In 1892, David Ross Boyd, OU’s first president, stepped off the train in what would become Norman, Oklahoma. Before him lay a vast expanse of flat prairie, undeveloped and devoid of trees.
Despite his barren surroundings, Boyd made one exclamation — “What possibilities!”
This is the story of OU’s founding that most of the university’s students know, shared on campus tours and on OU’s official website.
Recent efforts from OU’s Native American community and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion aim to complete that story, though, by acknowledging that the Oklahoma prairies Boyd arrived on were already home to dozens of Native nations.
On Sept. 27, OU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a town hall where students were invited to share input on the adoption of a university land acknowledgment statement. At the town hall, students said a land acknowledgment statement is an important part of acknowledging and preserving their tribes’ histories while also educating others.
Another town hall on the subject to hear opinions from faculty and staff was held in early November, said Warren Queton, OU tribal liaison and citizen of the Kiowa Tribe.
“It's something we're working through as a community first, before we start going out to the larger community and asking their buy-in and their feedback — it starts with the people who it really affects,” Queton said. “We want it to be educational. We want it to increase awareness, but we also want to advocate for the well-being of our Native communities.”
A land acknowledgment statement is “a formal statement that recognizes and respects Native peoples as traditional stewards of lands,” according to the University of Connecticut’s Native American Cultural Programs website. Many universities across the United States, including the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, have adopted the practice.
The statements are often read at official university functions and incorporated into the events of other student organizations and communities.
Prior to the Black Emergency Response Team’s Sept. 25 press conference, the organization read a prepared land acknowledgment statement. Other groups and events in the past semester have also incorporated land acknowledgment statements.
“I hope that the land acknowledgment brings awareness not only to whose land this was, but to change the narrative of how this university came to be,” said Emma Allen, a third-year doctoral student, president of the OU Indigenous Graduate Students Alliance and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “Beyond that, though, I hope it makes people think about the history of the university, Norman, the state of Oklahoma and this country.”
Queton said university leadership — including interim OU President Joseph Harroz and former interim Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Jane Irungu — has supported moving forward with adopting a statement for OU.
The process of creating a land acknowledgment statement for OU is particularly unique, Queton said, because of Oklahoma’s history as a home for tribes native to the area, tribes that migrated to the region later and tribes that were forcefully removed to what was then Indian Territory.
“We're acknowledging and going through those conversations because it's a complex process, and we want to make sure we're being respectful of the communities,” Queton said. “Hearing their thoughts, their views on land acknowledgment first because, ultimately, we want to be more inclusive of our American Indian community.”
To ensure as many voices are heard as possible, Queton said he has traveled to speak with tribal leadership across Oklahoma and its border states.
Nichole Boyd, director of the Native American House at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the community has engaged well with their land acknowledgment statement, which was adopted in 2018.
“The goal was to really provide a land acknowledgment as an example, or as an outline that people could use within the institution to write their own,” Boyd said. “What's been really unique (and) awesome is that while we wanted to provide an outline for the campus, we ended up also providing an outline for the community.”
Members of the community have reached out and expressed interest in incorporating a statement into numerous events, including at church group events and across various student organizations on campus, Boyd said.
A land acknowledgment statement is an important first step, Boyd said, but the goals of institutions adopting them should extend to ensuring the community is “living” the values expressed in the statement by providing resources and spaces for Native American students, encouraging Native American scholarship and reversing erasure of tribal history.
Allen also challenged universities that adopt land acknowledgment statements to further pursue ways to positively impact their Native communities.
“These institutions should go beyond simple platitudes into real action,” Allen said. “How are these institutions connecting and establishing relationships with Native nations? How are they addressing the history — socially and politically?”
Part of putting the statement into practice should focus on how the university tells the story of its founding, Queton said.
“When you tell the story of David Ross Boyd, you can say that when David Ross Boyd came to Indian Territory, there were already people that were here,” Queton said. “Acknowledge that there were indigenous people that were here — people that migrated here, people that were moved here, just putting that into a simple (campus) tour would help educate and raise awareness because, as a freshman student, you may not even know what Oklahoma means or stands for.”
Another potential way to advance the land acknowledgment statement’s mission of education could be to provide more curriculum opportunities at OU for people to learn the history of Oklahoma’s Native people, Queton said.
“That true history is not being taught in our public school education systems,” Queton said. “We want people to acknowledge that there's an American Indian history that people are benign to. Things like what has happened to our Native communities, and what is continuing to happen to our Native communities.”
But Queton said he does not want to “make it something awkward,” and aims to be respectful of the broader community while also allowing opportunities for those outside the Native American community to understand and reflect.
While it may seem like a small event to some, the adoption and reading of a land acknowledgment statement can have a powerful impact for Native American communities by acknowledging their historical identities and beliefs, Queton said.
“It's important to understand that — and I want to make this very clear — American Indian communities, we are connected to the land,” Queton said. “Every tribe has a deep connection to the land, because it has sustained us throughout our lifetime. We have a historical connection to place that is a major part of our worldview ... We are sovereign nations, we are indigenous to this land, and we are connected to this land.”
Allen said she hopes adopting a land acknowledgment statement at OU will lead to a future of stronger cooperation between educational institutions in the state and the Native people they exist alongside.
“Acknowledging that this place, this land, is a home — was a home — prior to David Ross Boyd’s arrival is more than just an acknowledgment,” Allen said. “It’s about telling the real history, regardless of how awful it may be. It means people like me are seen, not erased. Hopefully, it leads to more dialogue and future collaborations between these institutions and Native nations."