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By October 2, 2020 8 Comments

Truth be told, there weren’t all that many people around. I was a little disappointed in the size of the crowd–three or four dozen, most of them, like me, decidedly on the far side of their forties. A pandemic is raging in this corner of the state, I told myself–don’t be critical. It was something of a risk being out at all, even if this dedication was occurring outside, on a downtown street of a small town on a Sunday morning.

I’m not Luxembourgian, but, strangely enough, I’ve been around Luxembourgian-American strongholds for most of my life, so they’ve always been on the radar screen. I happen to know the official Luxembourgian-American Museum is just down the road from my still heavily Dutch-American hometown of Oostburg, Wisconsin.

Long ago, my dad worked for a manufacturing outfit who made cement mixers and garden tillers, where he was a sales manager with a hierarchy that was almost totally Luxembourgian. He never got along well with the brass because of the perpetual Oktoberfest of their lives. But a couple years ago I found a t-shirt on line with the company name, front and back, and bright orange too. Snapped it up.

Don’t tell anyone, but I skipped a fourth of the sermon in our on-line church worship to get to the dedication downtown, but I figured I owed the neighbors that much.

In 1870, the Luxembourgers of northwest Iowa came to this corner of the state, the only region at the time not yet homesteaded by Euro-Americans. For the record, that was the same year the region’s Dutch unloaded wagons just a few miles away. There were forty of them, eventually many more of us.

By 1880 or so, Alton, Iowa, like the other adjacent towns where the Luxembourgers settled, was greatly Roman Catholic. Orange City and Sioux Center, its neighbors, were not, to say the least. Live embers in the souls of both fellowships were still throwing off heat from the 16th century Reformation–as they may yet be doing today in the tidiest corners of the Dutch Calvinist world.

Anyway, Sunday morning I’d come–we’d all come–to dedicate a mural, a big, beautiful colorful thing right across from the Veterans Memorial in downtown Alton. It’s not particularly easy to get a mural in a camera, so forgive me for missing something of the far end, but this is it.

It’s a glorious flutter of butterflies across a darkened prairie landscape. Some ghostly ancestral four-leggeds haunt the place–the buffalo are long gone from here, of course–and those magical little yellow bubbles, the artist told us, are–I should have thought of it–fireflies.

Let me bring something of this mural closer.

The state of Iowa is outlined there between its two mighty rivers–the Mississippi out east, and the Missouri out west. That light jet trail across the state, from Dubuque (a village named St. Donatus actually) to the Siouxland villages of Alton, Marcus, Remsen, Hospers, and LeMars, is the long trek that Siouxland Luxembourgers put down to get here and claim some of Iowa’s finest black dirt.

The creative genius, behind all of this, Prof. Amber Hansen, was there for the dedication. She teaches art at the university, but hails from Alton and stoutly claims her own Luxembourgian heritage, even visited “the old country” recently, she says, to see the land her ancestors left behind. She calls the mural “a community project,” because it was, and is. See those butterfly wings–they’re unfinished. She and her crew will fill them in eventually, she promised. Alton, she claimed, has a lot of good artists.

But the way she started the whole dedication was, to me, stunning, not so much because of what she said, but because she said it at all. “I’d like to begin with a ‘land acknowledgement.’” 

Sunday, I had no idea what a “land acknowledgement” was. Today, I know. 

She said she took this “land acknowledgement” from the U. S. Department of Arts and Culture. This is what she read to begin the program, a dedication of her own big, colorful mural in commemoration of the region’s Luxembourgian heritage.

Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world, who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn in hopes of making a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. 

She was acknowledging that the land where her ancestors and mine settled and even occasionally mingled was not so much their own as it was a land with an already significant long history, a legacy that needed to be openly and publicly acknowledged. Human beings lived here and loved here before any of our great-grandparents slaved away on their own homestead claims. 

Truth and acknowledgement are critical to building respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. Today we are standing on the ancestral lands of many indigenous tribes, but most recently of  . . .

. . .and here she named two tribal peoples whose names few in the crowd, if any, had ever heard before, even though many of us, I’m sure, live in Sioux County, in a state, Iowa, named after a tribal people who’ve been gone in Oklahoma for about 200 years. I didn’t know the tribes she listed, nor certainly how to spell their names. I’m sorry. It’s isn’t pleasant right now admitting as much.

We pay respect to their elders, past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that brings us together here today; and please join us in acknowledging these truths in any and all public events.

She was calling us, really, to repentance, something both Catholics and Calvinists have understood—and practiced–for far more than four or five generations, for centuries. 

Have a look again at Prof. Hanson’s beautiful prairie mural. Big, colorful butterflies wing their way through the scene, but behind them there are others, shadowy butterfly figures, ghosts of the past, reminders that what’s here is only what’s here now, not what once was. 

See ‘em? They’re actually there.

The “land acknowledgement,” left me stunned and gratified, a blessed reminder that this isn’t our land at all. It happens to be where we live, but no one should think of it as being ours.

I don’t know whether what she said will make it into the curriculum of what our President is designing as a “1776 Commission” to “restore patriotic education to our schools.” Would he call it “patriotic history”? Don’t know. When she read what she did, I’d say she was teaching us the truth of “patriotic history.” I’m not at all sure if anything other than truth can be patriotic?

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this.

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    A psychology professor at Hope included a land acknowledgement statement in recent classes about race that he taught for HASP, the lifelong learning organization here in Holland. It was very moving…and also the first time I had heard of it.

  • Jill C. Fenske says:

    Once again you remind us that we are only part of a whole; family, heritage, nation and faith. We are indeed “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. Amen

  • Andy Rienstra says:

    Thanks Jim for reminding me of my long past Oostburg days which I will forever cherish!

  • Jim Payton says:

    Land acknowledgments have become fairly common, the last few years, in Ontario (Canada) … good as they are in admitting truth, how can we “lean into” these in anything more than a “pro forma” manner, to make for genuine repentance? Especially when, on both sides of the border, we continue to neglect the needs and desires of the original inhabitants of the places we settler-descendants now call “home”?

  • Daniel G VanKooten says:

    Land acknowledgement occurred at my daughter’s grad school graduation at the University of Michigan. It was haunting but beautiful, and felt like it was morally right. After teaching a class on the Meskwaki here in central Iowa this past year, it’s apparent that most of us know very little about those who occupied these prairies for centuries before Europeans arrived. Thanks for sharing this – and for your other essays about Native Americans.


    Thank you Jim !

  • Ron Zoutendam says:

    This comment has little to do with land ackinowledgement (or murals) but nolstalgic reminder of my Oostburg HS days. I attended a Bible class at Oostburg High taught by your Grandpa Schaap , same year I helped make cement mixers in Oostburg (“Gilson’s” I recall). Also spent two summers working at the Krier Canning Co, in Belgium (WI) where most of my co-workers were Luxembourgers, I too am thankful for the reminder.

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