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UTEP approves formal acknowledgment that its campus sits on Indigenous land

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The University of Texas at El Paso has approved a formal acknowledgement that recognizes that the campus resides on Indigenous lands.

The official announcement is expected Monday, said Jeffrey Shepherd, a history professor at UTEP and a leading voice in the effort to get the land acknowledgement approved. Monday is a federal holiday officially proclaimed by President Joe Biden as Indigenous Peoples’ Day

“The president (Heather Wilson) approves it, the provost approves it, the Faculty Senate approves it,” Shepherd said.

For the past two years, Shepherd and a team of UTEP professors, students and community members that includes the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo have been working on getting the acknowledgement written and approved by UTEP administrators.

“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 told El Paso Matters in August.

The university’s Faculty Senate approved the acknowledgement in May and the team has since been waiting for the official approval from Wilson. Various departments at the university have already posted the acknowledgement on their webpages in support of the proclamation.

Shepherd said the news was delivered to him by John Wiebe, the university’s provost, and his team of administrators on Friday.

Professor Jeffrey Shepherd, chair of UTEP’s History Department, specializes in Indigenous peoples’ history. He has served as the faculty advisor for ARISE since its founding in 2014. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“The next step will be a series of meetings between the university ad hoc committee and a working group of community members that contributed to the statement,” Shepherd said. “We’ll have some meetings and talk about the timelines over the next couple of years” to further acknowledge Indigenous students at UTEP.

Although Wilson wasn’t in attendance to present the news of the approval, Wiebe told Shepherd she is eager to create initiatives that support Native American and Indigenous students.

Some of the initiatives include recruitment of and financial scholarships for Native American students.

Shepherd said the details about how UTEP will publicly address the acknowledgement are still being worked out. But he also said that this is just the first step in addressing Native American student representation within higher education.

“This is an exhilarating affirmation that UTEP has dedicated itself to improving the educational experiences of Native students and a dedication to community building and outreach as Indigenous peoples are part of this community,” Shepherd said. “It was really a positive affirmation of what we can do here.”

In light of public awareness about Native American issues, universities across the nation have increased their acknowledgement of the cultural ties they have to Indigenous communities. Last year the University of Texas at Austin and New Mexico State University created and approved their own land acknowledgement statements.

Before receiving the university’s approval, Shepherd said he and a student group called ARISE, which stands for Academic Revival of Indigenous Studies and Education, read the text of the official acknowledgement on Centennial Plaza and invited passing students to learn more about the efforts.

“We printed copies of the statement and had speakers and microphones set up and went through rounds of explaining ARISE, explaining Indigenous Peoples’ Day, (giving the) land acknowledgement explanation and then invited people to read the statement,” Shepherd said.

ARISE students perform a Round Dance, a social Tigua dance, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Cheyanne Lozano)

Shepherd said a lot of students were surprised that they didn’t know about the land acknowledgment or that the school resides on Indigenous lands.

ARISE plans on announcing later Monday that the acknowledgement has been approved, Shepherd said. He also said the university plans on announcing as well.

And in light of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Shepherd said the College of Liberal Arts, ARISE, El Paso Community College and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo have collaborated and planned week-long virtual discussions on Indigenous issues.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Cover photo: ARISE student members construct a teepee for Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the UTEP campus in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Cheyanne Lozano)

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Jewél Jackson

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, through a partnership with Open Campus Media. She is a 2020 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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