At nearly every All-School Meeting (ASM) or other major school event this year, facilitators have made space for an acknowledgment of the fact that Andover occupies unceded Indigenous land. This milestone did not materialize out of the administration’s desire to address the school’s complicity in settler-colonialism but out of direct student action: after the administration refused to let Emma Slibeck ’20 read a land acknowledgment before the 2020 MLK Day ASM, her demonstration outside Cochran Chapel forced the administration to address Andover’s relationship with Indigenous land. Pushing the administration into even bringing up its complicity in settler-colonialism was a huge achievement on Slibeck’s part, but I worry that the administration now sees the reading of these acknowledgments as adequate steps to confront Andover’s continual occupation of Indigenous land. While the reading of land acknowledgments is a vital first step in addressing Andover’s past and present participation in settler-colonialism, the administration has failed to live up to its stated intentions of dismantling that oppressive system due to its lack of direct action beyond these acknowledgments.
In thinking about the need for more concrete action from the school, we need to think about why we read land acknowledgments in the first place. These statements are by definition acknowledgments of the history and present of the land that we are on. However, it is impossible to accurately and respectfully encapsulate centuries of complex history and culture into a roughly one minute statement. We have heard the names Wabanaki, Pennacook, and Wampanoag countless times this year at Andover, but the school has done nothing to teach us about their past and current culture, history, or existence. Furthermore, the history of the land that we occupy is more complicated than those three names: a search of Andover’s address on native-land.ca, a website that matches addresses to the people whose traditional lands that they occupy, yields that Andover also occupies Massachusett land, and makes no mention of the Wampanoag peoples. All of this is to say that the Indigenous history of our region is more complicated than the three names we read at ASM, and we need to make space in our curriculums to discuss that history in order to truly acknowledge it. The administration’s reliance on these land acknowledgments as the only mentions of the pre-colonial history of the land we occupy squeezes an incredibly complex topic for study and reflection into less than 300 words.
Relying solely on the text of a land acknowledgment is insufficient in addressing Andover’s relationship with settler-colonialism, and thus we must understand land acknowledgments as not just statements, but also as calls to greater action in righting the wrongs of our continuous occupation of Indigenous land. After all, acknowledging wrongdoing without doing anything to remedy the harm that Andover caused in the past (and present!) is not a form of justice.
Furthermore, the school’s lack of action goes directly against our stated values: it is knowledge of misconduct without the goodness to use our resources to right those past wrongs. The land acknowledgment read at most ASMs states that “With this acknowledgment, we are committing to work towards dismantling the ongoing legacies of settler-colonialism,” and yet the administration has done very little to actually do so. We do not have a “day on” for Indigenous People’s Day to more substantively discuss the ongoing oppression of settler-colonialism and the Indigenous history of Andover’s land. With the curriculums as they are, students do not necessarily encounter conversations about settler-colonialism or read texts in English or History that center Indigenous perspectives. Beyond inaction, Andover actively participates in the continuation of settler-colonialism: the school has yet to openly divest from oil companies that exploit and destroy Indigenous lands. This cognitive dissonance between advocating for intersectional justice and participating in systems that make that justice impossible is the structural problem of Andover’s administration.
What is fundamentally missing from Andover is real liberation-focused praxis. As an organization of such astronomical resources, Andover has an ability and a responsibility to apply those resources towards enacting its stated intentions to justice through tangible action. In this case, action requires sacrifice: the administration must put its desire for justice over its desire for profit through divesting from companies that continually demonize Indigenous groups and actively using its resources to aid causes that work to dismantle settler-colonialism. Teachers must remove texts from curriculums that reaffirm problematic narratives to make space for ones that recenter historically sidelined perspectives, even if that means reading less Joseph Conrad and more Chinua Achebe. This doesn’t just apply to curriculums: in having this conversation, we must center Indigenous perspectives, and I want to acknowledge that the administration’s response to this call for action shouldn’t focus on my input as a white person, especially when many of the ideas in this piece are drawing on the ideas of Indigenous people. Until the administration is willing to enact this kind of structural change, its assertions of commitment to justice ring hollow. There is no excuse for Andover’s optics-centered reforms: continuing to read land acknowledgments while doing nothing substantive to dismantle settler-colonialism will never lead to true justice. Only in taking radical rather than performative action will we truly live up to our school values––after all, words without praxis are just as empty as knowledge without goodness is dangerous.