‘Land-grab universities’ wins IRE award

The award from Investigative Reporters and Editors marks the second major honor for the project.


A two-year investigation into how the expropriation of Indigenous land became the foundation of the land-grant university system, led by Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee, has been honored by the 2020 IRE Awards, which recognize the best in investigative reporting across print, broadcast and online media.

Land-grab universities” also received the 2020 George Polk Award for Education Reporting.

Ahtone (Kiowa), who is currently editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer but was then the Indigenous Affairs editor for High Country News, and Lee, a historian at Cambridge University, located 99% of the nearly 11 million acres transferred from Indigenous nations to fledgling land-grant colleges through the Morrill Act of 1862 — lands taken through broken treaties, illegal seizures and outright genocide. In addition to the feature published in High Country News, the project also created a database at www.landgrabu.org that translates the extensive primary source research into searchable, visual representation, clearly showing the links between nearly 250 Indigenous nations and the 52 institutions that profited (and in some cases still profit) from the transfers.

Tristan Ahtone

“It’s really an honor to see the work put into this story recognized by IRE,” Ahtone said. “This investigation was truly a collaborative effort representative of the immense data available to reporters in Indian Country.”

Since “Land-Grab Universities” was published, institutions including Cornell University, Ohio State University and the University of California have created initiatives to reckon with the debt they owe Indigenous communities. Student protests have started, investigations have been requested and the information is making its way into curriculums. The data from the project is available for use under the Open Database License and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license at landgrabu.org.

Robert Lee

“Since its publication, ‘Land-grab universities’ has sparked public conversations about the debts universities owe to Indigenous nations,“ Lee said. “In this case, we combined historical research and investigative reporting in a way one rarely sees practiced. The project was risky in that regard. Hopefully, this award will encourage more collaborations between historians and journalists.”

The project won in Division IV of the Print/Online Media category. The IRE Awards are given annually by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a membership organization of journalists dedicated to improving investigative reporting.

Judges commented, “This investigation produced a foundational piece of journalism that forces a reckoning with dark origins of many of our nation’s universities. Through maps, interactives and analysis of archival materials that were almost lost to time, the sheer magnitude of this effort is breathtaking, and its findings are no less impressive. This examination of land grant universities will facilitate important research and journalism moving forward.”

“Land-Grab Universities” was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The team that produced the project included photographer Kalen Goodluck (Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian), cartographer Margaret Pearce (Citizen Band Potawatomi), multimedia journalist Geoff McGhee, researcher Taryn Salinas, coding engineer Cody Leff, Lynn Dombek, Marty Two Bulls Jr. (Oglala Lakota), Gwen Westermen and Jennifer LaFleur.

High Country News staff and contributors who produced the project include former Editor-in-Chief Brian Calvert, former Interim Editor-in-Chief Katherine Lanpher, Anna V. Smith, Jessica Kutz, Carl Segerstrom, Elena Saavedra Buckley, Cindy Wehling, Gretchen King, Luna Anna Archey, Roberto (Bear) Guerra, Keriann Conroy, Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux), Annabella Farmer, Tovah Strong and Jessica Douglas (Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians).

For more than 50 years, High Country News — based in Paonia, Colorado, but with staff and contributors scattered across the region — has reported the stories of the Western U.S. that are often overlooked by larger media outlets. The nonprofit news organization has won numerous accolades, including a George Polk Award on three occasions and awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, Utne Media, National Association of Science Writers, the Native American Journalists Association and the James Beard Foundation, among many others.

For more information about High Country News, contact Greg Hanscom, publisher and executive director, at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds