SFPL Adopts Land Acknowledgment
First Person, SFPL’s celebration of Native American History Month, presents the perfect opportunity for us to revisit one of our proudest accomplishments from this past year. As part of our ongoing work to advance racial equity at the Library and beyond, we partnered with the American Indian Cultural Center San Francisco (AICCSF) to help us draft a Land Acknowledgment that would formally recognize the unceded ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone people, the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula.
The purpose of adopting a Land Acknowledgment is to honor and recognize Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty as the original stewards of the lands which we now occupy. To ensure authenticity, we worked closely with the AICCSF to craft and approve the language of the Acknowledgment. On April 15, 2021, the Library Commission made history when it ratified the Land Acknowledgment, which is now read at the beginning of each Commission meeting.
We thank the American Indian Cultural Center for their support and guidance during this process, and we look forward to working with them on an ongoing basis as we examine how SFPL can better serve the local Native American population through our services and collections.
Q&A with Sharaya Souza (Taos Pueblo, Ute, Kiowa) Executive Director, American Indian Cultural District
1. What would you like the public to know about the American Indian Cultural District and your work?
I’d like people to know that the core part of our work is about visibility and is about elevating the American Indian voice, creating a strong coalition of organizations and community members, and lastly, it’s about establishing a vibrant and cohesive home base for American Indian People. As one of the few populations that still have to say “we are still here”, our goal is to not have that happen for future generations and to create a space, a voice, and increase American Indian visibility in the City so that we are no longer left behind or just an afterthought but an active participant. If you look around at the leadership positions or boards of the City, you don’t see any American Indians. That is really our vision—to establish visibility and to elevate the voices of American Indians.
2. What advice would you give about how to be a good ally to Indigenous People?
Allyship is about education. It’s about listening, it’s about meaningful engagement and it’s about partnerships. The first thing I want to recommend is to always listen and to follow the lead of the community.
One of the biggest issues is when people have done stuff for us and not with us. This is quite a regular occurrence. People will push forth an American Indian initiative and say, “This is the American Indian vision, this is important to them,” and, I say, “Who did you actually talk to? Who did you engage with? Are you doing this initiative with us or for us?” I think just listening to the community, following the community’s lead, making sure that when you say that this is on behalf of the Cultural District, the Ramayatush Ohlone or the urban Indian community that you have permission and consent. And it is important to know when to step back and let them lead the initiative.
The other thing I’d like to propose is knowing the historical and cultural context before you engage. A lot of people reach out to us and ask, “What is the structure of the American Indian Cultural District? Where are you located? What are you working on?” This information is on our website. The Bicycle Coalition reached out to us to ask for help with reviewing a land acknowledgment and they read our website and the Ramaytush website… I was so surprised that they put in the work to find out who we are and what we do before engaging with us. I was just blown away because that’s just how rare it is for people to do the research first. It is important to learn the historical context and try to understand the culture and work being done before engaging with the American Indian community.
The third thing I’d like to say is don’t show up empty handed. A lot of people approach us and they want to partner, but they don’t bring ideas to the table on how to partner, or ask what we want, or ask what our capacity is. For me, meaningful partnership and meaningful community engagement is not just about words, but about action, and meaningful ongoing collaboration. What actions and resources are YOU actually willing to step up and offer in this partnership, or is this a partnership about us giving you more information to check an engagement box?
My fourth piece of advice is to be mindful of our time, our energy and our capacity. Yes, we are excited to engage and we’re excited to do this, but a lot of people don’t really realize that this is the first time and at this level or, sometimes even at all, that people are really engaging American Indians…many people ask for a quick 30 minutes, but it’s always going to lead to more meetings. If it’s going to be a meaningful relationship, it’s going to take time, and require patience and understanding. It requires commitment, and it requires meaningful collaboration…, and we are only 1.2% of the population so there are not that many of us, especially with a given level of expertise in certain areas who can step up to have these conversations in the frequency they are being requested.
Additionally, to respect people’s time and capacity, remember to compensate for people’s travel and contributions the way you would with any guest speaker. When you are inviting someone to your meeting or event are you just inviting them for the first few minutes to read a land acknowledgment or are you inviting them to be a part of the event or discussion and hold a meaningful seat at the table?
3. Why is it important for organizations to adopt a Land Acknowledgment and to work directly with the local
Indigenous community to craft the language?
I think the importance of a land acknowledgment is going to be unique to each organization that is the first thing I really want to tell people…Too many times people come to us and say, “Why is it important for us to do a land acknowledgment?” I turn the tables around and ask why is it important to YOU to be doing a land acknowledgment? That’s what I want to know…Only you know the ins and outs of what your obligations are and what your mission is or your vision is…. I can tell you from a Native perspective, there are enough things you can read online over and over again about the significance of land being the origin of our creation stories, our language, our culture, and what we hope to pass down to our children, but that’s MY perspective. I really want people to think…before they come to the table and let us know why they
think it’s important.
…depending on where you are actually located, it is important to work with the people of that area…I think it’s so important to work with the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone if you are in San Francisco City or County, and say, “Hey, what do you all think about this? We crafted this to the best of our knowledge by doing our research…now we want to see if you have any feedback on it”…The point is, it’s always really important to get those people’s feedback. Land acknowledgments shouldn’t just be “an acknowledgment.” if it’s really going to be something meaningful, and you want to engage the Indigenous community it should also have a level of responsibility and a level of teeth in it. I’m really grateful to have collaborated on the San Francisco Public Library one with our Ramaytush Ohlone relatives, because that’s exactly what it did. Those are some of our first models that we worked on together that was not just putting a statement together but a promise and a relationship and a collaboration, and you can’t really get that without working with the community that you intend to honor.