Giant Oak

By James Barnett, MD

Dr. Barnett

“I/We would like to begin today by recognizing and acknowledging that the U of I System carries out its mission in its namesake state, Illinois, which includes ancestral lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. We have a responsibility to acknowledge these Native Nations and to work with them as we move forward as a vibrant, inclusive institution.”

This Land Acknowledgement was developed for the University of Illinois and is listed under the UIC (University of Illinois Chicago) Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan. I am no expert on this, and I am not aware how we are implementing it at UICOMP. However, I invite you to join me in welcoming this Acknowledgement.

I was attracted to the concept of Land Acknowledgement through an experience in British Columbia for a medical education conference in October 2019. There was a Land Acknowledgement read, and a First Nations Elder attended the start and end of the conference giving blessings for the event. During a preconference trip, we were hosted by the Penelakut First Nations tribe on Penelakut Island. We learned of battles, displacement from land, and the Indian Residential schools with the consequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. I was impacted with the forgiveness and grace expressed by the Penelakut representatives that hosted us. There appeared to be a process of healing and reconciliation with the wider community.

May our UIC Land Acknowledgement follow a similar course—that it would be a part of a larger movement of reconciliation. In describing the foundation for the statement for UIC, Antoinette Burton wrote that “knowing what ground we stand on as a university is as important as knowing what we stand for.”

There is an aged Bur Oak at the top of the hill overlooking UICOMP. It casts a long shadow of time over the land on which our buildings stand. The Oak is estimated to be about 500 years old! What if the tree could speak of all who have gathered under its branches or the long span of events witnessed down the hill?

Chief Pontiac, Chief Black Partridge, Shabbona, and Black Hawk are among the Native leaders that courageously struggled with the encroaching white settlers in Illinois and our Peoria region. There was injustice & loss (see the massacre in 1812 affecting Black Partridge), yet often a willingness to compromise and find peace.

I reached out to Drew St. Laurent from the UBC (University of British Columbia)—Senior Operations Manager for the Center for Excellence in Indigenous Health. He had the following to say about land acknowledgements and effective implementation.

Why do a territorial acknowledgement?

Indigenous people have a long history and connection to the land. It is important that institutions recognize this through practices that support the process of recognition and reconciliation. Doing a territorial acknowledgement helps to insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life. To find out which nation’s traditional and ancestral land you are on, you can go to and search by postal code.

How can I make it meaningful?

Consistent acknowledgment is important to promote awareness and reinforce Indigenous presence, but it is also important to ensure that a territorial acknowledgment is a meaningful act. You can do this by:

  • Clicking on the links at and learning about the individual nations, their culture, their language, and their history. (Pronunciations for Illinois nations)
  • Sharing some of this knowledge/information during your territorial acknowledgement as a way to make Indigenous stories visible
  • Asking yourself questions about territorial acknowledgements and reflecting on how they made/make you feel
  • Thinking about your relationship to the land and then sharing this during your session – consider including a photo as a Zoom background or in your PowerPoint to visually situate yourself

Along with the Land Acknowledgement, may those of us who are not Native Americans grow in relationships with those who are—and hear their stories. And may we listen and find ways to reconcile with others unjustly treated over the years on this land that the oak has presided over from the top of the hill.

Please join me in choosing some action steps for this year. Here are mine:

We cannot relive history, but we can seek to walk with justice, mercy, and humility now. The land foundation we stand on will be stronger as we focus, learn, talk, reconcile.

UICOMP campus

About the Author

Dr. James Barnett is the Rural Student Physician Program Director and a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.