By CARLEY CAMPBELL
The Montclarion

The Montclair State University Senate is recommending the school formally recognize its campus sits on the traditional territory of the Lenape people, noting their "displacement, dispossession and continued presence as part of a larger effort to decolonize the university."

The three-page-long draft of a land acknowledgement statement, available for the public to view on the Montclair State website under “Recommendations, Statements and Resolutions,” contains information related to the indigenous tribes that occupied the land before Montclair State University.

The recommendation is the first step to a formal acknowledgment, and it is being brought to university President Jonathan Koppell for consideration.

This effort began in 2019 during the presidency of Susan Cole, at the urging of tribal leaders and activists.

Montclair State University joins other institutions such as Michigan State University, Northwestern University and the University of British Columbia in acknowledging the lands they occupy.

“I think the reason it found support in the [University] Senate is that people wanted to both recognize the history of expropriation and recognize the current realities of Indigenous communities, in all their complexity,” Erik Jacobson, the body's president, said. “I believe the statement can play an educational role and it invites reflection that hopefully leads to action.”

Jacobson added that the statement will be read at certain meetings and events to spread awareness.

“This includes at the start of a semester or class, before public meetings and performances,” Jacobson said. “We are also recommending that copies of the statement be placed in a few public spaces around campus, both indoor and outdoor. We believe this will increase its visibility and impact.

Andrew Mees, the university spokesperson, said the school supports the University Senate's efforts.

“The university is supportive of a land acknowledgement, and we will work with the University Senate to develop a statement sensitive to the issues rightfully raised by the tribes,” Mees said.

Elspeth Martini, a history professor focusing on Native American history and the chair for the University Senate's Land Acknowledgement Committee, helped lead the proposed changes.

“The process has taken so long because rather than having a token statement to be read out at campus events, etc., we wanted it to be a commitment from our institution to working with and for [New Jersey] Native communities,” Martini said.

Once the statement is finalized, it will appear on screens throughout campus "along with a more general publicity blitz," Martini said. A reflection garden may be created as well.

Daine Ocampo Martinez, a senior linguistics major and moderator of a meeting related to the land acknowledgement back in November 2021, said there is more that can be done in the linguistics department related to Indigenous heritage.

“I think the next step should be adding more classes about Indigenous history and culture that are written and told by Indigenous people,” Ocampo Martinez said. “Even working on Indigenous language classes [would be great]. We have to learn European languages. Why not a language that is native to this land?”

The university had issues with Indigenous sensitivity in the past. In January 2021, artist Emily Johnson wrote on Medium alleging an abusive work environment involving the executive director of Peak Performances, saying she was berated when she tried to negotiate outreach programs for Indigenous people. She had called for a land acknowledgement, as well as for reparations.

Johnson said in her letter she’d hoped that with PEAK Performances’ help, “we might create new pathways for relationships with other Indigenous artists and generate processes — like with the First Nations students on campus — that the larger institution could follow.”

She wrote that she’d asked for “a personal commitment to a decolonisation process.”

In 1989, the university changed its mascot to a Red Hawk after controversy over the use of an Indigenous caricature for a mascot. The school briefly mentions the athletic department’s adoption of a new mascot in a timeline available on the school’s website but does not explain why this change was made.

The move to create a land acknowledgement is one that some say has come too late, including Mari Zuniga, a senior communications and media arts major.

“It’s far too late, but at least they are trying to change things,” Zuniga said.

The acknowledgement, as well as minutes for meetings, are available on the University Senate website.

This story is by Montclair State University student Carley Campbell, originally for the Montclarion, with some additions by Montclair Local. The story is produced with permission from the Montclarion’s editors. The original version appears here.