The land-grant universities still profiting off Indigenous homelands

There are at least 16 land-grant universities making money from the expropriated Indigenous lands they retained from the Morrill Act.

In May 1900, a Boise Shoshone leader known as Captain Jim aimed his bow at deer and elk amid the shady pines and firs along a tributary of the Snake River near what is currently Boise, Idaho. Federal Indian agents called him “Captain” to denote his tribal leadership. Bundled away among the documents he carried was a letter signed by an Indian agent, which gave him permission to leave the Fort Hall Reservation and hunt on his tribe’s traditional territory. White settlers had flooded the lush Idaho valleys, gouging out gold and silver mines along the river and mountain ridges, while the Boise Shoshone lived far away, confined to a reservation.

Back in 1869, Captain Jim and his tribe were marched to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in the state’s southeastern corner as federal troops cleared the land of Indigenous peoples and opened the region to white settlement and mining. The shores of the Snake River and the nearby mountain ridges — home to both the Boise Shoshone and southern Nez Perce bands — boasted “the richest and most valuable silver mines yet known to the world,” The New York Times proclaimed a few years before. Violence was rampant; many tribes and bands lost their territory to the encroaching settlers and were banished to reservations or prisoner-of-war camps run by the U.S. military hundreds of miles away.


The U.S. created the state of Idaho using unbalanced treaties, land grabs and coerced agreements to seize Indigenous lands with little to no compensation. Tens of thousands of those acres were later used for lumber and cattle grazing to benefit the University of Idaho, which was established in 1889, one of 52 land-grant universities funded with stolen land.

The letter Captain Jim carried survives today, safeguarded by his great-great-granddaughter, Louise Dixey. Meanwhile, the land his community lived on still produces income for the state's flagship college.

“It’s really important for our people to know where we came from,” said Dixey, cultural resources director for her tribe. “That’s why we saved all of those documents. They never wanted us to forget.” 

A scan of the original letter carried by Boise Shoshone leader Captain Jim granting him permission to leave his reservation to hunt on his homelands.
Courtesy of Louise Dixey

To fund land-grant universities like the University of Idaho, the United States took nearly 11 million acres of land from approximately 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed treaties and land cessions. The Morrill Act of 1862 granted that land to states to be sold for the benefit of fledgling universities; altogether, it would raise nearly $18 million for 52 institutions by the early 20th century.

To claim a share of Morrill Act lands, universities had to agree to conserve and invest the principal raised from their sale. Eastern, Southern and some Midwestern states received vouchers for lands out West, while Western states and territories selected land inside their borders.  

In the course of a two-year investigation into how the United States expropriated nearly 11 million acres of Indigenous lands to build today’s celebrated land-grant university system, High Country News found that at least 16 land-grant universities in the West and Midwest — nearly a third of the schools in the system — still retain more than a half-million acres.

The Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant university system to spread public education across the country, bestowed 90,000 acres on the University of Idaho. That land was taken from the Nez Perce tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d'Alene) and the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone between 1855 and 1873. The University of Idaho raised over $450,000 from the land sold from its initial grant. Adjusted for inflation, the principal was worth over $13 million.

Today, the University of Idaho continues to benefit from over 33,000 unsold Morrill Act acres, more than a third of its original land grant. These lands comprise nearly 18,000 acres of rangeland, over 15,000 acres of timberland and over 350 acres of farmland. Held in trust by the state, they produced nearly $360,000 in revenue in fiscal year 2019. Another 70,000 mineral acres originally granted through the Morrill Act brought in approximately $1,200 in revenue to the university in the same year. (A “mineral acre” is a full or 100% interest in the minerals on one acre of land.) Both surface and mineral acres are managed by the Idaho Department of Lands — a feature unique to Western states that pulled land from within their own borders. States that received land vouchers, known as scrip, were unable to retain surface or mineral acres.

With an endowment valued at $281 million in 2018, those sums may seem small, but altogether, land-grant universities with remaining Morrill Act surface and mineral acres brought in at least $8.7 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019 alone — a conservative estimate, considering that Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming were unable to provide an accounting of profits from either lands or mineral rights originally granted through the Morrill Act. And these profits encompass only fiscal year 2019: No known estimates exist for the revenues produced for the universities in the last century.

Source: Robert Lee, Tristan Ahtone, Kalen Goodluck, “Morrill Act of 1862, 2019 Remaining Acres and Income,” High Country News, August 2020.

The University of Idaho’s continued financial benefits would not have been possible without the Nez Perce “thief” treaty of 1863 or the land seized without treaty or agreement from Western Shoshone bands, as well as the land ceded by unratified treaties from the Shoshone-Bannock and taken by executive order from the Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d'Alene).

In 1864, the Boise Shoshone signed a treaty with Territorial Gov. Caleb Lyon, relinquishing their rights to their traditional lands along the Boise River. That was over a century ago, yet the treaty has never been ratified by Congress. The same happened to the Bannock Tribe. The Fort Hall Reservation was created by executive order, to shoehorn multiple tribes and bands together in one place. 

For the Nez Perce Tribe, like many others, the choice was clear: Either sign a treaty, or prepare for war. In 1855, the tribe’s reservation had stretched across most of its original territory in what is now Washington, Oregon and Idaho, comprising millions of acres guaranteed by treaty — until, that is, gold was discovered, attracting hordes of illegal prospectors. A second treaty in 1863 reduced the tribe’s territory by nearly 90%. During the negotiation of the 1863 treaty, the United States propped up de facto Nez Perce leadership to legitimize the agreement. A faction of the tribe now known as the “lower” or “nontreaty” Nez Perce refused to assent to a treaty that would swallow up their homelands. This eventually led to war in 1877. More than 19,000 acres of the appropriated land would later be used to benefit the state’s land-grant university.

All told, the Nez Perce lost around 7 million acres — a land seizure enabled by fraud.

“Ultimately, we need to take the next step into making sure that money goes back to the people who it originates from in the form of opportunities and in the form of partnerships.”

“Ultimately, we need to take the next step into making sure that money goes back to the people who it originates from in the form of opportunities and in the form of partnerships,” said Nakia Williamson-Cloud (Nez Perce), director of the Nez Perce Cultural Resources Program. “I think some of those partnerships exist, but I don't think they really, truly, reflect what was taken from tribal people. I don't think it really reflects the true dollar amount.”

Today, Indigenous students face staggering educational disparities. The University of Idaho has publicly acknowledged that it was built on “Nez Perce tribe ceded lands.” It has taken steps to accommodate Indigenous students by, for example, creating a Native American Student Center and developing an American Indian Studies program, and it signed a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with 11 area tribes, recognizing their sovereignty. This MOU also acknowledges the school’s foundations as a land-grant university, and, in agreement with the signatory tribes, created the president’s Native American Advisory Council on campus, which maintains a kind of partnership with the tribes. However, it does not acknowledge the fact that the university still benefits financially from more than 33,000 acres of tribal homelands in the form of remaining Morrill Act land grants.

“Against the backdrop of other similar-sized university settings, I think the University of Idaho is doing a decent job, but that's in comparison to other universities,” said Philip Stevens (San Carlos Apache), assistant professor of anthropology and director of American Indian studies at the University of Idaho. “I think universities as a whole are doing a horrible job.” In early 2015, when Stevens arrived at the university, he revamped the curriculum for American Indian studies, which was on track to expand into a bachelor’s degree program. Today, however, its expansion has stalled indefinitely due to recent university-wide budget cuts — and now, of course, the pandemic.

“I think they have a responsibility to waive any tuition fees for our tribal members,” said Dixey, who spent a year at the University of Idaho. “The only thing they’ve ever done is create an Indian studies program. They’ve never really provided services to Native American students until recently.”

Today, the university shares in the windfall derived from the more than 2.4 million acres of endowment lands that the state received through the Morrill Act and other legislation. Those lands produce tens of millions of dollars in income for public education and other state programs, and created thousands of jobs that enrich Idaho’s economy. According to a report by the Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho, they accounted for $531 million of Idaho’s Gross State Product (GSP) in fiscal year 2017. 

University of Idaho President C. Scott Green declined to be interviewed or comment on the financial benefit the university still receives from Indigenous lands. Instead, Green provided a statement on the school’s partnership with tribes, Indigenous outreach and recruitment efforts. “The Tribes are an important part of who we are at the University of Idaho because of our cultural connections, joint concerns about the conservation of our lands and wildlife, and our desire to continue to do important work together,” Green wrote in an email.

Captain Jim’s son and successor, Charley Diggie, would go on to lead the Boise Shoshone in 1905. By then, treaty-making between Congress and tribes had ended. Several previous treaties signed in good faith by the Shoshone and Bannock tribes — unratified by Congress — were never honored. In fact, nearly half of treaties the U.S. negotiated with tribes were left unratified.

Deep volcanic lava canyon on the Snake River just south of Boise, Idaho.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Charley Diggie’s daughter, Effie Diggie, was sent to the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, an off-reservation boarding school where over 10,000 children from over 140 Indigenous nations were sent between 1879 and 1918 for cultural re-education and religious conversion to essentially erase their tribal identities. Many never came home; nearly 200 Native children are buried at the entrance of the Carlisle barracks. Effie, at 18, survived and traveled to Lawrence, Kansas, to attend Haskell Indian School in 1918.

Louise Dixey, Effie’s grandniece and Charley’s great-granddaughter, was able to enroll at the University of Idaho, but left after just one year. A family health emergency compelled her to return home to the Fort Hall Reservation, and the nine-hour trip to Moscow became too much. So Dixey enrolled at nearby Idaho State University in Pocatello, where she eventually graduated. 

“I just really wish for Native students to understand that what they bring is something that's rare and very powerful and can be very, very useful, and that they keep that faith,” said Philip Stevens. “And as many times that people will try to tell you that, ‘I don't understand your gift,’ I wish they would keep the faith to know that what they bring is a gift.”

Kalen Goodluck is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected]g or submit a letter to the editor.

Tristan Ahtone is the editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer and was a former associate editor for High Country News. Robert Lee is a lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Selwyn College, and a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, a land-grant university.

Edited by Katherine Lanpher. Katherine Lanpher is a writer, editor and broadcaster based in New York; she is the former features editor for Al Jazeera America.

Fact check by Taryn Salinas.