Bischof and Witham sit beneath a tree outside Luther Bonney Hall on the Portland Campus. Nora Devin / Director of Photography.

By: Sydney Morton, Web Editor

During the University of Southern Maine’s spring 2021 graduation, the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, Dr. Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, began the opening ceremony with a special land acknowledgement. The acknowledgement honored the “ancestral fishing, hunting, and agricultural grounds” of Abenaki and Wabanaki people – land that is currently home to the USM campuses.

The land acknowledgement, co-authored by USM faculty, Dr. Libby Bischof, Executive Director of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and Aaron Witham, Director of Sustainability, was written with the intention to remain anonymous. Their hopes were to establish “organization-level authorship” for USM as an academic institution. Wabanaki REACH of Maine contacted Bischof and Witham in hopes that they would write a blog post regarding the land acknowledgement to be featured on the organization’s column, “Blog: Voices of Decolonization.”

Bischof and Witham shaped their blog post as a reflection of their work on writing the land acknowledgement. Land acknowledgements, like this one, are crucial for Native communities, whose grounds are being occupied by something or someone else, because they “[confront] directly an ugly truth about the way in which the state of Maine and the university came into being.” Bischof and Witham absorbed this mentality and understanding into the writing they are working on to help repair the harm done to the Abenaki and Wabanaki people. 

The co-authors focused on six principles to guide them in their efforts: tense matters, a statement should be balanced between the past and present, take the time to gather the knowledge needed to write the acknowledgement, don’t do it alone, use the land acknowledgement to leverage deeper action and change, and be willing to live in discomfort.

 The Abenaki and Wabanaki land acknowledgement is only the first step in recognizing the “uncomfortable truths about settler colonialism, including genocide, forcible removal, loss of land and water, and the continuing epigenetics of physical and cultural genocide among the Native members of our university community,” writes Bischof and Witham. They stress the importance of turning these efforts on paper into an action-oriented plan with the Native communities on the forefront of the project.

This particular land acknowledgement was created with the help of the new Land Recognition Committee at USM, created in fall 2020. The committee is composed of members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, USM students, faculty, and staff, as well as people from the surrounding local communities. 

Co-author Aaron Witham said, “the Land Recognition Committee established two goals early on this past spring. The first immediate goal surrounded how we create the land acknowledgement, and the second was more of a long-term, harder goal – looking deeper into these contemporary issues and compiling a list of recommendations for action-oriented work to the university.” 

Witham shared that two of the committee’s main recommendations will be located in the new Career and Student Success Center on the USM Portland campus. The construction of the Career and Student Success Center is expected  to be finished in 2023.

 “We plan to have a mobile kiosk in the new student center that teaches people about Native culture, history, language, and contemporary issues,” said Bischof and Witham. “There will also be a permanent wall installation near the Office of Intercultural Engagement [within the new student center] that will also feature these significant cultural and educational resources.”

The committee also asked USM to reinstate the Native Student Coordinator position on campus, as this duty has been vacant for a few years. By reinstating the Native Student Coordinator at USM, “it will help to connect Wabanaki culture to the university’s community.”

“The coordinator position will help facilitate USM, as a whole, to educate students, faculty, staff and guests about Wabanaki sovereignty and contemporary issues and also help incorporate more education of this culture into the academic curriculum,” said Bischof. The hiring process is in progress for the Native Student Coordinator position. Bischof and Witham are very excited for the new opportunities that will unfold.

In their blog post, Bischof and Witham wrote, “while we cannot change the past, or the actions, behaviors, and choices of our settler-colonist ancestors, we can acknowledge the truths of the past, while actively working to create a new future.” 

Bischof and Witham’s blog post, with reflections from Provost Uzzi, can be found here.


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