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Words like Clear Water

Underneath a large white tent strung with lights, Cynthia Gómez stepped up to a wooden podium to offer a Land Acknowledgment. We were attending the 2018 Summer Fishtrap writer’s conference in northeast Oregon. Cynthia, a Fishtrap fellow and a faculty member at Portland State, took a couple minutes of her limited reading time to remind us all that the land upon which our plastic chairs were unfolded is the traditional land of the Nez Perce People—occupied and unceded land. “It is important to acknowledge the ancestors of this place and to recognize that we are here because of the sacrifices forced upon them,” Cynthia said. “In remembering these communities, we honor their legacy, their lives, and their descendants.”

All week, I, along with this crowd of writers (most of whom were well-meaning, fairly well-to-do, and white), had been hiking in the mountains, swimming and fishing in the clear, cool water of Wallowa Lake, sharing meals and conversation in the pine-scented sunshine, scrawling in notebooks and typing on laptops as the sky changed colors, tethered to sun. The pristine silence, orienting mountain peaks, and starry sky were all the more awe-inducing to me after attending grad school in Chicago’s hustle and bustle for the past two years. I had been absorbing this place, enjoying it unabashedly. Cynthia’s words put a new lens in front of my eyes, one which gave a depth of hard history and deep culture to a landscape I’d been loving—but had also been taking for granted in a big way.

Land Acknowledgement, according to the grassroots action network U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, “is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and prac