Students and faculty urge deeper look at land-grant legacy

University officials face pressure to address their history as the recipients of dispossessed Indigenous land.

 

A banner hangs on a statue of Cornell University’s founder, Ezra Cornell, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year.
Della Keahna Uran

When High Country News published “Land-Grab universities” last April, the two-year-long investigation shed new light on a dark open secret: One of the largest transfers of land and capital in the country’s history had masqueraded as a donation for university endowments.

HCN identified nearly 11 million acres of land, expropriated from approximately 250 tribes, bands and communities through more than 160 violence-backed treaties and land cessions. Now, in the wake of the investigation, land-grant universities across the country are re-evaluating the capital they built from these stolen Indigenous lands.

More than 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act — the legislation that transferred the lands — new discussions about the universities’ moral and ethical responsibilities have forced Americans to re-examine the law’s legacy. Land-grant institutions have long prided themselves on their accomplishments as beneficiaries: They used the proceeds generated by the land to broaden access to higher education, thereby contributing to economic development across the nation. But many of those institutions paid next to nothing for the public lands they received and sold. 

By far the largest beneficiary was Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which acquired almost 1 million acres from Ojibwe, Miwok, Yokuts, Dakota and other Indigenous nations through 63 treaties or seizures. The land came from 15 states, and by 1935, when the last parcel was sold, Cornell University had generated nearly $6 million for its endowment, the largest of any land-grant institution. Adjusted for inflation, it raised over $92 million.

Now, as the country reconsiders long-standing issues of racial equity and justice — focusing on everything from local political races to national legislation — students and faculty alike are pressuring administrators to address the investigation’s findings.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 12, 2020, members of Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell (NAISAC) put forward a list of 10 demands in the form of a petition. The demands include turning the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program into a university department; recruiting new Indigenous faculty and students, specifically Indigenous students affected and/or displaced by the Morrill Act; waiving tuition for those students; acknowledging the land of the Gayoghó:nǫ’, or Cayuga Nation, before every Ithaca-based event; and reinstating an ad-hoc committee on Native American Affairs to oversee the approval of these demands.

“Each of these demands in my mind is completely 100% justified and should already have been implemented by the university decades ago.”

“If the president’s office was responsible, then they would meet each of these demands to the extent that we’ve laid them out in our petition,” said Colin Benedict (Mohawk), the external relations chair for NAISAC. “Each of these demands in my mind is completely 100% justified and should already have been implemented by the university decades ago.”

As of Dec. 1, the petition had more than 900 signatures from students, staff, alumni and community members. The president’s office has yet to respond publicly, but in an email exchange, it stated, “The Office of the President is in receipt of the NAISAC petition, and the President is looking forward to working with the Native American and Indigenous community at Cornell on these issues.”

A faculty committee, headed by American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program Director Kurt Jordan, launched the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project. The project will research Cornell’s Morrill Act land history, identify the Indigenous communities affected, and foster discussion of possible remedies.

“We’ve had a number of statements that have been made by the administration in light of the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter, and all of the other things that have been happening this year about the need for Cornell to really address its legacy, its historical roots, its complicity in … to some degree, with white supremacy,” Jordan said.  “Benefiting from stolen Indigenous land has to be part of that.”

History professor Jon Parmenter recently discovered that Cornell is in possession of over 420,000 acres of mineral rights in the Central and Southwestern U.S., a portion of which was retained through Morrill Act lands. In its petition, NAISAC urged the university to release a statement acknowledging the amount of land acquired, the interest accrued and mineral rights funds received, and pledging to refrain from mineral and resource extraction on those lands.

OVER 2,500 MILES WEST OF CORNELL, faculty and students at the University of California, Berkeley have also made strides. Established in 1868, the university received almost 150,000 acres from the Morrill Act. The land raised $730,000 for the university’s early endowment, and, adjusted for inflation, has generated over $13 million. The university paid nothing in return.

The presence and history of Indigenous people has been largely erased from the UC system, said Phenocia Bauerle (Apsáalooke), director of Native American Student Development at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years ago, Bauerle and the Native American Student Development center created a land acknowledgment to honor the Ohlone tribal lands that the university sits upon. However, the university has yet to adopt an official acknowledgment.

According to a California audit, UC Berkeley is the worst offender among the schools when it comes to complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which grants Indigenous nations the right to regain ancestral remains and objects from museums. UC Berkeley has only repatriated 20% of its 500,000-artifact collection. In comparison, the University of California Los Angeles has repatriated 96% of its collection.                 

“A lot of it comes down to, well, they see these issues as historical and not of the present because they see Natives as historical and not of the present,” Bauerle said. Since the dispossession occurred in the past, contemporary people don’t see themselves as responsible, and they feel no pressure to address the issue today. However, “ ‘Land-Grab’ gave us several concrete (points),” Bauerle said. “This dispossession of Native land that this whole country benefits from — here’s a specific way that we can show you that Berkeley actually played a part in it. These are the receipts. This is how much money you got.”

Bauerle partnered with Rosalie Z. Fanshel, a doctoral student in environmental science, policy and management and the program manager for the Berkeley Food Institute, to organize a conference on the Morrill Act and Indigenous land dispossession.

“The UC Land Grab: A Legacy of Profit from Indigenous Land” was held in two parts in September and October. The conference dug deep into the history of California’s genocide and the founding of the University of California. Participants called for action, including shared land stewardship, research opportunities and tuition options for Indigenous students.

More than 500 people attended both days of the conference. David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources in Berkeley, was among them. “I felt like I was learning so much that I had not been aware of,” he said. “This is part of our story, I want to be part of this. I want to learn. I want to figure out where we’re heading.”

Other attendees included staff from the office of UC President Michael V. Drake, the office of the chancellor at UC Berkeley and the governor’s office, as well as deans and administrators from various UC campuses and units.

“Many Native and Indigenous people in the state and across the world have been made promises since colonization, and they’ve been broken. It’s hard not to remember that legacy; I live in that legacy.”

One of the panelists, Brittani Orona, a doctoral candidate in Native American studies and human rights at UC Davis and a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, was surprised by how many people within the university system had no knowledge of the history of land-grant institutions. “I think with Native people and Native students, you know that our land, our places have been taken away from us, from many different institutions and at many different points of time,” Orona said.

At the conference, Orona spoke about the history of genocide in California. “Scholars of California Indian genocide will say it ended in 1873, but I argue it is a continuous process,” Orona said.  “Many Native and Indigenous people in the state and across the world have been made promises since colonization, and they’ve been broken. It’s hard not to remember that legacy; I live in that legacy.”

Orona, who will complete her Ph.D. in the coming year, hopes that future Native and Indigenous students have a different experience than she did. “What does that mean, when you’re having California Native students pay out of pocket on land that has been dispossessed from them?  I appreciate the discussions that are going on, but I’ll believe it when I see it — and when it moves beyond acknowledgment towards actual actionable items that make life easier for Native and Indigenous students and peoples.”

As of Dec. 4, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has yet to respond about the conference publicly. In an email, however, she wrote, “To achieve this inclusive campus culture, we must acknowledge how our history, including the Morrill Land Grant Act, impacts Indigenous people. Now more than ever, we, as a university, must take immediate action to acknowledge past wrongs, build trusting and respectful relationships, and accelerate change and justice for our Native Nations and Tribal communities.”

Jessica Douglas is a fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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