For the first time in Cornell’s 156-year history, announcers presented an official land acknowledgment at the 2021 commencement ceremonies. The statement recognizes the University’s place on the traditional homeland of the Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ (pronounced Guy-yo-KO-no), or Cayuga Nation.
Announcers delivered the acknowledgment after the procession at all four commencement ceremonies last month. The statement’s usage at a university-wide event follow years of development culminating in its official approval by traditional Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ leadership on April 9.
Corey Ryan Earle ’07, American studies, expressed that the gesture is an important step in the right direction for the University. “The story of Indigenous communities is part of the story of Cornell University, even though it’s often been left out of official histories in the past,” he wrote in a statement to the Sun.
According to current director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program Kurt Jordan ’88, anthropology, the acknowledgment should be featured at all major University events, on department websites and in official Cornell communications.
The land acknowledgment is as follows:
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ (the Cayuga Nation). The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign Nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
This land acknowledgment has been reviewed and approved by the traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ leadership.
The AIISP collaborated with traditional Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ leadership on the land acknowledgment for several years before its approval. Previous AIISP director, Prof. Jolene Rickard, history of art and visual studies, initiated the project when she began her directorial role over a decade ago.
According to Rickard, she aimed to build on a movement of land acknowledgments beginning in Canada and other Commonwealth countries. She thought that Cornell, as a land grant institution, had a responsibility to recognize and address its history.
“I thought it was an important gesture by institutions to signal their awareness about several ongoing conditions of settler complacency, or settler innocence, to how the spaces that we work in and live in, in countries like the United States, actually came into existence,” Rickard said.
Rickard took inspiration from a broad land acknowledgment movement as well as specific initiatives. She cited the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria, one of the first programs to initiate a land acknowledgment, which was founded by Gerald Taiaiake Alfed ’94, Ph.D.
According to Rickard, it took several years to mobilize Cornell’s own land acknowledgment initiative, but AIISP finally drafted a statement, made several rounds of revisions and shared it with traditional Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ leadership before the spring of 2020.
“We were never asked by the administration to do this,” Jordan said, “but we took it upon ourselves to come up with something.”
AIISP students and faculty jumpstarted the movement in the summer of 2020, Rickard stated, inspired by the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and its emphasis on racial equality. Jordan expressed that Cornell administration moved forward with adopting a provisional land acknowledgment during this time, as well.
He stated that AIISP has been in contact with Cornell administration about the “land grab” controversy, a wave of recent criticism arising from a March 2020 research study. The study concerns universities still profiting off the Morrill Act of 1862, which allocated millions of acres of Indigenous land to new schools, prominently including Cornell.
“[The study] labeled Cornell and the other land grant institutions as ‘land grab’ institutions and really tied the existence of the land grant universities to Indigenous dispossession and genocide,” Jordan said.
The Cornell websites for several schools, including the College of Human ecology and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, featured the provisional land acknowledgment in spring 2020. In June 2020, AIISP formed the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Committee to assess the impacts Cornell has on Indigenous communities.
On April 9, 2021, the ten traditional Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ leaders and clan mothers approved the land acknowledgment with no further revisions. Since the approval, the University has committed to delivering the statement at significant events. According to vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs Katherine McComas, it encourages academic units to raise awareness for the Cayuga Nation’s contemporary and historical presence.
“The administration appreciates the effort by members of the AIISP faculty to work with the traditional leadership of the Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ to develop this land acknowledgment for our Ithaca campus,” she wrote in a statement to the Sun.
Jordan stated that an awareness of the Cayuga Nation’s historical and current presence in Ithaca should become a central, expected part of Cornell’s culture. As a next step, he suggested giving the Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ a larger role in Cornell events and historical projects.
“We need to actually see and hear from the original owners of this land,” he said.
Jordan also stated his interest in expanding AIISP from a program into a department. AIISP currently offers minors at the undergraduate and graduate level, but he expressed that the program’s focus is profound and broad enough to be a major. He also called for an increase in professors teaching Indigenous history at Cornell so that students can access it more easily.
Rickard and Jordan both emphasized that the land acknowledgment should act as a first step, inspiring further action to improve the relationships between the University, the Cornell community and Indigenous people worldwide.
“I hope it inspires the recognition that almost every place you go in the world,” Rickard said, “there are Indigenous peoples that need to be taken into consideration in terms of how you’re working in development and how you’re planning.”