After the Martin Luther King Day Jr. All-School Meeting (ASM) on Monday, January 20, a group of students and faculty members stood across from Cochran Chapel with posters advocating for an indigenous land acknowledgement before ASMs. Some members of the Andover community joined the protest as they exited the chapel, forming a line across the steps opposite the Chapel.
According to organizer Emma Slibeck ’20, founder of Native Americans at Phillips Academy (NAPA), land acknowledgments are short speeches before community gatherings that acknowledge and respect the presence of indigenous people and their lands. Slibeck had devoted almost six months to writing her own land acknowledgment speech for ASM. Despite Slibeck’s having drafted the speech, Interim Head of School Jim Ventre ’79 told her that she could not read a land acknowledgement at ASM, according to Slibeck.
“Basically, land acknowledgements acknowledge that there were Indigenous people on this land before colonization, there are Indigenous people in this land now, and there will be Indigenous people in the future, and really understanding how this institution benefitted from settler colonialism and the removal of indigenous people…Often before big events or community gatherings, you take a moment and recognize which specific tribes and nations were on this land, as well as all Indigenous folks,” said Slibeck.
She continued, “One of the things that we wanted to do as an affinity group was start having land acknowledgments during ASM. That’s a longer process, and we were hoping for that to start this year. And so on MLK Day, which was going to be the first time we’re going to do to it, I was just going to read a simple acknowledgement that we have been preparing for a long time. And then I was informed that I wasn’t allowed to, so I had a meeting with [Interim Head of School Jim Ventre ’79] about it and outlined the reasons behind it.”
According to Slibeck, one of the reasons that the land acknowledgement may have received pushback was because it is ambiguous which specific groups inhabited Andover’s campus. The town of Andover and the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology recognize different indigenous groups that lived in the Andover area.
Slibeck argued that the forced removal and genocide of Indigenous people inevitably raises difficulty in determining the exact residents of the area.
“One [reason for the refusal could be] that the town of Andover and the Peabody were recognizing different tribes, and so there was kind of a discrepancy there. So that made it more complicated, which is why I’ve also been reaching out to both those people and doing more research on my own. Two was that [the administration and Board of Trustees]…[might not have] want[ed] it to just be this statement that happens and then there’s nothing else already happening,” said Slibeck.
Slibeck continued, “But to both of those things, I think there can be an acknowledgement of Indigenous land and that you can acknowledge all of the people that were here and in the area…It’s hard to determine exactly who was in this specific area because…Indigenous land is fluid. And the point about saying that land acknowledgments are empty is basically saying that land acknowledgements are meaningless by themselves, which is not true.”
Angie Collado ’21, who attended the protest, noted that the land acknowledgement would have aligned with Andover’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“In my personal opinion there is no such thing as an empty acknowledgment, so I think she should have been able to do one, especially on MLK day, because he fought and proclaimed that there should be justice for everyone. This protest embodied his legacy,” said Collado.
After the protest, Slibeck noted that she was able to have a conversation regarding Indigenous land acknowledgements with Ventre and Linda Carter Griffith, Associate Head of School for Equity, Inclusion, and Wellness. Going forward, Slibeck hopes to continue the discussion with faculty members at the Peabody and the Addison Gallery of American Art, as well as the town of Andover.
“From there, I’ve actually been working with Mr. Ventre and will talk to Linda Carter Griffith as well. And I’ve reached out to people at the Peabody and Addison, and even the town of Andover, on making more serious proposals. I think there needs to be a huge call to action to the Board of Trustees and the administration. And that’s where ultimately this is going to end. But I think the more that students and faculty and other Andover community members support this issue, the more it’s going to be harder for the administration and Board of Trustees to ignore it,” said Slibeck.
Carter Griffith acknowledged the peaceful nature of the protest, but said that the Office of the Head of School had not received a formal proposal regarding a land acknowledgement at ASM.
Carter Griffith wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and all that he stood for, I want to thank those who took part in Monday’s demonstration for approaching their cause in a civil, thoughtful manner. The Head of School’s Office has not yet received a proposal on the topic of land acknowledgement. While we believe this is an important conversation, we want to address it with accuracy, collaboration, and respect for the process.”