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Native Leaders Push for Land Acknowledgement

The Chena River winds through the City of Fairbanks.
Explore Fairbanks
The Chena River winds through the City of Fairbanks.

Leaders commented on the council's failure last month to pass a resolution calling for a Native land acknowledgement at the start of council meetings.

Fairbanks Native leaders are urging the city council to reconsider the reading of a Native land acknowledgement at the start of council meetings. They’re asking the council to revisit the issue after the panel voted down a land acknowledgement resolution last month (March). Native leaders say land acknowledgement is about history and respect.

Speaking during the public comment portion of a council meeting, several local Native leaders expressed disappointment with council members Jim Clark, Gerry Cleworth, Lonny Marney, and Aaron Gibson voting against the land acknowledgement resolution last month. Fairbanks Native Association executive director Steve Ginnis recounted Clark’s response to a letter from Native organizations about the land acknowledgement.

“He stated that there are many cultures contributing to the community and singling out would divide rather than unite us.  Councilman Clark’s response was the most honest one we received, and one which we whole heartedly disagree with,” said Ginnis.

Chief Ginnis said acknowledging the people on whose ancestral lands the city sits simply recognizes the area’s history, "to demonstrate respect for the first people of these lands.

Black: “ That have stewarded these lands for the past 10 thousand years.”

FNA president and University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Studies and Rural Development associate professor Dr. Jessica Black said indigenous peoples have been erased from much of US history.

“The invisibility adds to the inequity that we as indigenous people deal with each and every day,” she said.

Black added that a land acknowledgment gives Native children a sense of pride and encourages non-Native people to learn about the first peoples of the lands they live on. Denakkanaga executive director Sharon McConnell read the land acknowledgement developed by the Interior elder’s organization and considered by the council.

“We respectfully acknowledge the Dene people on whose traditional lands we reside on. We honor the Dene who have been the stewards of Interior lands and waters for centuries," McConnell said. "The elders who lived here before, the Dene people of today and future generations to come. We also recognize that Alaska Native people would traditionally gather here and harvest Native foods.”

McConnell said the acknowledgement is shared with visitors at the Morris Thompson Center and by Explore Fairbanks. Council members responded to the Native leader’s input. Member Lonny Marney, who voted against the land acknowledgement resolution last month, thanked everyone who showed up to testify.

“I do respect the Native people of Alaska and outside, and it has brought some different things to light that I didn’t think about prior,” Marney said.

Member Jim Clark said he remains opposed to the required reading of a land acknowledgement at council meetings.

“If the City singles out an acknowledgement, it’s also excluding, and so for that reason I’m just against any type of acknowledgement.  And I think we can just agree to disagree on that, but it doesn’t diminish any type of respect,” Clark said.

Member Jerry Cleworth repeated his position that a land acknowledgement is better displayed in the council chambers along with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and other historical documents.

“If folks are in agreement to that, I’d be happy to sponsor that resolution to put it on the wall,” Cleworth said.      

One of the sponsors of the land acknowledgement resolution requiring its reading at the start of council meetings, member Valerie Therrien noted that opportunity for it's reconsideration has expired, but…

“We’ll keep working on it, and I appreciate your support on that,” Therrien said.

Another sponsor of the original resolution, member June Rogers, who is Alaska Native, expressed optimism about the dialogue that Monday’s meeting testimony began.

"How we can all go forth in a better fashion of understanding each other is starting right here and now tonight,” Rogers said.      

Rogers said she’s hopeful that a land acknowledgement resolution will be re-introduced.