The Art Institute of Chicago is located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations. Many other tribes such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox also called this area home. The region has long been a center for Indigenous people to gather, trade, and maintain kinship ties. Today, one of the largest urban American Indian communities in the United States resides in Chicago. Members of this community continue to contribute to the life of this city and to celebrate their heritage, practice traditions, and care for the land and waterways.
We embrace our commitment to Indigenous rights, racial justice, and cultural equity not only through this statement but also in our collecting and care of Native American objects, our exhibitions and programs, and our relationships with Indigenous communities.
About the Statement
Located at the edge of the original shoreline of Lake Michigan, the Art Institute of Chicago mostly sits on landfill created in the 1870s with debris from the Chicago Fire. During the 20th century, the museum expanded over the train tracks, building on additional landfill deposited between 1897 and 1907 by the Chicago Tunnel Company. These artificial lands encroached on the waters of Lake Michigan—a name derived from the Ojibwe word mishigamaa, meaning “large water.” For millennia, the waterways of the Great Lakes have been critical resources for fishing, agriculture, and transport, which Native American communities have continually cared for and worked to protect.
The museum building at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street—the Art Institute’s third location in downtown Chicago—was constructed in 1893 on the occasion of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair that celebrated the rapid growth of Chicago and commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s journey to the Americas in 1492.
“In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold high joy-day over the graves of our departed fathers, than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America.”
Chicago has remained—and become—home to numerous Native American communities over the past century, in part due to federal urban relocation policies.
The Art Institute of Chicago strives to conserve and exhibit works of Native American art, past and present, according to the highest ethical and museological standards. We seek to build mutually beneficial relationships with Native American communities, leaders, traditional knowledge holders, scholars, museum professionals, artists, and students, creating opportunities for the production and dissemination of knowledge in all its forms. Through these meaningful relationships and sustained commitments, we hold ourselves accountable to championing Indigenous rights and fostering cultural equity.
If you have questions, comments, or would like to learn more about our upcoming projects involving Native American art, contact email@example.com.
FAQs surrounding Land Acknowledgment
A land acknowledgment is a formal statement that recognizes Indigenous peoples as the long-standing occupants and caretakers of a particular land or region. It offers respect for the enduring relationships that exist between them and their traditional territories.
It is important to understand the history of the lands we occupy, and our places within that history. Colonialism is not a thing of the past but an ongoing process and one that many people around the world continue to participate in and be subjected to. The United States is the product of settler colonialism, whereby people move permanently into a place and develop a new and distinct culture, but only through the intentional displacement, and sometimes eradication, of Indigenous peoples and cultures. A land acknowledgement is meant to bring awareness to these dynamics, to urge individual and group reflection, and to center and honor Indigenous peoples in future relationships with and on these lands.
Land acknowledgments have become an increasingly common practice in recent years, especially at public-serving institutions in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. They are often spoken at important occasions and public events.
As the Art Institute of Chicago seeks to be mindful of the history of our land and aims to be a conscientious cultural institution, we thought it was time to formalize language acknowledging the Indigenous people who resided—and continue to reside—here.
Our land acknowledgment and the land acknowledgment ceremony are just one facet of a broader initiative to understand how our institutional practices can cultivate respect for, and honor, Indigenous knowledge and culture. It is essential that we work with and learn from Native American communities in these efforts, so we have collaborated with the American Indian Center of Chicago, who helped us write our land acknowledgment and co-planned the ceremony on September 27, 2019. As the Art Institute acknowledges the history of the land, we’re also celebrating our new partnership with the center and desire to work together over the long term.
For millennia, Lake Michigan has been a focal point of Indigenous communities, serving as a resource for agriculture, hunting and fishing, and transport. The landfill on which the museum was built was created with environmental and cultural consequences, diminishing the lake’s resources.
In a land acknowledgment, “land” refers to sovereign territory, which includes lakes, rivers, and other features. Even though we are built on landfill, we draw on a footprint of power lines, sewage systems, roads, and other utilities threaded throughout the city of Chicago. We offer our land acknowledgement with this awareness.
Land acknowledgments and land acknowledgment ceremonies have been sometimes criticized as superficial gestures that don’t result in meaningful change. We hear that. It’s important to know, therefore, that our land acknowledgment is only one part of a broader constellation of initiatives.
We are collaborating with our partners at the American Indian Center of Chicago and many other colleagues throughout Chicago and beyond on this and all related initiatives. We are also working to develop a three-year curatorial fellowship in Native American art. We are expanding our collections to feature contemporary Native American art. And, we will soon undertake a reinstallation of the Arts of the Americas permanent galleries working with a group of community advisors. We hope these, and other forthcoming projects, will demonstrate the museum’s commitment to honoring Native American people according to the highest ethical standards of our field.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a law enacted in 1990 to address the rights of Native Americans to their funerary objects, sacred objects, and other objects of cultural patrimony, as well as human remains. The law allows a Native America tribe that can establish a cultural affiliation to an object held in a museum collection to make a repatriation claim for the object. The Art Institute of Chicago recognizes its obligation to work with tribes on such claims and will continue to do so.
Indigenous, Indigenous peoples, Native American, or American Indian—there is no one “right” answer. When discussing cultural groups, Indigenous is a general term referring to the people who first lived in a region. It is used in many parts of the world. If you’re unsure whether to capitalize it in a particular context, capitalize it as a sign of respect in the same way that you would capitalize Spanish or French.
Indigenous peoples recognizes that not all Indigenous groups are the same. There are many different Indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. Native American or Native Americans are used to describe Indigenous peoples living in the United States, while First Nations is sometimes used in Canada. Within the US, American Indian is also used, especially in earlier periods and in many laws, government texts, and institutional names. For this reason, it is sometimes preferred; however, in many parts of Central and South America, the word Indian can have negative connotations.
If you are unsure of what term to use in a particular context, especially if you are describing a particular individual or group, simply ask them how they describe themselves and what words they prefer others use. Also be aware that many people prefer to identify themselves by the name of their specific tribe or community, such as Ojibwe or Acoma Pueblo, rather than through a more generic term.