When my partner and I discussed the elements we'd like to see in our wedding ceremony, a land acknowledgment was one of the first things that came to mind. If you've attended some form of government or publicly sponsored event in Canada recently, this may already be familiar to you. Before beginning an activity, the historic and present affiliation of the region is verbally recognized by whoever is facilitating as the ancestral territory of the local First People. Wait, what? If this isn't something that happens where you live, fear not! Here's a short introduction.
At first encounter, European colonizers did not find the terra nullius, or “nobody's land,” that they considered North America to be. Rather, flourishing and long-standing societies with diverse and distinct cultural practices, knowledge, and belief systems were already well in place. First Peoples in Canada include First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, and many of these groups signed treaties with settlers that were later dishonored or outright broken by the latter.
Although terminology varies by region, a similar story unfolded in the United States, as well as other parts of the so-called New World. As non-Indigenous residents seized control and formed what would become dominions of the British Empire, vastly damaging and institutionalized racist policies wreaked havoc.
From residential schools rife with abuse, to legal disenfranchisement, to the Potlatch Ban, and beyond, only recently have the atrocities of the past few centuries begun to be addressed.
So, what does this have to do with your wedding?
A wedding land acknowledgment is an expressive gesture of reconciliation, respect, and goodwill. Many non-Indigenous Canadians (and Americans, Australians, et cetera) are unaware of the legacy of colonialization, or its stifling and pervasive presence today. Taking pause to reflect upon the land's special relationship with the First People who hold its stewardship is a way of raising awareness of their historical, legal, and rightful claim. It also presents an opportunity to thank the host First People for their hospitality towards you and your guests during this momentous occasion.
Neither of us has Indigenous ancestry, so my partner and I contacted an Elder to approve our wording. An Elder is typically a senior individual who is charged with the safekeeping and dissemination of traditional knowledge. Universities are a good place to find a contact from your local First People, if a band administration, tribal council, or similar organization is unavailable.
In some situations, an Elder or other person may wish to attend your ceremony themselves, in which case they can welcome attendees in person. If you're lucky enough to experience this, make sure you're aware of proper protocol and etiquette. A small honorarium, donation, or gift of some kind is often a polite way of giving thanks. You can check in with Indigenous or local government or educational institutions for more information.
Our ceremony took place in a provincial park that is under the jurisdiction of First People. However, if your venue is on contested land, you may describe it in your acknowledgment as “unceded territory,” which means that the land was never surrendered or otherwise relinquished to colonial power. Determining the status of the location in question is a chance to uncover and better understand a significant aspect of human history that's been hitherto swept under the rug.
Here is how we began our wedding land acknowledgment:
“Welcome family and friends. Paul and Alexis would like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, who have been stewards to this land since time immemorial, and we extend our thanks for this hospitality.”
Although I write from a Canadian perspective, wherein land acknowledgments are becoming more commonplace, in this small action, you and your partner can contribute to a greater narrative of recognizing Indigenous rights that is gaining momentum all over the world.
Taking the time to affirm ancestral territory during what may be one of the most solemn and joyous ceremonies of your life sends a bold message, and yet it's also a force for normalizing the dialogue surrounding how colonization continues to affect us all.
This act of recognition is a sober, yet hopeful statement of solidarity, regard, and community.
What could be more appropriate in celebrating a marriage?