Land-grant universities should acknowledge their debt to Indigenous people

Many of the nation’s universities were created with stolen wealth.


This parcel of land in the Niles Canyon Railway in Sunol, California, was seized by unratified treaty on May 28, 1851 from Indigenous caretakers Chap-pah-sim, Co-to-plan-e-nee, I-o-no-hum-ne, Sage-womnee, Su-ca-ah and We-chil-la for the benefit of Auburn University in Alabama. The United States paid no compensation – $0 – for this land that formed Auburn University’s new endowment.
Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

This article was originally published in The New York Times on May 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

This is how deep it goes. Even an essay calling for a fairer America missed the injustice at the core of the nation’s character.

“From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient,” the Times editorial board wrote. “Even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter.”

Among those laws was the Morrill Act of 1862, which appropriated land to fund agricultural and mechanical colleges — a national constellation of institutions known as land-grant universities. A graduate of Montana State University went on to develop vaccines; researchers at Iowa State bred the key corn variety in our food supply; the first email system was developed at M.I.T. It’s easy to see why The Times looked to the Morrill Act as a blueprint for a more progressive future.

But ask who paid for it, and who’s still paying today.

The Morrill Act was a wealth transfer disguised as a donation. The government took land from Indigenous people that it had paid little or nothing for and turned that land into endowments for fledgling universities.

Congressman Justin Morrill, of Vermont, sponsor of the Morrill Act which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.
Library of Congress

Our investigation in High Country News found that the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres, which is almost the size of Denmark. The grants came from more than 160 violence-backed land cessions made by close to 250 tribal nations. When adjusted for inflation, the windfall netted 52 universities roughly half a billion dollars.

The coronavirus pandemic has magnified the United States’ disparities and prompted conversations about its values. A cleareyed history of how land-grant universities profited from violence and expropriation can provide a starting point to confront the nation’s record of genocide.

Western states selected tribal land within their boundaries. The University of Idaho, for instance, got started with 90,000 acres that had been taken from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Schitsu’umsh, the Te Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone and the Nez Percé tribe between 1855 and 1873. The Nez Percé tribe continues to dispute the 1863 “thief” treaty that stole 90% of its territory. By 1890, the tribe’s population had dropped by as much as two-thirds because of federal policies that led to armed conflict, malnutrition, poverty and poor sanitation, all of which made periodic epidemics far deadlier. That year, Idaho became a state and received its agricultural college grant — a haul worth $13.1 million when adjusted for inflation that it assigned to the University of Idaho.

In 2018, the university had 11,841 students enrolled. Only 114 were Native American or Alaska Native. The Nez Percé reservation is only an hour and a half from campus.

Back East, as well as in the South and Midwest, the Morrill Act provided states with vouchers for distant lands, known as scrip. Selling the scrip funded institutes of science and technology like Virginia Tech, state flagships like The Ohio State University and future Ivy League schools like Cornell, which converted nearly a million acres into the largest Morrill Act fortune. The University of Vermont profited from 150,000 acres, once home to more than 50 tribal nations.

With the money filtered through speculators and state governments, most of these universities never knew where their bounty came from and never bothered to ask.

As the universities grew, the grant income typically faded in significance, but in some cases it remains substantial. New Mexico State University earned nearly $1.6 million in fiscal year 2019 from leases of its grant land, most of which is still owned by the state. Roughly 13,500 of its 250,000 grant acres came from a Navajo Nation land cession made in 1868 after the Long Walk, a 400-mile death march that sent 10,000 Navajos from Arizona to live under concentration-camp-like conditions in New Mexico.

Today the Navajo Nation faces a surge in coronavirus cases exacerbated by limited access to clean water and inadequate health care — resources guaranteed by the federal government and backed by the Constitution in exchange for the same land New Mexico State University still profits from.

Profiteering from dispossession hardly made land-grant universities unusual at the time of their founding. The Pacific Railway Act and the Homestead Act, the other two Civil War-era laws flagged for inspiration by The Times, followed a similar pattern while redistributing far more land. Thousands of other federal laws, emboldened by racism and designed to expand United States territory, converted a continent’s worth of Indigenous territory into settler property.

This process was so fundamental to the history of the United States that it’s easy to overlook or compress into perfunctory acknowledgments. But continuing to champion legislation built on ideas of racial superiority won’t lead us to a fairer future. It maintains the status quo by erasing Indigenous communities. This stolen land brought intergenerational wealth to settlers, their corporations and institutions; created tax bases for state and local governments; and disadvantaged citizens of tribal nations in ways that persist today.

And yet the Morrill Act is a practical starting point for imagining a new chapter for the United States. Unlike homesteaders who passed away long ago, the Morrill Act’s original beneficiaries are still here and their gains are still on the books. And unlike railroads, whose corporate charters favor shareholder interests, land-grant universities are committed to serving society.

Instead of clinging to an origin story that starts with free land, those universities have a chance to acknowledge debts that are impossible to repay but unconscionable to ignore.

Instead of clinging to an origin story that starts with free land, those universities have a chance to acknowledge debts that are impossible to repay but unconscionable to ignore.

Ideas for reconciliation include curriculum reform that includes the mandatory teaching of this history, budget reallocation to aid Indigenous students and faculty, the establishment of satellite campuses on reservations, and buyback programs to purchase and return land to tribal nations.

Some schools, like South Dakota State University, have already taken some of these steps. Others could start by talking to the tribal nations that unwillingly enabled their success. They could form committees to investigate their shared histories, like the Truth and Healing Council established in California to grapple with its bloody past. They could address the moral questions raised, in the same way colleges have started reckoning with their ties to the slave trade.

If the United States is to have a serious dialogue about forging a fairer nation, it must face its history of genocide and dispossession. Land-grant universities could provide the leadership to take concrete action, or risk reinforcing the racism that built this country.

Tristan Ahtone was an associate editor at High Country News until the end of April and is now the editor in chief of The Texas Observer.  He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe. Robert Lee is a lecturer in American history at the University of Cambridge. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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