The inauguration was heralded as one of the most inclusive yet, centering not diverse political leaders, but nods to various cultures and identities. But Indigenous communities were disheartened to hear “This Land is Your Land” performed during the ceremony, a song that celebrates the land this nation “owns” without acknowledging how it was acquired – by the genocide, oppression, and forced removal of Indigenous communities that initially call it home. And this conversation isn’t new; Indigenous activists have been naming this for decades (learn more from Mali Obomsawin’s comprehensive overview in Folklife).
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When the performance started “I couldn’t stop cringing,” said Jordan Marie Daniel, a Lakota advocate and professional athlete, in a phone interview. “‘This land’ has been stolen. It is stolen. We did not give up these lands. They were taken from us.” She stresses that the narrative in the lyrics contribute to the erasure of the centuries of colonization, enslavement, racism, and systemic oppression that Indigenous communities face, and have faced, in this country. The song contributes to the broader whitewashing that “this country is great and has always been great. And we know that it’s not true.”
Many are quick to note that the song itself wasn’t designed to be a patriotic anthem. Famous folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in the 1940s as a sarcastic retort to Irving Berlin’s classic “God Bless America,” that he felt was overplayed at the time. The original song included more critical lyrics that have been lost across the decades – and even more radical verses that were never released – juxtaposing farmers’ struggles, depicting struggles of toiling farmers, poverty, hunger, and land disenfranchisement (NPR). But today, only the sanitized versions remain, often sung alongside “God Bless America” or other patriotic songs at large events.
But, as Raye Zaragoza, a singer, songwriter, and podcaster of Indigenous descent, emphasizes, there’s a difference between impact and intent. Guthrie may not have intended for this song to come off as an anthem for colonization, but that’s exactly how it’s being used today. “As a songwriter,” she explains, “I can’t imagine how it would feel if someone chopped up my song, but that’s the impact.” She emphasizes that regardless of the other lyrics, the chorus itself is insensitive. Daniel agrees: “People can always say ‘but wait, that’s not what it’s supposed to mean’ but this is how it makes people feel – and isn’t that most important?”
This criticism doesn’t detract from the significance of having Jennifer Lopez, a Latina icon of Puerto Rican descent, performing this song after four years of Trump inciting racism and discrimination against the Latinx community (The Guardian). As Tatjana Freund notes in Marie Claire, “a Latinx woman calling for justice for all in Spanish speaks volumes,” especially when paired with the President’s commitment to reunite children separated at the border with their parents (Reuters). But the act becomes all the more muddled when we consider the impact that centuries of colonization have had on Puerto Rico and its Indigenous people (Mother Jones).
Allie Young, a Diné organizer, mentions that, despite the song, there was much to celebrate during the inauguration for Indigenous communities, which made its use all the more disappointing. Deb Haaland is serving as the Native American Cabinet secretary as head of the Department of Interior (Washington Post). Wahleah Johns, the founder of Native Renewables, was named Director of the Office of Indian Energy. Indigenous Enterprise, a dance crew from Phoenix, was included in the virtual “Parade Across America” celebration on Inauguration Day (Indian Country), and the president of the Navajo Nation was included in the National Prayer Service (NPR). Young hopes that this administration’s efforts towards inclusion mean they’re listening to this feedback and are open to continuing to evolve.
And what should they do, aside from (obviously) choosing a more appropriate tune? All agree that a land acknowledgment is a good place to start. “Land acknowledgments change our relationship to this land. Having that recognition, honor, and sense of respect in those spaces is critically important,” stresses Daniel. Young agrees. “People say that land acknowledgments are simple, and they are! But they are also significant”. They acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous communities and can apologize for the harm that’s occurred – which is the bare minimum, she notes, towards reparations. Anyone can practice a land acknowledgment, and everyone should (learn more about holding your own here).
She also reminds us that white supremacy in the U.S. began with the decimation of Indigenous communities and the forced removal from their lands. A blatant act of white supremacy occurred at the Capitol – on the same soil – just weeks previously. It would have been prudent to hold a land acknowledgment as a way of symbolizing that moment.
Zaragoza goes a step further to note that “it’s about time for some new anthems. Why are we still singing these same songs?” And it’s true – why are we still allowing these old songs to represent an emerging new nation? Zaragoza uses her music as a way to challenge these harmful narratives. Her song “American Dream,” written in reaction to Donald Trump’s election, tells the story of her great grandmother, who was forced from her home and family to be assimilated into white culture. She notes singers like Ondara, a Grammy-nominated Kenyan singer-songwriter who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 20, who are also using folk music to tell the story of the U.S. from another perspective.
Young emphasizes that the only way we can move forward, the only way we can heal, is by naming our nation’s dark history. We have so much more opportunity to tell all of our stories through the music we choose to elevate.
Jordan Marie Daniel leads Rising Hearts, an Indigenous-led grassroots organization committed to the heart work in elevating Indigenous voices and promoting and supporting intersectional collaborative efforts across all movements with the goals of racial, social, climate, and economic justice. Explore their work at risinghearts.org and follow her on Twitter at @_NativeinLA.
Allie Young is the co-founder of Protect The Sacred, a grassroots initiative created by Navajo organizers to support their community. You can support their COVID-19 relief efforts here. She also is the co-founder of Well-Read Native, an initiative to elevate Indigenous voices in academia and literature. Follow her on Twitter @allieyoung13.