Enrichment Arts & Culture

The Oscars acknowledged the indigenous land Hollywood sits on

Taika Waititi backstage at the 92nd Academy Awards at Dolby Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Taika Waititi (center) backstage at the 92nd Academy Awards at Dolby Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles. 

Story at a glance

  • During the 92nd Academy Awards, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi acknowledged that the ceremony was taking place on Native American land.
  • Waititi is the third person of indigenous descent to win an Oscar.
  • Los Angeles, where Hollywood is located, has the largest indigenous population of any U.S. city.

An indigenous filmmaker introduced an award for an indigenous actor with an acknowledgement to the indigenous people whose lands they stood on. The historic moment at the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9 was brief, but memorable. 

“The academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion picture community lives and works,” New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi said before introducing the winners of the academy’s honorary prizes.  

One of those was Native American actor Wes Studi, the first and only indigenous person to win an honorary award. 

“I’d simply like to say it’s about time,” Studi started his acceptance speech at the Governor’s Awards in October 2019

Studi was the first indigenous actor to win an Oscar and joined a handful of other Oscar winners of indigenous heritage, including musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, who won an Academy Award for Best Original Song “Up Where We Belong” in 1983 and sound engineer Hammond Peek, who won the Academy Award for Best Sound in 2003 and 2005. Waititi, who is of Māori heritage, became the first indigenous director to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

“I dedicate this to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers, and we can make it here,” Waititi said, before ending his speech with “kia ora,” a Māori greeting.

That the acknowledgement came from Waititi is not surprising, given his past actions to honor indigenous people in his work. 

As the director of the box-office hit “Thor: Ragnarok,” Waititi reportedly invited the cast and crew to a land acknowledgement ceremony with a group of aboriginal dancers from the Bundjalung, a local tribe. A Māori person also delivered a blessing, a practice that Waikiki told Slate’s Dan Kois is common in New Zealand. 

“Even something very small, we’d do something like that,” Waititi told Slate. “In America, they’d never do that. But if I came to America to make a movie, I’d make damn sure I knew who was there first.”

Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, has the largest indigenous population of any U.S. city, according to the 2010 census, including both Pacific Islander and Latin American indigenous peoples. 

The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, and Tataviam occupied the Los Angeles Basin before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the U.S. ownership of California and much of the Southwest in 1848, according to the UCLA American Indian Studies Center

In the following centuries, settlers forced some Native Americans into servitude and pushed others onto reservations. Now, the closest tribal lands to Dolby Theatre, where the Academy Awards are held, are nearly 100 miles away in neighboring San Bernardino County.