The importance of Land Acknowledgements

500 Women Scientists Philly Pod
4 min readOct 6, 2021

By Tanya Dapkey

Delaware Water Gap. Photo by Mike Ralph on Unsplash

October 11th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, always celebrated on the second Monday in October as a counter-holiday to Columbus Day. It’s not a federal holiday but many states celebrate or have made it a state holiday. October is a month that celebrates a few diversity holidays (Global Diversity Month, National Diversity Week), but here in the United States, it’s important to acknowledge the history and culture of Native Americans.

As scientists, it’s even more important to consider the legacy and impacts of colonialization. Many of our institutions were established by Europeans, our buildings sit on native territories, and our predecessors were insistent that their actions were justified. This has been a problem for hundreds of years, and we need to work on making it right.

One way my lab has been trying to do that is with a Land Acknowledgement at the beginning of every Section Meeting. A Land Acknowledgement is when you take the time to research the history of the land you currently occupy (the colonization of those lands) and take the time to learn more about the culture and history of the indigenous people who lived there.

I work in the city of Philadelphia, historically this was Lenni Lenape territory. At every Lab meeting, we learn more about the Lenni Lenape tribe as well as other tribes that lived on lands within the United States.

A map of the northeast United States that shows indigenous tribe territories
This is a screen shot from the Native Land online map that shows the Lenni Lenape territory.

The Lenni Lenape, or the Delaware people, lived on land that we now call Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware along the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. They consisted of three clans: the Wolf clan, the Turtle clan and the Turkey clan — all which traced their clan roots matrilineally. Thousands of years ago people who lived in this area created something called an eel weir, a structure they built to catch eels. The Lenape people fished the Delaware River, this river was sacred to them. They practiced sustainable aquaculture but when the Europeans colonized the land, many fish colonized were overharvested.

Eel weir drone views and the history of them in the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers

The Delaware Nation was the first indigenous group to sign a treaty with the United States in 1778, it was called the Fort Pitt Treaty. The United States failed to meet it’s terms of the treaty and within a year the peace that was supposed to be established disintegrated. The Delaware Nation was forcibly moved multiple times to multiple states. They now reside in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario.

Our lab hopes to visit the Cultural Center of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania as soon as we can to learn more and to meet the people who keep this culture alive today.

There are other scientific organizations and universities who have either created an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Statement or who have put together resources on how to make one. This isn’t hard to do, and it’s essential for us as scientists to acknowledge the history of the land we currently occupy. Celebrating the people who used to live and thrive here is an important step for all of us.

So how do you get this started in your lab group, university, or scientific society? First, have a discussion with your group. Why would you want to do this and how would it help? Are there practical actions you can all do to help rectify the long history and give some of this land back to the tribes who once occupied it?

Our lab wanted to learn more about the Lenape people and the history of this land. Most of our projects study the Delaware River, its current status and how we can restore what’s been damaged. Moving forward, we want to help change the laws that prevent indigenous people from having the same rights as we do. And we want to share what we have learned with others. My thanks to everyone in our lab group for taking this journey with me.

With open hearts and minds, we can acknowledge the history of colonization, grieve with those indigenous communities who lost their lands and help celebrate their culture by remembering their past.

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500 Women Scientists Philly Pod

The Philly Pod of 500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization founded in February of 2017 with a vision to make science more open and inclusive to all.