Dear WeHo Council: Drop the Land Acknowledgements or Return the City to the Tongva People

Editorial: In a gesture bereft of any integrity, the city’s governing body has since 2020 opened meetings with a boilerplate disclosure about the land on which they are standing.

At a meeting of the West Hollywood City Council, you might be surprised that this particular group of government officials now opens assemblies with a boilerplate disclosure about the history of the land on which their city stands.

“The West Hollywood City Council acknowledges that the land on which we gather and that is currently known as the City of West Hollywood is the occupied, unceded, seized territory of the Gabrieleno Tongva and Gabrieleno Kizh peoples,” is now the official welcome message at the government meetings.

This language was officially introduced to the council after the summer of 2020. Since then, the body has taken steps to make amends with the descendants of the Native American tribes who lived on the land before it was incorporated into what is now the United States by returning West Hollywood to its rightful owners.

Ha! I kid. Could you imagine? The ritual is what we can all plainly see: A toothless and seemingly anodyne way to signal sympathy for a historically oppressed minority that doesn’t require the doing of any actual good.

In a policy guide relating to land acknowledgments, the City of West Hollywood comes awfully close to admitting as much, stating that “land acknowledgments are small gestures and become meaningful when coupled with authentic relationships and informed action.” The document lists three steps they intend(ed) to take, only one of which has anything to do with the land, which is making some of it available to Indigenous groups for “cultural events and gatherings.” I’m not sure what this means. Perhaps something along the lines of, “We apologize for the genocide of your people; please accept these vouchers for free access to the West Hollywood swimming pool.” The other steps involve encouraging indigenous art and culture and general relationship-building with the Indigenous community.

Whether these cultural goals ought to be under the purview of a City Council already seemingly hapless in the face of rampant homelessness and a noticeable exodus of commerce in recent years is a separate but important question. Regardless, none of these aims requires public avowals of complicity in genocide—especially if council members have no actual intention to return the land to its pre–18th Century inhabitants (which, of course, they don’t, because they live here now).

The policy guide contains all sorts of high-minded but baldly phony language. We are told, for instance, after an overview of the expulsion and enslavement of L.A.’s prior inhabitants, that a land acknowledgment is “an expression of gratitude and appreciation to Indigenous peoples whose homelands we currently reside on.” But how can one feel genuine “gratitude” towards a people whose homeland was not gifted, but plundered? How can you say “thank you” for something stolen?

What’s more likely is that the writers of this treatise have confused “gratitude” with “cosmic guilt.” I think this is why some people like land acknowledgments: they reflect a desire to make karmic amends. After all, regardless of the particular history of West Hollywood (which I won’t pretend to be an expert on), it is undeniable that genocide and displacement are a part of the story of America. And it seems that pockets of America—including much of the Los Angeles area—are in a particularly penitent moment. For the relatively well-off—a subset that includes the WeHo City Council—increased awareness of one’s own comfort can come with tremendous shame that so many others who are much less fortunate live lives of struggle on the margins.

A less generous explanation for the introduction of the ritual is that, when it was recommended by the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Subcommittee, no one wanted to risk appearing unsympathetic to the Indigenous population (a group comprising about 0.35% of the West Hollywood population, but no matter). Better to just go along to get along, and anyway, in the words of then-Mayor Lindsay Horvath in 2020: “Acknowledgment is a simple, powerful way of showing recognition and respect[.]”

Personally, I would not feel respected by a person who says, “I am living on your land” while having no intention of giving it back. Personally, I would see through the patronizing, romanticizing language of the “policy guide” like, “the people of these villages managed their lands with a deep respect by cultivating, pruning, seeding, and seasonal burning,” as if basic acts of human survival take on an almost religious quality when performed by a Native American. 

Also implicit in Horvath’s declaration is that not having a land acknowledgment is tantamount to the absence of recognition and respect. This says a lot about how she thinks her fellow Americans might conduct their interpersonal affairs with Indigenous people without the government’s benevolent intervention. Thankfully, we have people like this around, keeping us on our best behavior around the Native Americans with whom we share a country.

Not that the WeHo Council is alone in its fervor to alert their fellow Americans that really bad stuff happened! Only just the other week I was the survivor of a land acknowledgment in the garden of a friend’s house at a Shabbat dinner for queer Jews. Right before the kiddush, we were solemnly informed we were on unceded territory. “Should we leave?” I wanted to ask. A buffet had been laid out; there seemed to be little interest in ceding back the backyard.

I wanted to tell these comfortable people that there is not a single scrap of this earth that hasn’t been fought and killed over, that there were doubtless other people here before the Tongva and Kizh peoples came along and conquered them, and that there are always times of peace and times of horror, and that if you’re not planning on vacating the premises, what is the point of pronouncing yourself a thief of the land?

It’s one thing for private organizations to flagellate themselves like this; it’s another thing to have a governing body begin official meetings by announcing they’re occupying stolen territory. The pointlessness of the language is particularly obvious when you consider the perfect (and of course unremarked-upon) irony that item two of the Weho City Council meeting agenda, after the “land acknowledgment,” is the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s right, first, we declare our country the product of ethnic cleansing; then we pledge fealty to the fruits of that genocide. 

As a result, we now have WeHo City Council meetings that start off on a note of unadulterated bullshit. Who can take anything that happens after such an opening seriously? Who can take any of these people seriously? They’re either completely illegitimate (given that they say we are on stolen land) or the council is being run by transparently insincere hypocrites.

It may be catching. The idea of instituting land acknowledgments at government functions is also endorsed by a subcommittee of the LA Mayor’s Office “Civic Memory Working Group” that was assembled, evidently, to “consider whether the City of Los Angeles should adopt an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement policy.” (Must’ve been a real nail-biter.) The body’s consensus turned out to be “yes,” though they are careful to note that one ought to “avoid land acknowledgments that are perfunctory…” I have yet to hear a land acknowledgment that is not perfunctory—perhaps because one cannot meaningfully grapple with America’s conflicting mythologies in the space of a few scripted sentences intoned as a matter of policy.

Even if a land acknowledgment doesn’t go so far as to say, “We are on stolen territory,” the very idea of a land acknowledgment suggests a revelation of an underreported truth. But every halfway educated American—certainly the kinds of folks civically engaged enough to attend a City Council meeting—is aware that American society displaced Native American civilization. Our country’s genocidal past is established history, not a newly unearthed discovery about which we must be reminded every time we gather in groups. 

Unfortunately, it seems we are in the midst of a moral project that is being utterly mangled by some of its enactors. Recent years have brought a wave of awareness that dominant American narratives often exclude particular racial and cultural subgroups. There’ve been positive steps to remedy that—for instance, in the increased interest in indigenous stories on television and in cultural discourse generally. These developments have occurred at least somewhat organically and, to my knowledge, without the government stepping in to remind us of our wretched history with respect to indigenous peoples.

The overreach isn’t limited to cloying moralizing at council meetings; if the City’s “policy guide” is to be taken at face value, it unabashedly requires that civic functions begin with pablum: the “…Land Acknowledgment should be…[r]ead or spoken aloud at all public meetings, City events, and gatherings.” This amounts, quite plainly, to compelled speech. This means that not only is the WeHo City Council voluntarily debasing itself by uttering words they plainly don’t mean, it’s mandating that everyone else under its jurisdiction do the same. There’s a Constitutional amendment that would like a word with these people.

Even if everything contained in the land acknowledgment is literally true (I don’t know if it is, and I don’t necessarily trust the research of the people who are pushing this ritual), it has no business pervading our social and civic lives. After all, there are a host of statements one could choose to ritually proclaim before any gathering. You might give thanks, for instance, for all that is good in the world. You might pray. You might ask, I suppose, for the grace to view each other as equals, and to treat each other accordingly.

There’s a lot you could say to a gathering of people assembled, hopefully, in a spirit of common humanity. Reminding everyone of the human capacity for genocide does not make the top of my list. Does it make the top of yours?

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