I first encountered the practice of Land Acknowledgement some 20 years ago in New Zealand. Like with so many things, it took a long time for the U.S. to catch on (Canada behind New Zealand, but ahead of us), but in the last year or two, the idea has spread until it seems to be the norm in many places. Better late than never.
Yet as with so many things, good ideas start to feel routine and as people recite or read in bland, TV newscaster voices, I wonder how many present are really feeling the impact and the import of it. It can feel like an obligation to tick off and back to business as usual. As a musician and teacher of music, it feels to me like it should have a jazz flair, the sense that each time we come to the same song, we bring our whole self to it and express it from the depths of our feeling. That we hear the words with our heart as well as our ears. That the assembled group take a genuine moment to reflect on what that means and how that sense of privilege that allowed folks to steal land without a trace of shame is still playing out in the world in a thousand different ways.
This year at our Summer Orff Course will be the first time we have included the acknowledgement in our Opening Ceremony, and being who we are, we took it one step farther. All the credit goes to my colleague Sofia Lopez-Ibor, who remembered that we had performed together with some Ohlone people at a World Music Festival. So she contacted them, offered them some recompense and invited them to lead the acknowledgment with a traditional song and dance. It was a lovely sharing of songs, a gentle reminder of whom we owe our presence to and a blessing of sorts from the Ancestors as we do the work of healing.
This got me thinking, “Why stop here?” If we are here living on land never ceded to us, we are also here benefiting economically from the labor of enslaved Africans who never agreed to do our work for free. We are also benefitting culturally from their extraordinary artistic achievements without ever feeling like we owed something for the privilege of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and hundreds (if not thousands) American geniuses who virtually defined our cultural soundscape.
And so I invited Tom Pierre, our extraordinary black singer here as a movement apprentice to represent by singing a Field Holler, to charge the air with a Labor Acknowledgement for beyond a few scripted sentences. He did and it was every bit as powerful as I knew it would be, bringing another set of Ancestors into the room.
The faculty then sang a three-part Ukranian folk-song about welcoming guests into the home, in solidarity with these fellow human beings suffering so much from the brutal excesses of power.
Now we were ready to begin our course.
I believe each of the 90 people present felt it all to the depth of their Soul: “This is not business as usual. This is not a show about being woke. This is the real deal, asking all to feel far beyond the norm, to consider deeper than “Oh well, what can I do?,” to pause and then enter this two-week community with the full force of their determination to not only learn how to serve the children they teach better than they have, but to awaken more fully to how to serve the new culture of caring we are trying to create. Our presence here is the meeting point of the Ancestors and the Descendants and we brought them all into the room to join us, as appropriate.
And so off we go.