An Episcopal congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, is taking a unique approach to land acknowledgments – by approving in its budget a “voluntary tax” on its property, to be given to Wisconsin’s Native American tribes.
St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church on Madison’s west side is located on land that historically was home to members of the Ho-Chunk Nation. As white settlers pushed westward, they displaced the land’s Indigenous inhabitants. A farmhouse dating to the mid-19th century and representative of western expansion — an era of growing tensions and conflict between settlers and American Indians — still stands on church property.
“This land used to be someone else’s homeland,” the Rev. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s rector, told Episcopal News Service. Much of that history, however, wasn’t known to the congregation at St. Dunstan’s. “There was real interest in going deeper on some of the learning.”
Land acknowledgments, in which American institutions identify and honor the Indigenous peoples who originally occupied the land now used by the institutions, have become an increasingly familiar practice across The Episcopal Church. Last year, the Madison congregation formed a land acknowledgment task force to research local Indigenous history. The result of that process wasn’t a traditional land acknowledgment but the addition of a line in the church’s budget for a voluntary tax or “amends” payment of $3,000, which Hassett presented last month to the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Repatriations Committee, which represents Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes.
St. Dunstan’s is one of many Episcopal congregations researching and developing land acknowledgments as part of churchwide efforts to foster racial reconciliation and healing. In July, the church’s 80th General Convention passed a resolution encouraging land acknowledgments, starting with audits by each Episcopal diocese “of all Indigenous peoples whose ancestral and territorial homelands its churches and buildings now occupy.”
The resolution also calls on the dioceses “to begin a process of implementing land acknowledgment liturgies and prayers to begin any public meetings or worship and to provide resources to their churches to do the same.” A second approved resolution orders the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity, to develop its own land acknowledgments.
Like St. Dunstan’s, some dioceses already had committed to such a process. The Diocese of Arizona, which serves a state with 22 federally recognized Native American tribes, began in 2016 encouraging its congregations to recognize the “traditional custodians” of church land, and the diocesan convention voted in 2019 to provide liturgical language for that purpose during the Prayers of the People.
In Washington, the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia formed a committee on land acknowledgments in response to a 2019 diocesan resolution. “Though it begins as an effort to understand the history of an individual church, it can soon develop into an exploration of the history of our entire country and even the world,” the diocese says on its website. “All are connected, for good or ill, in the story of who we are as a people, as a nation, as Episcopalians, and as Christians.”
Similar efforts are underway in the dioceses of Michigan and Western North Carolina. And in Chicago, Illinois, St. John’s Episcopal Church installed a plaque on the pavement outside its doors in 2020 that tells visitors, “you are standing on the land of Native peoples.” The plaque also names the tribes that traditionally called the region home.
For other dioceses and congregations considering steps in this direction, Virginia Theological Seminary has compiled an online resource offering guidance in writing land acknowledgments.
“One of the ways the church begins the road to reconciliation with siblings who identify as Indigenous/Native American, is to acknowledge that all churches sit on Native Land,” the seminary says. “It was ‘purchased’ through treaties that were constantly broken. It was stolen through lies. Tribal nations were violently forced from ancestral lands to distant reservations.”
The Diocese of Milwaukee, which spans the lower third of the state of Wisconsin, passed a resolution at its diocesan convention in October 2021 to develop land acknowledgement language and provide resources for congregations to do the same. The Rev. Jonathan Grieser, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Madison, led a task force on the topic.
He praised the work of St. Dunstan’s. Their effort to make amends financially, he said, is “a model for all of us to think about the way in which we have all profited from the taking of land and the removal of the tribes.”