Re-Imagining Land

Reimagining our Future
6 min readJan 18, 2021


I’ll begin with a land acknowledgement. This one is adapted from one that is, as of fall 2020, used by the University of Maryland, College Park, where I teach. It’s important to create dialogue to honor those that have been historically and systemically disenfranchised. So, I acknowledge the truth that is often buried: I am on the ancestral lands of the Susquehannock, Nanticoke, and Piscataway People, who were among the first in the Western Hemisphere. I am on indigenous land that was stolen from the People by European colonists. I pay respects to Susquehannock, Nanticoke, and Piscataway elders and ancestors. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today.

Most tribes have websites where they share their history and post social events. I’ve begun to study those sites, to learn what I can from them. Though I’m not traveling these days, when I do again, I will wonder — who was here before all this? Whose homeland was this?

On Indigenous People’s Day this year, I got on a Zoom convened by my school on the subject of “Indigenous Perspectives on Education and Sustainability.” Rico Newman, Piscataway Conoy Elder of the Choptico Band of Indians, said that Piscataway means Place Where the Waters Blend. He said, “You can’t name waterways. You can’t name air. Foisting names onto rivers was done during the colonial era.” He said, “We are all around here! We never surrendered our sovereignty. We’ve had 300 years of being deprived of who we are.”

It’s a humbling awakening to feel into an entirely different understanding of land from the one I was raised on. In the September / October 2020 “Land Back” issue of Briarpatch magazine, Mike Gouldhawke writes, “To traditionalist Indigenous Peoples, . . . land is not a thing in itself but a social relationship between all living and non-living beings.”

I’ve been blessed with mentors who teach that the land is our larger breathing body. Everything around me is alive and conscious, animate, dreaming. This is not meant poetically, although marvelous poems do celebrate the mysteries of these wild others. David Abram challenges my culturally received notion of separateness with essays like “The Air Aware.” Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds me that reciprocity and gratitude can be learned from inhabitants of the land — furred, feathered, four-footed, and finned.

Here’s a list of names from a treaty map of what is now Pennsylvania. Translations are mine and approximate. Widows Pause for Breath, She Carries Her Brother on Her Back, Meadow Place, It Is Beautiful, Place Where People Trade, Home of the Warrior. Other names: Lewisburg, Middleburg, Pottsville, Mifflintown, Fort Davis, Williamsport. Notice anything? When settlers renamed places after white European men, they were claiming land that wasn’t theirs to claim. They were erasing cultures that had evolved over millennia, stories that carried the knowledge of how to live without destroying our world.

Those who directly experienced land seizure, displacement, and genocide bear witness. Their words teach us about a more intimate, reciprocal relationship to the land, as a counter to the modern utilitarian view that continues to wreak senseless havoc.

“That land of Ganono-o or ‘Empire State’ as you love to call it was once laced by our trails from Albany to Buffalo — trails that we had trod for centuries — trails worn so deep by the feet of the Iroquois …” [1] wrote Wa-o-wo-wa-no-onk, a Cayuga chief, in 1847. Growing up in the ‘Empire State’ I (dan) never learned of the indigenous history of the land that I inhabited. In school, I was taught to believe that the relationships between the ‘whites’ and the ‘Native Americans’ was cordial and friendly. It was not until maturity that I began to learn the truth.”

“What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty has the white man made with us that they have kept. Not one. …” [1], wrote Sitting Bull. “I admit there are good white men, but they bear no proportion to the bad; the bad must be the strongest, for they rule. They do what they please. They enslave those who are not of their color … they kill us!” [1], wrote Pachgantschilihilas, head warrior of the Delawares. “Every year our white intruders become more greedy, exacting, oppressive, and overbearing … Are we not being stripped day by day of the little that remains of our ancient liberty?” [1], spoke Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief, in 1812.

Much of modernity has been built on a foundation of violence, deception and extraction. In many ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, this form of development continues today. As this process unfolds and permeates mainstream culture, a large portion of people are increasingly becoming disconnected with the land.

Many of our natural ecosystems are being destroyed — rich soil turned to dust, increasing numbers of species, extinct, forests leveled must change. If our human civilization has a chance of surviving, we must reconnect to the land. There is much we can learn from our indigenous forbearers about their relationship with the land. For many were the embodiment of sustainability, regeneration, systems thinking, what today we call environmentalism.

“The Lakota was a true naturist — A lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. … Their tipis were built on the earth and their altars were made of earth. … For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he [or she] can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him …” [1] — Chief Luther Standing Bear

Names are layers on a place. What happens if we peel back the layers? If we ask the beings in a place their true names? If we ask those beings to tell us our true name?

Let’s say we North Americans check out this map and start penning and speaking our own land acknowledgements. Then what? What does a land acknowledgement ask of us? What might we be moved to do with this new awareness?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lead Author: Julie Gabrielli (first 7 paragraphs)

Julie Gabrielli is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she teaches ecological design. Her writing has been published in Orion, Dark Mountain Journal, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, Immanence Journal, Ecological Home Ideas, and Urbanite. The essays and watercolors on her blog, Thriving on the Threshold, explore this time of living between the cultural stories of separation from or belonging to the natural world. She participated in the 2019 Orion Environmental Writers Workshop and is enrolled in Southern New Hampshire’s Low Residency Fiction MFA program, working on a novel. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, teenage son and a big dancing bear of a dog named Brody. She is going to run 500 miles in 2021.

Anchor Author: Dan Rudolph (last 5 paragraphs)

Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling, writing poetry and learning.

Dan, and a small team, are in the process of publishing a series of articles titled ‘Live Human Signposts’ that showcases individuals that have taken alternative paths to higher education and/or are pursuing regenerative livelihoods, which is being commissioned by the Ecoversities Alliance. In March, Dan will begin an apprenticeship in Vermont at the MAPLE Monastic Academy.