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Programs on Creating a Living Land Acknowledgment Held with the Lenape Center

04/27/2022
The land on which Brooklyn Law School now stands is the homeland of the Lenape people.  That homeland, “Lenapehoking,” encompasses Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania, New York’s Hudson Valley to Delaware, and, at its center, New York City. Brooklyn Law School is in the process of creating a living land acknowledgment to recognize and honor the native people who were forcibly displaced from these lands and to help welcome those who wish to return. In collaboration with the Lenape Center, the Law School has held two programs so far to educate our community and exchange ideas for action:  The Land We’re On: Brooklyn Law School’s Responsibility to and Relationship with the Lenape People, on February 28, and the Lenape Center’s Living Land Acknowledgment Workshop on April 1. The Lenape Center’s mission is to continue the Lenape homeland through community, culture, and the arts through workshops, programs, exhibitions, performances, symposia, and ceremonies. 

The idea for the project began in Professor Susan Herman’s seminar, “Current Issues in Constitutional Law.” Herman, with students Joseph Famulari ’22, Danika Gallup ’22, Kathryn Kubinski ’22, and Nicole Moccio ’22, and Kacy Vance ’22, formed a planning committee to explore the issues of land acknowledgment with the Law School community. 
“We realized that what we know about Native people and the law is so limited,” said Vance. “We wanted to explore how we could meaningfully change that and at the same time honor those who came before us. Three of us did presentations on Native rights and were disappointed that the first time we really touched on constitutional issues involving Native Americans was not until our final year of law school.”

With the support of Dean Karen Porter, Arthur Pinto & Stephen Bohlen Associate Dean for Inclusion and Diversity, Herman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Professor of Law, and the committee invited The Lenape Center’s Executive Director and Cofounder Joe Baker, a member of the Delaware Tribe, and Cofounder and Co-Director Hadrien Coumans, an adopted member of the White Turkey–Fugate family of the Delaware Tribe, to join and lead the discussions. 

Concepts of land acknowledgment and early ideas for collaboration were subjects of the first program. “It’s important as a community that we have this collective activity with our friends at the Lenape Center, to learn, engage, and respond to this issue,” said Dean Porter in her welcome to participants. 

Moderated by Professor Herman, the discussion opened with Mr. Baker speaking of his own history, based in Oklahoma as a member of one of the five Lenape nations, and of his realization that the traditional knowledge and culture of his people were going to be permanently erased. The result was the birth of the Lenape Center in 2009 to, he said, “become part of the public consciousness in the city of New York.” He now sees the landscape changing in that consciousness, he said, with many organizations repairing their knowledge of history and creating their own living land acknowledgments. “A land acknowledgment is unique to each institution,” said Baker, “and should speak to the organization’s resources and how it engages in the community, reflecting the personality of the entity that they honor.” 

“To think about land acknowledgment,” said Coumans, “we must think about the place and the people. Early requests for land acknowledgment were not necessarily well thought out; it was a trend. We want to provide information, so people are more aware of what they are saying and who they are acknowledging.”

“One of our approaches on living land acknowledgment is that it’s based on living collaborative relationships,” said Coumans. “No matter what our silos and organizations, corporate or nonprofit, each of us requires the nourishment of the land to survive. That gift is at the heart of the acknowledgment, a relationship that has been forgotten.” Baker and Coumans offered examples of this type of collaborative action, such as the Center’s partnership with the nonprofit organization Hudson Valley Farm Hub in a rematriation of native seeds to Lenape ancestral lands. Their remarks inspired students and others to offer initial ideas on what the Law School might explore, such as polling the faculty to learn what perspectives are missing in the courses being taught and to increase available resources to enhance our own understanding and of that of the greater community on the role that law and lawyers can play in acknowledging the past and creating a more inclusive future. 

The second program was a workshop led by Baker and Coumans on Lenape culture and history, from pre-colonization through settler colonization, to the present Lenape Diaspora. An understanding of this history, they emphasized, is the basis for the creation of a truly meaningful and thoughtful land acknowledgment. “It’s a complex history, of the push of the Lenape people west from their lands. It is never told from the Lenape perspective,” said Baker. “It’s not a history of the past, but a way of understanding today and how we got here. There are over 574 federally recognized sovereign Indian nations in the U.S. And despite 400 years of forced removal, relocation, and dispossession, tribal nations survive with their language and culture.”

An important topic of the workshop was the laws and broken treaties throughout American history that led to the forced removal of the Lenape and the underlying premise of those laws that land could be exclusively owned, which conflicted with the Lenape laws and understanding of the relationship between people and the land. Focusing on what actions the law school might consider, student participants added discussion of recent court cases that involved Native American land and voting rights, and suggested initiatives like creating a repository of resources on American Indian law, reexamining the law school’s mission, and generating possibilities for students and others in the legal community to be of service through clinical work or mentoring and supporting prospective Native American law students.

While these were promising first steps in developing a living land acknowledgment, all agreed this will be an ongoing and evolving undertaking. “Workshops like this help us find our footing and discuss the challenges before us,” said Baker. “Thanks to our collaborators at the Lenape Center, I’ve learned to think of our land acknowledgment as not just a few sentences to put on a plaque but as a process of acknowledgment, reparation, and collaboration,” said Professor Herman. Added Dean Porter, “It must be a living acknowledgment that we are actively engaged in, to constitute a working group or committee, and to invite others to the conversation of what we might do to focus our energies and to move forward.”

To find out more and to get involved with the Living Land Acknowledgment process, contact Professor Susan Herman, at susan.herman@brooklaw.edu.

For more information on the Lenape Center, visit https://thelenapecenter.com.