Land Acknowledgment

What is a Land Acknowledgment?

The purpose of acknowledging the local land is to tell the story of the coevolution of land, plants, animals and humans who were here 500 years before people from Europe began replacing local history with their own, to fill in the native history that has been missing for so long. A land acknowledgement recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of the land and the relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.

Why do we recognize the land?

We recognize the land to express gratitude and appreciation to the traditional stewards of the land, and to honor the Indigenous Peoples who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. Collectively, we should understand the long-standing history that has brought us to this land and seek to understand our place within that history.

In its strategic plan, PLA is committed to advancing the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice in our association’s leadership, staffing, values, mission/vision, strategies, and operations. We recognize that this land acknowledgment, and using PLA’s presence in Nashville to celebrate library values and educate and inspire action, are first steps, and more work is needed. We look forward to building on these efforts at future PLA events, and we encourage all PLA members and conference attendees to take action to advance equity and social justice in our organizations and communities.

PLA 2020 Nashville Land Acknowledgment

What Nashville looks like today is essentially unrecognizable to the way it was 10,000 years ago when ancient native people and saber-toothed tigers inhabited this area, inspiring the name for the local ‘Predators’ hockey team. Millennia later, around 1400 of this ‘common era,’ there were salt licks frequented by buffalo (the last one in Tennessee was killed in 1823), elk and deer, vast fields of river cane, being slowly replaced by humans’ corn fields brought from the southwest and Mexico, and pileated woodpeckers—a dominant motif in local religious art. The Indigenous People of old Nashville—whose name we do not know, who built large temple and residential mounds (Mound Bottom, Castalian Springs, Sellars Farm), and whose remains are still buried in stone box graves found all over the Nashville area, lived here between 1000 and 600 years ago. Contemporary with Cahokia, its great ‘Mississippian’ cultural relative 300 miles to the northwest, the land here itself collapsed of soil exhaustion from generations of native corn farming. This was followed within a century by the introduction of new diseases from the new Europeans (Soto’s 1541 expedition passed south of Nashville) that killed 90-95% of the human population throughout what is now called Tennessee. (The many horses ‘lost’ by the Soto expedition were probably the beginning of the southeast’s wild horses.)

Soto’s expedition is the first time we learn the name of the people who lived in this area: the Yuchi. What was left of them after the indigenous population collapse moved east across the Cumberland Plateau to the Tennessee River Valley. They lived among the surviving remnants of other mound-building ‘Mississippian’ tribes in Muskogee-speaking towns, known as the ‘Ani-Kusa’ to the Cherokee. The last known Yuchi town, Chestowee, was wiped out by the Cherokee from upriver in 1714. Survivors were given refuge in Muskogee towns and were ultimately forcibly removed from the South by the U.S. Army with the Muskogee/Creek in 1834 to ‘Indian Territory.’ Today most Yuchi/Euchee are members of the Muscogee/Creek Nation of Oklahoma, but have been seeking their own sovereignty for decades.

After the exhaustion of crop land and the subsequent collapse of corn-dependent cities, the introduction of foreign pathogens to the east and south essentially wiped out Indigenous inland peoples, leaving this area void of human occupation for two centuries. This is most notable in the absence of any native place names within a 75-mile radius (apart from the Natchez Trace which starts in Nashville). Occasional long-range hunting and military parties of the Chickasaw to the south, the Choctaw to the west, the Shawnee to the north, and the Cherokee to the east, passed through the area, but did not settle.

As Euro-Americans moved west and inland from the coast, and as the Cherokee and Chickasaw moved south and westward to reduce contact, the Euro-Americans pushed the Cherokee and Chickasaw to sell these ‘empty’ lands in this Cumberland river valley, resulting in the Cherokee’s sale of the 'Transylvania Purchase’ in 1775 and the U.S. treaty with the Chickasaw for the Cumberland river area in 1783. Dragging Canoe, the greatest war chief of the Cherokee and native resistance in the South, living down by Chattanooga, attacked Fort Nashborough (Nashville’s old name) in 1781 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop these treaties and American immigration to this area now known as Middle Tennessee.

From the time of ‘the Removal’ of the last Native Americans from Tennessee (i.e., the Cherokee in the far southeast corner of the state in 1838) through 2011 (173 years), Tennessee had no resident tribal nations. Then in 2012, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw transferred 88 acres of its purchased land in Henning, Tennessee, into USA 'trust,' making the Choctaw the first ‘Returned’ tribe to Tennessee. In 2019 the U.S. House passed Resolution 453, ‘the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act’, which advocates the return of 96 acres of historic land in east Tennessee (see the 1762 Timberlake map) to the Cherokee. The bill currently awaits consideration by the Senate. Currently the Eastern Band of Cherokee own 320 acres of development property 14 miles east of Knoxville.

Tennessee’s Native American Tribes

On the Yuchi

Yuchi is a linguistic isolate, unrelated to any other native language.

Native American Things to See and Do in Nashville

Practice Mississippian Culture at Home

Plant a milpa this spring. A milpa is a traditional Mexican/Native American corn garden with squash and beans. Sometimes called a Three Sisters garden, it is the basis of the transition from native Woodland villages to the high culture of Mississippian cities.

Reading Resources

Prepared for PLA by Tom Kunesh, son of Standing Rock Lakota tribal member Louise Kelly of Minnesota, where he unknowingly grew up on the old Winnebago/Ho-Chunk reservation of 1846. A U.S. Navy veteran, he has lived in Tennessee for the past 30 years, serving in the Chattanooga InterTribal Association, Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs, and currently in the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee. He has a BA in Spanish and a MA in Religious Studies, both from the University of Minnesota; and an MDiv from the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California. Yuchi, Cahokia, milpa, pileated woodpeckers, and Dragging Canoe are the primary five terms he believes are key to understanding Tennessee native land.