SRU recognizes Indigenous people with land acknowledgment statement
Slippery Rock University has adopted a new land acknowledgment statement that will be used by students, faculty, staff and visitors to recognize the previous land occupants of the campus and surrounding area.
Nov. 20, 2023
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — November is National Native American Heritage Month, and at Slippery Rock University there's an observance of Indigenous people that will go beyond a span of 30 days each year. Through a shared-governance effort between SRU administration and faculty, the University has adopted a new land acknowledgment statement that will be used permanently by students, faculty, staff and visitors to recognize the previous land occupants of the campus and surrounding area.
"This is an important step to recognize the history of our campus and create a better relationship with Indigenous people," said Anthony Jones, who leads SRU's Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. "We have a responsibility to acknowledge our history and strive toward creating a more inclusive world into the future. This doesn't happen by simply reading a statement, but it is a start of what we hope is continued awareness, conversations and action between the University and Indigenous communities."
In addition to publicly supporting Indigenous people, SRU's land acknowledgment statement was established so that campus groups have a consistent message that is approved by the University if they choose to use one. The statement may be spoken at the beginning of public gatherings or meetings, or published in event programs, syllabi or other documents.
SRU's land acknowledgment statement reads as follows:
"Slippery Rock University recognizes and acknowledges the Indigenous people of this land where we teach, learn and grow: the Seneca, Erie, Lenni Lenape and Susquehannock, among other unknown and forgotten communities. Today, the Seneca Nation of Indians, part of the Hodinöhšönih -- the Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) -- is the only remaining Nation from this area to retain any land in the region. Let this acknowledgment be an opportunity for us all to contemplate our responsibilities as current occupants of this land."
Many people contributed to the writing and approval of SRU's land acknowledgment statement, including input from the Three Rivers Tribal Council in Pittsburgh and Joe Stahlman, a researcher and director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in New York. The process started in 2019 when a group of SRU faculty worked with the local chapter of the faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, and its Social Justice Committee.
Aksel Casson, an associate professor of anthropology and archaeology, was a member of that committee. Casson worked closely with Frederick White, associate professor of languages, literatures, cultures and writing; Bill Bergmann, associate professor of history; Becky Thomas, associate professor of professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy; and Melissa Borgia-Askey, a former instructor of English who was involved with SRU's Native American Studies Series. Earlier this year, the APSCUF Social Justice Committee, led by Timothy Little Tran, an assistant professor of music, worked with University administrators to get the statement approved.
"The goal is that our land acknowledgment statement will be a signal to the groups in our area that we are ready to collaborate and form better partnerships (with Indigenous people)," Casson said. "Western cultures, in general, have struggled with reconciling the past, even centuries later. Institutions that create land acknowledgments are recognizing that we are occupying land that might be unceded, given by treaty or the result of violence, but most certainly land that has a complicated past."
SRU's land acknowledgment statement covers a broad description of native communities from what is now western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley.
"This region is poorly understood as to who was here in the contact era with Europeans," said Bergmann, referring to the time up until the early 1700s when Europeans arrived in western Pennsylvania. "The consequences of their presence (in North America) would have come before they did because of many reasons including disease, which was always ahead of the physical presence of any Europeans in this area. By the time Europeans came through western Pennsylvania, many (native peoples) were not around anymore, and surviving communities had reorganized or had been absorbed into other communities."
According to Bergmann, the archaeological record suggests that the area around SRU was surrounded by larger groups, such as the Huron to the north around Lake Erie, and the Monongahelas who were closer to present-day Pittsburgh.
Bergmann teaches two SRU classes - Native American History and Pennsylvania History - that address indigenous peoples that were once in the area around campus. Casson teaches Archaeology in the Americas and has led excavation projects that uncovered 4,000-year-old artifacts indicating the short-term occupations of Indigenous people near Slippery Rock. White also teaches Native American Literature and is the chair of SRU's Native American Cultures Series. He previously led programming on campus where members of the Three Rivers Tribal Council presented and performed.
Students from the First Nations Club, a student organization whose mission is to support students of Indigenous backgrounds at SRU and educate allies about contemporary Indigenous issues, were also involved in the development of the statement.
Alexes Gomez, a senior social work major from Uniontown and the First Nations president, was the first person to read SRU's land acknowledgment statement at a public event. Gomez read the statement at the start of the presidential inauguration ceremony, Nov. 3, in the Performing Arts Center.
The First Nations Club organized a visit to the Seneca Iroquois National Museum, Nov. 13, in Salamanca, New York, and approximately 30 SRU students attended.
SRU is planning to provide an audio and video recording of the land acknowledgment statement that will be available to the campus community for people to play at their events.
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