Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment.” The group’s founder, Adam Horowitz, said that the guide had been downloaded more than 7,000 times and that more than 300 organizations had taken a pledge to introduce acknowledgment as policy.
For anyone who has spent time in countries like Australia and Canada — home to federal truth and reconciliation efforts that the United States has yet to undertake — the question that land acknowledgment raises isn’t so much “Why do this?” as “What’s taken so long?”
“It was interesting coming here and noticing that it wasn’t happening,” said Vallejo Gantner, the former artistic director of PS122 (now Performance Space New York), who is from Australia. That absence, he added, signaled a larger problem. “The fact that Indigenous artists didn’t appear on our stages, and that we weren’t consciously trying to address that, was really disturbing to me.”
To address that persisting issue, he and Ms. Johnson are involved in creating a network of Australian and North American presenters dedicated to Indigenizing their institutions. (Ms. Johnson avoids the ubiquitous term “decolonize,” she said, as it too often serves as “a placebo for change.”) The two also worked together, with the Lenape Center, to write PS122’s land acknowledgment; Ms. Johnson has since done the same with Danspace, Abrons and some individual artists.
She is well aware that acknowledgment can become rote, empty. To have an impact, she stressed, it must be done “in an embodied way.”
“To me that means the words are spoken, and they are spoken with intention,” she said.
Ideally that intention leads to meaningful partnerships. Progress at Abrons and Performance Space has been heartening, Ms. Johnson said. Abrons, for instance, has worked with her to host monthly fireside gatherings featuring the Silvercloud Singers, an intertribal Native American singing and dance group. The most recent was also a summer social for the American Indian Community House; the next (after a hiatus) coincides with the Lenape Center’s symposium on Oct. 13.
Rick Chavolla, the board chairman of the American Indian Community House, cautioned against seeing land acknowledgment as a trend.
“It’s something that we’ve always believed, and now other people outside of our communities are starting to kind of understand it,” he said. He added that he felt hopeful about the momentum, which he attributed in part to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. “I think we’re in a really special time right now.”
For the inexperienced, speaking an acknowledgment can be awkward at first. Hadrien Coumans, a co-founder of the Lenape Center, said false starts were to be expected. “I believe it’s a process, and it’s a process that has only recently begun,” he said.
While land acknowledgment might be a mere formality in some contexts, Mr. Coumans emphasized that he sees it as something much greater, an invitation to consider and appreciate where, really, you are standing.
“We’re part of a living being,” he said. “Earth is a living entity, so in acknowledging land, what we’re really doing is acknowledging life. Not nationalism, not patriotism. Life.”