But What if I Get it Wrong?
About a year and a half ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would open all my workshops and keynotes by first recognizing the tribes of the land we are on. Ilsa had brought this idea to my attention when planning one of our workshops together. She created a slide in our Power Point to acknowledge the Duwamish Tribe for workshops in the Seattle area. Whenever I witnessed someone practice this way of honoring Indigenous people, it felt right to me and I wanted to be a part of it.
But even though I told myself this was something I would start doing, I never did. The truth is, I was afraid. As easily and as often that I speak about this work being, “a journey not an event,” that, “none of us are experts,” or that, “the very definition of cultural competence is our willingness to continue to grow and learn,” I rarely enjoy the process of my own development. I much prefer to look like an expert, while at the same time conveying to my audience there’s no such thing. I have so many worries when learning and changing my practice. “What if I get it wrong, mispronounce a tribal name, or offend? What if I appear inauthentic, like I’m just checking a box?” I could go on and on. Sometimes I would simply forget to make this important acknowledgment and other times, when I did remember, my fears got the best of me and I avoided it.
As a Christian, I sometimes feel like God keeps putting important things in front of me until I work through them. Whether it’s God or the universe, or just the way life is, it appeared that this commitment wasn’t going away. One day Kaleb Child, a member of the Kwakiutl First Nations approached Ilsa and I before our workshop and asked if it would be okay with us if he opened with a song. Other than emails and phone calls, we had never met our brother Kaleb before. I was ecstatic by his offer, thinking, “Would it be okay? Of course, it’s okay! It’s more than okay!”
I was brought to tears as he spoke, then sang and drummed to welcome everyone into the space we were about to share as we embarked on a journey of learning. His grace, his love, his forgiveness and giving stirred something in me. I left that day feeling recommitted. And yet time passed, and still I had not allowed myself to be changed. I was still too afraid. "How do I do it? What do I say? How do I find out whose land we’re on?" Three times Kaleb attended our workshops and three times he gave us the gift of his songs.
It wasn’t until the third time that I confessed to Kaleb and his friend Cygnia Rapp, a White woman who was also attending our workshops, that I wanted to acknowledge whose land we are on but didn’t know how to and was afraid. Along with encouraging words from both, Cygnia began following up with emails sharing with us resources and mention of her own learning. The Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgement she sent was just what I needed to get beyond my defenses. The simplicity in which it is written, the resources it offers, and the examples of how to acknowledge the tribes whose land we are on left me with no more excuses and a renewed sense of commitment.
Around the time she sent the guide, I was preparing for a keynote that would be in front of hundreds of people in Detroit, Michigan. Using the guide, I did my research to find out whose land we would be on, even wrote notes on a 3 x 5 card and began memorizing and practicing what I would say. But then the day came. I was so nervous, and I had to keep pushing down my fears. I could barely hear the speakers before me. I was too busy checking and rechecking my notes, repeating in my head the correct pronunciation of tribal names and committing the acknowledgment to memory. And then the moment came when they called my name. I walked on that stage with my, “fake it ‘til you make it” confidence, that is until I clicked to bring up the slide, and the wrong one appeared. I panicked, “Did I forget to include it? Did I download the wrong Power Point? I thought I had tripled checked."
Taking a deep breath and flying solo, I tried to acknowledge whose land we were on, but my mind froze. I glanced at my note card, but everything seemed a blur. This wasn’t like when I rehearsed it out loud and I was the only one who was listening. This time I rambled as I tend to do when nervous, saying more than what needed to be said. I eventually moved on to my presentation and after clicking several slides, there it appeared in the wrong location. It took me off balance, but I eventually found my groove as I moved to familiar ground in the remainder of my presentation.
Afterwards people waited in line to talk to me. That’s always a good sign. Maybe they forgot about my fumble out the gate. As people moved through the line, building my confidence with their words, I spotted a Native man several people back. Thoughts like, “I guess not everyone forgot. I really messed things up,” and fears of what he would say began to surface. While I can’t recall anything anyone else said to me that day, I will never forget his words. With tears in his eyes he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a conference like this where the speaker acknowledged whose land we are on. Thank you. I’m going to tell my friends what you did.” He thanked me again, said a few other things and walked away. I was flooded with relief. He didn’t care that it wasn’t perfect, he only cared that I remembered.
I’d love to say that from that day on I continued to make this important acknowledgement, but the truth is, it took another incident in a workshop before I really began to change my practice. At the start of the workshop, right after having introduced myself and sharing the objectives for the day, I invited the audience to ask questions before I went any further. A Native woman sitting in the front was the first to raise her hand and stood up once she was called on. The anger and pain in her voice was palpable. She wanted to know why the traditional land of the Duwamish people was not acknowledged. Having no more excuses, I just listened and took in her pain and agreed with her because I knew she was right.
So, in all honesty, while my journey began over a year and a half ago, it wasn’t until I realized both the gladness and sorrow my actions and inactions can bring that I planted my feet firmly in the ground and moved forward with an unwavering commitment that is gradually becoming a way of being for me as a public speaker.
I’m also teaching my clients this practice. When I send them emails about what my needs are for the workshop, I include the guide and invite them as the host to do the to do the honors. When they don’t, I do. As a result, I’m learning and growing, and they are too. Of course, I still get nervous. And yes, I there is still an occasion when I forget. But I’m increasing the frequency of this custom and as I do, my confidence increasing–something practice always brings about. I hold in the center of my fears the stories of so many Indigenous people I’ve met along the way whom I’m grateful to for the way in which they’ve given of themselves so that I may learn. It feels right that I’m finally doing something with their stories.