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The Dissonance of a Land Acknowledgment at the Oscars

Māori director Taika Waititi's speech signaled a first for the Academy, but it's on the non-Indigenous audience to take the second step.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

There is something obviously insane about Parasite, a Korean film about the violence of wealth inequality, winning the top honor at an event that sends its honored guests home with $225,000 gift bags. (Highlights included $20,000 of “facial rejuvenation treatments” and a 24-carat-gold-plated vape.) But that level of dissonance is kind of Hollywood’s thing.

You could see the same conflict at play when Māori director and writer Taika Waititi collected the hardware for best adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. “I dedicate this to all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories,” he said in his speech, sending up a beacon for Indigenous artists in the lily-white space of the Academy. “We are the original storytellers, and we can make it here, as well.” While presenting later in the evening, Waititi also offered a land acknowledgment, letting the audience know that they were “gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, Tataviam, and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first people of this land on which our motion picture community lives and works.”

In less than 20 seconds, standing before an industry that considers Native people so narrowly, Waititi forced a moment of recognition: that Hollywood is literally built on stolen land and broken treaties. Acknowledging the acknowledgment for Slate on Sunday night, Dan Kois wrote that “it’s meaningful to address colonialism so overtly in an institutional context, and to have Waititi on the televisions of millions of people around the world saying those words will hopefully resonate for a long time.”

This is true, but the next question becomes: How do you make the land acknowledgment meaningful in this context? A first step that comes with a second step from the non-Indigenous audience about actually respecting sovereignty and marshaling resources in service of it. Because without that, land acknowledgments like Waititi’s, necessary as they are, do what Hollywood has made millions from: They situate us in the past, out of sight and out of mind, save for when a show of good faith is needed.

While they are now routine in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, land acknowledgments are a more recent phenomenon for mainstream American institutions. They are especially common now in artistic performance spaces, like theaters, art galleries, and film festivals. Sundance, for instance, opened each film showing last month with a land acknowledgment—for the first time in the festival’s history.

The optimist in me says that this signals we are turning a corner. Land acknowledgments signify that people are ready to listen and learn from the mistakes of their past and apply these lessons to their future actions. Seeing them take root in the arts at this particular moment is promising, given the mediums’ ability to educate (or miseducate). Indigenous success is slowly being embraced and celebrated in more white spaces, from art, literature, academia, film, and media to politics. By the end of the decade, we may well have a Native writer, director, or screenwriter standing on a similar stage accepting an award, as we nearly did with Tommy Orange’s Pulitzer-nominated debut novel, There, There. (We’re already seeing this in different ways, like poet Natalie Diaz’s MacArthur Grant.) We may even be granted the license to direct films about our own stories, rather than have them handed over to more established (whiter) directors. Or maybe we’ll just make our own studios and fund these projects ourselves, as Cousin is doing.

But the cynic in me is rattling around, too. It reminds me of the Academy’s heinous track record and how before last October, when Cherokee Nation citizen Wes Studi was handed a lifetime achievement award, the last time a Native person was granted a prominent audience at the Oscars was all the way back in 1971. That year, the Academy crowd booed Sacheen Littlefeather for giving a speech on behalf of Marlon Brando to raise awareness of the Occupation of Wounded Knee and “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”

And this is the main issue with the general practice of land acknowledgments—nothing has fundamentally changed since Littlefeather asked Americans to listen to the American Indian Movement’s calls on the federal government to uphold the treaties it signed. Americans have learned how to mask their apathy toward Native people (some better than others), but the land acknowledgment seems a perfect encapsulation of these limitations.

The acknowledgment, as much as it is a kind of recognition, also seems to banish the land dispute to the past. This is Native land, it seems to say, and yet here the colonizers are all the same. The real problem is that we never left. We still live on these lands. Failing to take the next logical step—calling for the strengthening of sovereignty and investment in Native voices—is a choice. This isn’t on Indigenous individuals like Waititi; it is an indictment of the audience that applauded him and the Academy that refuses to use its institutional weight and resources to do better. We live in a country where, right now, as the tweets rightly praising Waititi flow, Indigenous land is being blown apart for a border wall and opened up for fossil fuel production. There is something missing here.

Waititi’s stand against this hollowness was beautiful, but it was also a reminder of what Hollywood still is. It is the same Academy that last year nominated the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which peddles the gross Western stereotype of bloodthirsty Natives, for the same award Waititi won Sunday night. It is the same Academy that threw every award it had at the white-lensed mess that is Dances With Wolves. It is the same Academy propped up by conglomerate monsters like Disney, which produced artifacts like “What Makes the Red Man Red?” in Peter Pan and now sees fit to remake the film, only this time with actual First Nations actors instead of bigoted caricatures.

Watching Waititi use his platform to encourage Indigenous artists and acknowledge the land he was standing on brought a communal sense of solidarity into that room. I felt a combination of affirmation and pride and every other cheesy emotion that not even a grouchy cynic like me could stuff down. And so, even with the violent history of these institutions so clear and painfully recent, I am choosing to think of Waititi’s acknowledgment as a beginning. Waititi’s presence among Hollywood’s kingmakers is an opportunity to lessen the dissonance I and other Native moviegoers feel when we tune in to these award shows. On Sunday night, millions of people were reminded about stolen land. On Sunday morning, if they were paying attention, there were other reminders. The work now is to connect those dots.