Higher education and the legacy of land theft
Indian Country Today
American universities such as Iowa State University, Ohio State University, The University of Florida, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Arizona are all land grant institutions. What does this mean? How did they get funding to start or expand their schools? The answer is they all benefited from the violent taking of Indian lands which was prompted by several acts signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.
After a two year investigation by High Country News, the story Land Grab Universities was published at the end of March of this year. It shows how the U.S. Government took away lands from Tribal Nations and helped states created endowments for these universities. Those endowments and the money trail remain on the books today.
Tristan Ahtone was the associate editor at High Country News and he worked on this investigation. He joins us to tell us how they collected the data and now how some students at these universities are starting to hold the administrations accountable.
"There are a number of acts that Lincoln signed in 1862, the Homestead Act, the Railroad Act and the Morrill Act. All these acts were essentially land distribution acts designed to open the United States and the Western U.S. to white settlers."
"What we did on our investigation is focused specifically on the Morrill Act which distributed public lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges and universities across the country."
"Those acts basically work by turning land taken from tribal nations and turning them into property for people to settle on, or turning them into property that could be then parlayed into seed money for higher education or for railroads and corporations to use to build railroads."
"To open this land, or part of this land, the United States either had to sign treaties with tribal nations or seize lands outright. There are a number of ways in which, as you know, the federal government came into the possession of those lands. Almost every time through duplicitous means of some sort or another."
"The Morrill Act ... impacted about 250 different tribal nations, bands and communities through about 160 violence backed treaties and land seizures, which directly benefited 52 universities."
"As Indigenous reporters, I think we're all keenly aware of history a lot of U.S. citizens are not taught. So really one of the keys to this project was just understanding that the public lands came from someplace. We can tie those to specific Indigenous bands and communities and start adding dollar amounts to what was gained by those universities and how tribal nations were often taken advantage of."
"A lot of universities are still benefiting from this act. Using some forensic accounting methods, we were able to track down some accounts and find them. We know that there are some reporters working in Massachusetts, for instance, to locate those accounts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We have other stories that are coming out, hopefully within the next couple of weeks, that look at those mineral and surface rights and how much money those universities have collected, even just in fiscal year 19, let alone the last hundred years."
"The universities that have benefited from them are obviously doing very well."
"We haven't seen any reaction from universities. When this story came out it was at the first peak of COVID really hitting the U.S. so a number of universities said that they were dealing with COVID and couldn't respond, but since then, we haven't actually still seen a response, but we have seen student organizations and associations across the U.S. starting to press their institutions to recognize this history."
"In the case of University of Florida, for instance, the student senate has passed a resolution for the university to set up a truth and reconciliation commission that would deal, not only with the university's history of slavery but also expropriation based on our reporting. We hear the same thing is going on over at University of Arizona. University of California is starting to have that conversation as well."
"We've seen organizations like the Librarians Association at the University of California begin to talk about how this data can be used. Wisconsin has talked about setting up land buyback programs to reimburse tribal nations whose lands were taken for the University. We're seeing a lot of really interesting conversations happening."
"There are at least three to four new in depth stories that are coming out based on this data from news organizations around the country. So with COVID in some ways leveling off coverage wise, we're beginning to see another second push on this data and reporters using it to hold universities accountable and tell the story that I think a lot of non-Indigenous people don't know."
"As we continue to see protests and demonstrations around the country and people grappling with the quote unquote 'unsavory' bits of history and racist history that a lot of institutions are tied to, we're seeing an uptick in recent interests in the data that we've created."
"One of the goals of this project and this investigation was to make sure that we could provide, essentially, receipts for what universities did. When it comes to universities' history with slavery there's been a lot of areas that researchers have not been able to even touch when it comes to finances. For a lot of researchers it's almost impossible to put a dollar amount on what universities gained from engaging in the slave trade. In this case we can be clear down to the cent on exactly how much universities profited from expropriated Indigenous land."
"We made it a goal to make sure that all of our data was available for download. So any researcher in the world is able to download the data for free and use it in any way that they are needing to in their research."
"We have a second website set up under landgrabu.org where users can go and explore the data through interactive maps and visuals. If you want to see University of Arizona, for instance, and what their footprint is in the Morrill Act and what Tribal Nations they've impacted, you can take a look at that. If you are a tribal member and say, you're Yurok for instance, you can go to your page, set up for your tribal nation and you can see what universities profited from your land."
"We've really tried to make sure that those receipts and that data is easily accessible, freely accessible, so that it can inform those conversations in as close detail as possible."
"University of California has been one of the biggest and potentially most egregious. University of California is one of the universities that could take land from within their state boundary. There are basically two kinds of land grant schools, there are schools that take land from inside their territorial boundaries and there are scrip schools, which are east coast schools that were essentially given vouchers for land in the West and those vouchers are known as scrip. Cornell obviously took the largest amount of land and made the most amount of money and they're spread across the country."
"Not a single dollar was paid to any of the Tribal Nations that were impacted by the state of California being founded."
"University of California was able to get its start and stay in business essentially from that gift of expropriated land."
"Montana State University, they still have 63,000 surface acres that came from this act and almost 78,000 mineral acres making a combined total of almost $700,000 in fiscal year 19 alone."
"Almost two dozen universities continue to make money off of this land, which I think raises questions about, if you know the land you have is stolen and you continue to make money off of it as a university, do you choose to do something about that or do you continue to ignore it?"
"The question is whether or not universities will acknowledge their past or their history or that data that we've been able to put out publicly. There's a very small amount of Native students and faculty and staff at universities that were founded off of expropriating land from those Native students, faculty and staff's ancestors."
"It was a really, really big team effort working with everybody on this investigation. It was great to be working with other Indigenous people on this investigation, like Margaret Pierce and Kalen Goodluck. It was fantastic working with my co-author Robert Lee who had done this research and basically was the brains behind this research."
"This data is accurate down to the GPS location of where this land is and how much money was made off of it, who it belonged to and who it was given to."
"I do believe that we're at least at a starting point, for students, advocates, activists, et cetera, to start holding their institutions accountable and we're seeing it. And we're hoping that there will be more coverage and more stories and more action taken by universities to address this."
Ahtone is currently editor in chief of The Texas Observer and president of the Native American Journalists Association.
Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.
The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.