Real Land Acknowledgement

If you’ve attended a college course recently or even a corporate meeting, you’ve seen it opened with a land acknowledgment, a somber statement that the land they are currently on was originally owned by indigenous people. That’s it. Just a statement, it’s purely symbolic, like a lot of progressive equity rituals.

This week, Joe Biden thinks he did something better. He designated a portion of land near the Grand Canyon as a national monument. This was positioned as giving land to the Hopi nation.

Yet the very notion that this was a transfer of land is symbolic of left-wing racial stereotypes of the American Indian. Dating back to the founding father of socialist thought, Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized in his 1754 Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men that the primordial state of humanity was virtuous because it was not corrupted by commerce. Rousseau extrapolated from stories of aboriginal inhabitants in the Americas that they were an example of altruistic human existence free from the shackles of a monetary economy. The progressive narrative is that the Hopi don’t want this land, which is richly deposited with low-cost uranium, for resource extraction.

That is likely a misperception. Did the Hopi celebrate the establishment of this monument? Yes, they did, as did the Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo, Paiute, Yavapai-Apache, and Zuni nations. But that misses an important context: they didn’t stand to gain from any uranium mining contracts. These native tribes had nothing to lose from limiting the economic development of this land. They faced no opportunity cost.

If this was a real transfer of land, the federal government giving full ownership of a land the Hopi call Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni to the descendants of its original inhabitants, then we would all be better off. The Hopi would be able to balance their use of this land for recreation with the development of uranium mining to earn their people a royalty revenue stream. The United States would benefit from a low-cost source of uranium rather than rely on imports from Russia. In short, the Hopi would be better stewards of this land than the U.S. federal government.

Would the Biden administration ever do such a thing? Of course not, the interest of the wealthy white backers of the Democratic Party is to maintain ultimate control of this land, to prevent uranium mining. They may feel a sense of moral righteousness partaking in land acknowledgment rituals, but they would never give the Hopi their land back. The Hopi aren’t romantics. They are rural people who, like most country folk, know how to balance economic development with outdoor recreation.

Rather than reverse the Biden administration’s monument designation to revert this land to its original federal status, a Republican successor to Joe Biden ought to just fully give this land to the Hopi. That would be a real land acknowledgment.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.