Indigenous groups irked after Aurora leaders sharply shoot down “land back” acknowledgment

Sitting in the center of an urban community garden in Denver is a “living land acknowledgment” that Kristina Maldonado Bad Hand created, a living topiary sculpture of a mom and her baby boy, surrounded by succulents and birchwood.

The sculpture at the Seeds of Unity Farm pays tribute to her Sicangu Lakota and Cherokee ancestors, and all the Colorado tribes who cared for the land where Denver, Aurora and other city boundaries are now drawn.

The mother’s face in the sculpture is cracked, with gold inlay, representing Maldonado Bad Hand’s rediscovery of her tribal identity. The plants around the “Unci Maka,” Mother Earth, sculpture come from the mountains and plains and they must be taken care of, but they can regrow.

“It’s basically an acknowledgment of the land, but it’s also an acknowledgment of the history because Denver is so diverse and there’s so many different things in our communities and in our neighborhoods that are important to speak about as well,” Maldonado Bad Hand said. “And so this land and history acknowledgment has an Indigenous side with the sculpture but then also with the community.”

The Aurora City Council had a chance this week to consider a different kind of “land acknowledgment” in the form of a resolution, but the conservative-majority council members strongly opposed it. The resolution was meant to honor Indigenous people and their histories, including recognizing the lands that they were forcefully removed from, and make a step toward equity. Aurora’s decision left residents like Maldonado Bad Hand “flabbergasted.”

The draft Aurora resolution, which could have been read at council meetings and events, acknowledged that “we gather on the territories and ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho and Lakota peoples, past and present.” It also recognized the 48 tribes historically tied to Colorado, and said “Indigenous people have remained committed to the stewardship of this land over many centuries.” The resolution added that “we are called to be better stewards of the land we inhabit as we continue to work to meet the needs of our entire community.”

But Mayor Mike Coffman asked city attorneys whether passing the resolution would legally mandate the city to give up any land — it does not.

“It’s great to have the apology and it’s great to have the acknowledgment, but what the community really wants is that care for the land and … that’s what ‘land back’ means when you hear ‘land back,’” Maldonado Bad Hand said. “I know everybody kind of gets nervous because they think it means something like kick everybody out and give the land back to the Natives. But that’s not what it means. It’s like, let us be stewards of the land again.”

Other council members fiercely questioned the consideration of the resolution. One comment in particular that fired up supporters was that of Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky, who raised her voice during the meeting, saying she would only support the resolution if it acknowledged that the land was “God’s country.” She questioned the work of the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, adding, “I am adamantly against this, and if we have an entire department working on things like this, like I said, unless we’re going to acknowledge that this is God’s country, I can’t even believe this is coming to City Council tonight,” she said.

Similarly, Councilwoman Angela Lawson asked why the city would choose to focus on Native American land when, she said, “land has been conquered … from all racial groups,” and added that she felt the resolution could be divisive.

Mayor Pro Tem Francoise Bergan also took offense to the idea of saying that the land was “stolen” from the Native groups, though that word wasn’t in that version of the resolution.

But progressive council members advocated for consideration, with Councilman Juan Marcano saying the land had indeed been “stolen,” and Councilman Ruben Medina adding that the resolution is about respecting the past.

Sponsor of the resolution Councilwoman Crystal Murillo told The Denver Post after the meeting that these types of acknowledgments aren’t new — other governments in the U.S. and abroad have passed them — and they shouldn’t be controversial.

“I was disappointed that no one discussed the merits of the ordinance and the significance to the Native community,” she said. “For such a diverse city where we have our Global Fest celebration this weekend, it was surprising to see that reaction from folks.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Arapahoe County has been working with its namesake, the Northern Arapaho Tribe, to form stronger relationships and honor the state’s history after passing an intergovernmental agreement in June. The memorandum acknowledges that the “Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes were the original peoples in the area where Arapahoe County was established and is now located” and that the county wants to honor and raise awareness about their history and culture.

“We ought to acknowledge who we are,” Commissioner Nancy Jackson said in an interview. “And so it’s Arapahoe County. A lot of cities have sister cities. … We have a relationship with a tribe,” she said.

Ryan Ortiz, one of the Sand Creek Massacre representatives for the Northern Arapaho Tribe who worked with Arapahoe County on its agreement, pointed out the importance of land acknowledgments that are also backed by action. He said these resolutions are the beginning of creating awareness for the public and healing for Native Americans.

The Aurora City Council members’ comments about the resolution, Ortiz said, were reflective of comments by people who are ignorant about their own history.

“You certainly cannot say that land that was spelled out in an 1851 Treaty, being in Cheyenne and Arapaho land, is God’s country. It had a designation to it. There’s really no doubt about it,” he said.

Ortiz lamented the lack of education about Native Americans in the country and the state of Colorado.

“Indians are placed in a distant past where people don’t realize that we’re still here,” Ortiz said. “And even moreso in Colorado because we were displaced from there and we’re not where we should be. We’re not at the homelands where we were given the right to be at one time and then taken away. We’re just a distant memory. … We’re not relevant to them.”

That’s why Maldonado Bad Hand is working to create more awareness through her work with the Denver Art Museum and by installing more living land acknowledgments in the metro area. It’s also why she talks with her Indigenous kids about these issues and why her husband is on his own journey of learning about his Native American roots.

The Aurora City Council, she said, needs to have some form of land acknowledgment, “and if they’re not going to commit to the statement, then they need to do the work in other places, by supporting Indigenous people and supporting, especially in schools, ways that we can educate the true history,” she said.

Helen Richardson contributed to this story.

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