Health Equity Tip: Develop a Meaningful Land and People Acknowledgment Practice

By Stephani Tyrance

Abstract gray map design overlaid with the text “You are on native land” in green.
We all have a role to play in combating the erasure of the Indigenous people of North America and addressing the health inequities created and perpetuated by colonialism, land theft, and environmental destruction. Graphic by Clara Liang.

As Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day approach, we at HIP are taking time to reflect on the impacts of ongoing colonialism, and how public health can support Indigenous people who have been working for generations to build healthy, sustainable communities. We’re using this Health Equity Tip post to uplift resources for public health workers and institutions to begin deepening their commitments around Indigenous justice in our fight for health equity and collective liberation.

We recognize that we are just starting our journey to address our role in the occupation of this land. One of the ways we’ve begun this process is by developing a land and people acknowledgment practice. Critically, committing to a land and people acknowledgment practice must be the beginning, not the end, of public health’s charge. That’s why we’ve been thinking about ways to use land acknowledgment practices as a tool to interrogate, deepen, and expand our commitment to Indigenous health equity and anti-colonialism in a way that opens up a channel for both reflection and concrete action.

Beyond the performative

In creating an acknowledgment practice, it’s essential to check in and make sure your whole heart and body are engaged in the work. The goal isn’t to check off all the right boxes — it’s to deepen our understanding and analysis around Indigenous justice to pursue equity more fully.

For me, as a Black woman and member of the BIPOC community, that means continual self-exploration and learning around how Africans, self-emancipated Black people, and various tribal nations worked and lived in solidarity.

A life-changing moment for me came at a 2018 CityMatCH convening, featuring BIPOC speakers Kitcki Carroll, Sunshine Muse, and Dr. Arthur R. James. After deep conversation about the collective trauma and colonization of African and Indigenous peoples, I realized Indigenous people and stolen Africans’ ancestors had been colonized by the same people, at the same time, and suffered many shared, intertwining atrocities: family displacement, children sent away, laws that banned our native languages and traditions. Being able to truly feel the importance of our collective liberation further grounded my everyday public health practice and made me a better ally to the Indigenous community.

We all have a role to play in combating the erasure of the Indigenous people of North America and addressing the health inequities created and perpetuated by colonialism, land theft, and environmental destruction. Here are some tips for how public health can begin to do this work intentionally.

Where to start:

Interrogate your own limits and identify how to overcome gaps in your understanding around Indigenous issues.

  • Commit to learning about contemporary Indigenous issues, and make time and space for organization-wide discussion on how to support Indigenous justice.

Acknowledge the ways in which public health has underserved and harmed Indigenous communities, historically and today.

  • For example, the exclusion of Indigenous people from public health data and the categorization of Indigenous people as “Other” in health datasets contribute to the erasure of Indigenous communities. Public health’s reliance on large datasets and sample sizes, which are often unavailable for Indigenous populations, also contributes to the field’s failure to provide comprehensive support for Indigenous people.

Develop a land and people acknowledgment with your organization.

  • A land and people acknowledgment is a verbal or written recognition of the past, present, and future of Indigenous people on the land you occupy, accompanied by a concrete action plan to support Indigenous people and nations moving forward. Successful land and people acknowledgments are active and ongoing processes that require internal work. Land acknowledgments are not passive virtue signals — and they should not create extra labor for Indigenous people.
  • Many organizations involved in Indigenous sovereignty, like Native Governance and the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, have provided clear steps outlining how to successfully develop a land acknowledgment. And if you don’t already know, research whose land you are on at https://native-land.ca/.
  • We also found this video, “Beyond Land Acknowledgment” by the Native Governance Center, really important in our own land acknowledgment process.
  • Having trouble feeling deeply into the meaning behind the practice? Check out comedian and storyteller Michael Jr.’s moving segment, Know Your Why, which HIP staff watched together as a way to ground our practice.
Still from Break Time video, picturing a Black man seated in the audience, holding a microphone, while singing Amazing Grace
Still from Break Time video, picturing a Black man seated in the audience, holding a microphone, while singing Amazing Grace
Still from Michael Jr.’s segment, Know Your Why

Pay a local land tax to Indigenous people.

  • Land taxes are a form of reparations for the land you’re occupying. HIP pays the Shuumi Land Tax to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in recognition of our occupation of Ohlone land. Making room for a land tax in your organization’s budget is an important step in committing to the health and wellbeing of the Indigenous community. Read more about land taxes and why they’re important here.

Use your acknowledgment practice as a jumping-off point to strategize and build a concrete action plan to support Indigenous people and nations. Here are some additional resources to ground your work going forward:

Learn about Indigenous-led organizations already leading the work to support community wellbeing and equity, such as:

  • Project Mosaic, an Indigenous consulting organization with a public health focus
  • Tewa Women United, founded and led by Native women in the ancestral Tewa homelands in so-called Northern New Mexico
  • Seven Directions, a center for Indigenous public health

Stephani Tyrance is Project Director at Human Impact Partners, where she designs and manages HIP’s national Leadership Institute for individuals working on health equity in local health departments. As a member of the Capacity Building team, she also facilitates workshops and provides technical assistance to public health organizations seeking to center equity in their practice. Over the last 18 years Stephani has been focused on advancing racial justice practices and supporting communities of color.

📌 Did you know? Human Impact Partners provides health equity capacity building to public health organizations. Contact us to learn more about our offerings at info[at]humanimpact.org.

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