For almost 20 years, Professor Jeffrey Shepherd has been teaching history at the University of Texas at El Paso. As the chair of the department and a professor with a keen knowledge of Native American studies, he noticed that the school wasn’t recognizing an important part of its identity.
The university resides on Indigenous lands.
Across the nation, universities have publicly recognized their ties to Native American lands and history. One of those ways of recognition is through a land acknowledgement.
“Land acknowledgements are public statements sometimes written and posted on public sites that acknowledge an awareness of and knowledge of Indigenous histories and Indigenous ties and claims to a particular place,” Shepherd said.
Acknowledgements also are typically recited during university events like commencement and graduation.
For almost two years, a group of UTEP professors and students have been working on getting the land acknowledgment written, passed and signed by President Heather Wilson.
“The faculty senate approved it,” Shepherd said. “So we need to have some meetings with the president. My understanding is that she’s interested in supporting this, but she’s also very interested in policies and initiatives for students.”
UTEP declined to comment for this story.
With the faculty senate approval, the College of Liberal Arts has posted the acknowledgement on its site and hopes other colleges and departments follow.
The UTEP campus primarily resides on Apache and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo lands but also on various other Indigenous nations’ lands.
“It’s one step in confronting a past that has typically been swept under the rug,” Shepherd said.
Land acknowledgements in higher education institutions are common. In 2020, New Mexico State University and the University of Texas at Austin approved their land acknowledgement statements that can be found on their school sites.
“As the flagship institution in our state university system, it is important that The University of Texas at Austin demonstrate respect for the historic and contemporary presence of Indigenous Peoples in Texas and, particularly, in the greater Austin area,” reads the UT Austin acknowledgement.
Shepherd said there are some essential elements of acknowledgement statements: stating that the lands are Indigenous, stating who claims the lands and any future work to address Indigenous communities.
“Saying that this was Indigenous land once raises awareness for some people,” he said. “It gets them to think about the history of this place and depending on what else the land acknowledgement says, that might be the core takeaway.”
The idea of having a university land acknowledgement came after discussions of Indigenous rights became the forefront of national media, Shepherd said.
“After the Standing Rock protests, awareness of Indigenous rights in the United States has become more prominent in general public awareness,” Shepherd said.
In 2016, the Dakota access pipeline stirred national attention as people protested the construction of a 1,000-mile oil pipeline across Indigenous lands.
Shepherd also said that movements like Black Lives Matter and the take down of historical monuments across the nation have been ongoing efforts to recognize the effects of history.
“These contemporary movements are part of a reckoning with our history and our violent sort of racist history,” he said. “Land acknowledgement statements are becoming more prominent within this sort of ecosystem of activism and hopefully (in) policy change and altering our education.”
With the help of Professor Yolanda Leyva, a Chicana historian, and student group ARISE, along with numerous other faculty members, it was decided that UTEP needed to acknowledge its Indigenous history.
“I hope the land acknowledgement builds a bridge to discuss the academic and socio-economic needs of tribes,” Patricia Riggs said, a Tigua Native and Indigenous consultant who helped with the creation of the land acknowledgement.
“Perhaps land acknowledgement can also bring together an understanding of the impacts of land encroachment to native communities and their strive for cultural continuity in a contemporary world,” she said.
Cheyanne Lozano, a founding member of ARISE, agreed that the acknowledgement is a step in not only accepting Indigenous history but also their continuous presence in the world.
“This land acknowledgment is coming from that mindset that the university is built on, the place that El Paso is, comes from people or it was important and central to the people that lived here before,” Lozano said. “It’s acknowledging, even though some of those groups have been moved, relocated, or they’re not recognized even by their city or by the state, were here and you were chased off.”
In 2012, Lozano founded ARISE, the academic revival of Indigenous studies and education.
“I wanted to have a space where Indigenous students could learn and get support and help,” Lozano said.
Lozano, who identifies as Navajo Indian and Mexican American, said that the group is also open to those who aren’t Indigenous but are curious to learn more. The current president, Veronica Cruz, identifies as Hispanic but not as Indigenous.
“There were a lot of things that I learned that I never knew before and it was because of the American education system, unfortunately,” Cruz said. “I’ve learned a lot about the Indigenous communities here in Texas and their culture.”
Since starting ARISE, Lozano said the land acknowledgement is one of the biggest achievements that the group has undertaken.
“When you look up the history department (site) they have all their descriptions and then there at the bottom is the land acknowledgement and it’s beautiful,” Lozano said.
In comparison to previous years, the passing of the land acknowledgement was easily accepted and approved. In 2016, ARISE and other faculty members attempted to have Indigenous People’s Day recognized on Oct. 11, which is federally recognized as Christopher Columbus Day.
“We had argued with UTEP about trying to get Indigenous People’s Day, instead of Columbus Day,” Lozano said. “We just wanted something simple and it turned into a big hot mess.”
Lozano said that there were various disputes among the faculty senate when the idea was proposed and ultimately was not accepted.
“We really wanted UTEP to recognize Indigenous People’s Day and for it to be on the UTEP calendars or on people’s syllabuses. We didn’t want the day off, we didn’t want anything special — we just wanted to have it in writing.”
Five years later, Lozano said the school attitude towards a new and different Native American acknowledgement is like day and night.
“I think it really spoke volumes of how things had changed in just a couple years,” Lozano said. “It was so wonderful and quickly accepted.”
Shepherd, who also helped with the Indigenous People’s Day effort, said the election of a new senate may have helped with the changing tones towards Indigenous efforts.
According to the UTEP faculty senate site, a senator serves two years.
Another internal change was the arrival of Dean Denis O’Hearn of the College of Liberal Arts.
“Dr. O’Hearn has an Indigenous ancestry and so it’s something important to him,” Lozano said about the dean. “One of the first things he did was talk to us, talk to Dr. Shepherd, and made a point of saying he wants to help.”
When walking into the dean’s office, a dreamcatcher can be seen hanging in the window. With a Unangan or Native Alaskan family background, O’Hearn said he strives to represent his indigenious heritage.
“I do think it’s important that people who are in public life don’t just talk about the fact that ‘hey, I’m Dennis,’ but also say ‘well, I had a grandmother named Maria, and a great grandmother named Evdokiia and this is who they were,’” O’Hearn said of his family background.
O’Hearn said he has recognized his Indigenous background in speeches to students and faculty members. He also helped with the passing of the land acknowledgement but believes there are more steps to achieve.
“I think we have to have a full-fledged Indigenous Studies program,” O’Hearn said. “We have to begin to teach more courses about Indigenous history, Indigenous life, etc, or which recognize and take those things into account.”
Shepherd agrees and said alongside the land acknowledgement, other initiatives were proposed to UTEP on how they can better help Indigenous students.
“We need to take an active role in recruitment and retention of Native students and faculty,” Shepherd said. “So my hope for the land acknowledgement is that it’s a first step and a longer sort of path but this should not be a decades-long struggle.”
Cover photo: Cheyanne Lozano, a UTEP alumna and incoming graduate student, is a founding member of the student organization ARISE, which advocated for UTEP to adopt an Indigenous land acknowledgement statement. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)