Point of View: Land acknowledgment works toward racial justice

From Uzintun to lands north of Niqnalchint, Indigenous place names honor First Peoples

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (Logo provided)

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (Logo provided)

We live on Indigenous lands. These lands have been stewarded for thousands of years, since time immemorial, by the Indigenous people of this region — Dena’ina, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, others, and the Kachemak Peoples before them. Homer is situated within the lands of Nichiłt’ana, the contemporary Ninilchik Village Tribe, stretching from Uzintun (Homer Spit) across Tikahtnu (Cook Inlet), from T’ch’anen (Caribou Hills), to lands north of Niqnalchint (Ninilchik).

Growing up in Homer, I didn’t learn this is Indigenous land. I thought this land was uninhabited before settlers came. I wasn’t taught the first, original names of these places. Kachemak Bay, I thought, was named after a Russian explorer. I recently learned the Sugpiaq people of Nanwalek and Port Graham call it Kageekmak or Qaciikmak. I hear the original name in there. Learning that Dena’ina and Sugpiaq people today have deep roots here is a process that Indigenous artists are leading today through Bunnell Street Arts Center and many places around the world. It’s a transformative process that has deepened my passion for my work as a curator and my love of this land and its people.

For Bunnell Street Arts Center, the process of resisting White supremacy within and around us is happening in tandem with the artists we present. Over the last 20 years, as artists lift up place names and stories they are teaching us, leading us, and transforming our work, making our engagements with artists more equitable and reciprocal. This process, for Bunnell, began 20 years ago when Emily Johnson (Yup’ik Nation), who was raised in Soldotna, came here to work in residency at Bunnell Street Arts Center. Through storytelling and dance, she shared the first names of this place. Today she is an internationally recognized leader in land acknowledgment.

This summer, in land acknowledgment workshops, locals created handpainted signs acknowledging Indigenous names and places with Artist in Residence, Melissa Shaginoff. We placed the signs at Tuggeht, “at the shore,” (Dena’ina) at Bishops Beach Gazebo. Shaginoff is the Curator of Exhibits for Alaska Pacific University and a rising leader in land acknowledgment across Alaska and beyond. She explained, “Indigenous knowledge of this environment created a sustainable and symbiotic relationship with the waters, plants and animals of this land. We look to Elders and youth for guidance. It is only Indigenous ways of being that will ensure our collective future.” Shaginoff is Dena’ina, from Nay’dini’aa Na Kayax, Chickaloon Village Tribe.

The goal of land acknowledgment is education, equity and healing. It is public recognition that Alaska Native people have stewarded this place for thousands of years, long before Russia claimed to discover Alaska in 1741, before Seward convinced the U.S .to purchase from Russia unceded lands called Alaska in 1867, before American settlers began naming towns and cities after themselves.

Where did the name Homer come from? Homer Pennock was a gold-digger who dreamed of shipping coal out of Homer and, through various schemes, drained his family of their fortune.

The practice of claiming to “discover” lands that have been stewarded for thousands of years by Indigenous people, of renaming places after settlers and thus suppressing and erasing original names is a strategy of White supremacy, to imply that the land was unnamed, uninhabited, free for the taking. It rests on institutions, especially those with historically White, settler leadership to acknowledge local, Indigenous land and leadership. It is an opportunity for all of us to repair and decolonize engagement with the living people and lands where we work. After all, Indigenous people are still here. Land acknowledgment is one way we can openly support systemic change for social and racial justice in Alaska and beyond.

Bunnell Street Arts Center resists colonialism by partnering with Indigenous artists and supporting Indigenous-led practices. We do this work to build cultures that take care of each other and of the land. When artists and others lead us in projects to build awareness and inclusion around land acknowledgment it is a gift. We do this decolonizing work, as Emily Johnson says, “so that we — art workers, audiences, presenters, funders, and a broader public — can build processes and relationships forward that are equitable, justice-centered, and decolonized, rather than stay in systems and experiences that perpetuate violence and extraction.”

There’s so much work to do, and it is happening at the pace of trust. I appreciate how this process is unfolding, expanding my awareness, inviting new alliances within our widespread community, and strengthening the social fabric of Alaska.

Asia Freeman is Artistic Director of Bunnell Street Arts Center and adjunct faculty at Kachemak Bay Campus. She serves on MAPP’s Resilience Coalition. MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships) is a local health improvement coalition with the vision of a proactive, resilient and innovative community.

More in Opinion

Larry Persily
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Michael O'Meara's cartoon for Oct. 14, 2021.
Letters to the Editor

Foundation support for Pier One appreciated In June of 2021, Pier One Theatre… Continue reading

Les Gara, who represented Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives from 2003-2018, is running as a Democrat to unseat Gov. Mike Dunleavy in the 2022 general election. He told the Empire in an interview he wanted to ensure oppportunities were available in Alaska in the future. (Courtesy photo / Les Gara)
Point of View: We can still work together to end COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I assumed we would come together to… Continue reading

Michael O'Meara's cartoon for Oct. 7, 2021.
Letters to the Editor

Freight alternative Mayor Ken Castner and the Homer City Council were right… Continue reading

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and this year it is important… Continue reading

Michael O'Meara's cartoon for Sept. 30, 2021.
Letters to the Editor

Dogs in public places The City of Homer Parks, Arts, Recreation and… Continue reading

Peter Zuyus
Point of View: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

Seniors of Alaska has had the pleasure to work with Dr. Anne… Continue reading

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Point of View: We are all victims of COVID-19

This week Alaska claimed the nation’s top spot for the most positive… Continue reading

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (logo provided)
Point of View: September is National Recovery Month

The biggest challenge when talking about recovery is the truth that one… Continue reading

Most Read