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Pima County Supes consider adding Native land acknowledgement to meetings

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on whether to read a land acknowledgment before their public meetings and events. The statement would recognize the history of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes, who have lived in the area since before the establishment of Arizona's current government structures.

The suggestion came in late December from Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, whose District 5 covers parts of Southeast Tucson including the Pascua Yaqui reservation. The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, where Grijalva also serves as a member, has land acknowledgments read by students before meetings.

“I just think it really is a wonderful acknowledgement at the beginning of every meeting acknowledging that the lands that we’re on are the ancestral homelands of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes,” Grijalva said in a recap of the County Board’s Jan.4 meeting, when the item came up again.

The supervisors would read a statement before the Pledge of Allegiance, according to Grijalva’s proposal, to “acknowledge that Pima County is the land and territories of Indigenous peoples,” according to the language put on the agenda for this Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Today, Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes, with Tucson being home to the O’odham and the Yaqui. Committed to diversity and inclusion, Pima County strives to build sustainable relationships with sovereign Native Nations and Indigenous communities through education offerings, partnerships, and community service,” it reads.

At the Jan. 4 board meeting, Grijalva said that she received a message of support for the proposal from Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio but was waiting to hear back from Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. Both she and Chairwoman Sharon Bronson, whose District 3 includes all of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, said during the meeting that they were sure Norris would support the motion.

Despite several requests for comment, Norris didn't respond questions from TucsonSentinel.com about the move.

The Pascua Yaqui are often forgotten, Yucupicio said, and land acknowledgement statements remind people of their history.

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"You always would think of —first of all — the Tohono O’odham, the Apache and all the other tribes that were in this region, but the Yaqui have always been here also along with the other tribes," he said. "That's the beauty of where we're at today, acknowledging not only us but all the tribes that have survived in this part of the south of what's become Arizona."

Yucupicio said the statement would also show the tribes and the county continue to "work together in the region to help everybody and this just shows how well we’re cooperating and working with (the county board) on a lot of things."

Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, who grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation and remains involved with them and the Pascua Yaqui, said in a statement that “land acknowledgments are an important way to learn about and honor the local Indigenous communities in the area.”

“Creating a statement pushes organizations, universities and even governments to interact more with the Indigenous community whose traditional lands they occupy,” her statement reads. “It creates an opportunity to learn more about the true history of the region. It serves as a reminder to the folks in the room that if there are no Indigenous people in the room, there’s more work to do. Most importantly, it is a reminder to all that despite genocide, relocation and colonization, we’re still here and we always will be.”

Although various Apache tribes had a long-standing presence in Southern Arizona before the late 19th century, those groups aren't included in any local land acknowledgments.

The lone Republican on the board, Supervisor Steve Christy, whose District 4 stretches from East Side Tucson to Vail and Green Valley, opposed parts of Grijalva's proposal — even asking if it was legal when it was first presented. However, Christy told the Sentinel that he doesn’t oppose the proposal but said “I don’t feel the necessity of enshrining it in a carved-out stone that has to be read out at every single meeting,” which he said could be divisive.

Christy also pointed out that the Board of Supervisors display Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui flags behind their dais “at every meeting and all meeting long.” Similarly, he also noted that meetings give opportunities for members to give statements regarding any topic that can be made at any time, suggesting that the land acknowledgement statement can be made that way instead of through policy.

“I have kind of a fundamental problem that I don’t understand how this form of an acknowledgement that is being presented lifts or improves the quality of life for all the residents of Pima County,” he said. “How does it bring our county together? It seems to be placing one community over all the others, and I don’t think that that is a proper way or a proper message to be sent to our community while we’re struggling with such polarization right now.”

Christy offered to compromise and collaborate with Grijalva in drafting an alternative proposal that would have the statement read at events like ceremonies or anniversaries and displayed at educational and tourist venues as opposed to being read at every meeting.

The city of Tempe adopted a statement in January last year recognizing the land in their jurisdiction as “culturally affiliated with the O’odham, Piipaash and their ancestors” but left out a requirement to read the statement before every meeting. Christy sees the language of their resolution as a suitable alternative, he said, and submitted it for the board to consider on Tuesday.

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In October, The Conversation published an op-ed by anthropologists reviewing land acknowledgments and related practices. Land acknowledgements, they wrote, can "unintentionally communicate false ideas about the history of dispossession and the current realities."

“No data exists to demonstrate that land acknowledgments lead to measurable, concrete change,” the op-ed reads. “Instead, they often serve as little more than feel-good public gestures signaling ideological conformity to what historians Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder have called – in the context of higher education’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts – ‘a naïve, left-wing, paint-by-numbers approach’ to social justice…If an acknowledgment is discomforting and triggers uncomfortable conversations versus self-congratulation, it is likely on the right track.”

The University of Arizona adopted a land acknowledgement statement in the summer of last year that is now read at events like guest speakers, and TUSD started reading their land acknowledgement statements at the start of board meetings in February 2021. The city of Tucson does not have a land acknowledgment statement read at meetings, nor have they recently been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, although they do have an invocation.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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