| by Sierra Abukins

News Stories

sisters ohlone singing
Carla Marie and Desiree Muñoz sang traditional Ohlone songs at the dedication ceremony for the new mural on the Middlebury Institute campus, the first public event where the land acknowledgment was read. Members of the Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone tribe, they do educational outreach across the state as the Ohlone Sisters.

“We pause to acknowledge that the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey sits in the Village of Achasta on the ancestral and unceded land of the Ohlone (Costanoan) Rumsen/Rumsien people, a Rumsen-speaking group.”

When those words were spoken at the unveiling of the Middlebury Institute’s new mural in November 2023, it marked a moment two years in the making.

It took a lot of research and relationship building just to shape that first line of the Institute’s land acknowledgment statement. 

Land acknowledgments have become increasingly common nationwide, often heard at the kick-off of a sports game, concert, government meeting, or corporate conference.

With their growing ubiquity has come criticism that they can be, or become, empty and performative—which is why the process matters so much.

“The best land acknowledgments are focused on both awareness raising and advocacy—teaching you something you didn’t know and going a step further toward concrete action,” said Dr. Netta Avineri, professor in TESOL/Teaching Foreign Language and Intercultural Competence, and graduate pillar lead for the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation

Middlebury Institute Land Acknowledgment

Adopted Fall 2024

Several contemporary tribes, including Esselen, call this land home today. The surrounding Monterey Bay region includes lands traditionally inhabited by the Esselen (to the south), Chalon (to the south), Mutsun (to the north), and Salinan (to the east) groups. We honor these groups’ experiences in the past, present, and future, as we work collaboratively with them to protect the land and its inhabitants. We honor these Indigenous communities, past and present. We give thanks for the opportunity to respectfully share in the bounty of this place, and are working collaboratively to protect it. We are all one in the sacred web of life that connects people, animals, plants, air, water, and earth. 

Learn more about how to use the land acknowledgment.

A Process Initiated by Students

In his Advocacy in Action class, Professor Kent Glenzer asks students to identify an issue they want to focus on and then move the project forward in teams. In fall 2022, his class suggested that the Student Council advocate for the Institute to create a land acknowledgment. Student leaders took this idea to President Laurie Patton, who was supportive and provided funding for their proposal.

“I felt this was an important initiative for the Institute because, as a social justice school, I found it necessary to lead by example,” said Chris Baca MPA ’22, who worked on the initiative as chair of the Student Council’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. 

Baca said collaboration among students, staff, and faculty was key for moving the process forward. 

“Through this process I not only gained a deeper understanding and respect for the customs and traditions of our Indigenous communities, but also learned the power student bodies can have in bringing about institutional change,” said Baca. “This effort also brought about better learning of the current obstacles faced by Indigenous communities, such as not being able to access their land for ceremonial purposes.”

Baca and fellow Student Council leader Salma Rashid MPA ’23 reached out to Avineri early on about how to move the process forward.

She immediately thought of the Ohlone Sisters

Carla Marie and Desiree Muñoz are members of the Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone tribe, and are among many members who now live in southern California. After years of enslavement under the Spanish missionary system in the area around Monterey Bay, their ancestors were forced into exile to avoid violent persecution by settlers and California’s racist policies toward Native Americans. Many from the Costanoan Rumsen tribe moved to the area around San Gabriel and found work on the ranchos in 1864.

In 2020, the sisters contacted Avineri and leaders from other institutions and organizations in Monterey, hoping to engage in educational outreach with the people now living here.

That serendipitous connection led to the sisters leading a community learning event at the Institute on land acknowledgments in fall 2022, followed by more consultation and engagement with the Institute community. The process also included textual and historical research to complement what was shared by the Indigenous communities themselves.

“I realized there was so much I didn’t know about the Indigenous populations in California and the Institute had almost no information or connections to those populations,” said Rashid. “Without building a long-term connection with the Ohlone sisters, any work that the Institute did would have been meaningless. All that to say, if another institution or organization wants to embark on a similar process, the relationship is the most important piece. It’s so important to work alongside those we are learning from.”

Creary, Nick
Dr. Nick Creary reads the land acknowledgment statement at a BIPOC Voices Speaker Series event featuring Kanyon Sayers-Roods. Creary was named as the Middlebury Institute’s first institutional officer of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in 2023.

“As Dr. Nick Creary reminds us, you need truth before you can have reconciliation,” said Avineri. “We need to know where we’ve been to figure out where we want to go.”

People at the Institute also connected with colleagues at Middlebury College in Vermont, which adopted its own land acknowledgment in 2021. Middlebury Language Schools also support an Abenaki language revitalization project.

In 2022–23, Conflict Transformation Fellows Maria Zaharatos MPA ’23 and Karan Kunwar MAIEP ’23 worked on documenting and analyzing the Institute’s land acknowledgment process. Their survey of students found a mix of feelings. Many felt that it was an important initiative that provided much-needed awareness on injustices, but also that land acknowledgments can be performative acts without enough action associated with them. 

“I learned a lot,” said Zaharatos, who engaged in additional research as part of her CoLab graduate assistant role. “Beyond a statement, the process should include deep intercultural learning and supporting the local Indigenous communities in the pursuit of their social justice goals. I think what’s essential for institutions and organizations embarking on this journey is to focus not so much on the statement itself, but on the work of questioning our role in historical and present systems, as well as in developing relationships with the local Indigenous populations that call the regions we live on home.”

The students developed a hub with resources for other organizations embarking on the process.

Land Acknowledgment Conversation with the Ohlone Sisters

Middlebury Institute’s land acknowledgment process started with a learning event led by Carla Marie and Desiree Muñoz.

Bridging Theory and Practice

As the students who started the project graduated, Avineri kept it moving forward. At the time, she was immersed in social change theories and case studies as she cowrote her latest book on language and social justice.

“I was trying to bridge what the field is focused on with my day-to-day work with community partners and students. The land acknowledgment process was an opportunity to put these models and frameworks into ethical practice in a real way, which included productive tensions, conflicts, dilemmas,” said Avineri. “We’re trying to engage in the process here in the right ways and even trying to be a model for others through a balance of humility and expertise, of reflection and action.”

In September 2023, the Middlebury Board of Trustees unanimously adopted the land acknowledgment, which is now read at events and incorporated into communications including syllabi.

Since that time, the Institute has prioritized several engagements with Indigenous communities, including the California Indian Heritage Center Outreach Event (cosponsored by the Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation and CSUMB’s Office of Inclusive Excellence), DLINQ engagement with mapping projects focused on Indigenous groups in the region, and the BIPOC Voices Speaker Series.

“Social justice is relational and aspirational,” said Avineri. “The land acknowledgment is but one step to reimagine relationships at individual, interpersonal, institutional, and societal scales. When we center collaboration and solidarity, the possibilities for meaningful community impact are endless.”  

Max Gomez, one of the students involved in the project at its inception, graduated with his MPA and MA in International Education Management in 2022 and shared this reflection:

“I’m so grateful to see the work we started being continued years later. Acknowledgment of local Indigenous communities is always just the first step, and matters only if engagement is built upon in meaningful ways. Most students at a school like the Middlebury Institute are guests in a new land in several ways, both to present-day residents, as well as the Indigenous communities who historically inhabited the land. It’s the responsibility of any university to give their students the opportunity to engage with those communities in a reciprocal way, and include them in their classroom conversations and activities whenever possible.”