‘Land-grab universities’ wins Polk Award for Education Reporting

The project ‘sparked public conversations about the debts universities owe to Indigenous nations.’

 

A two-year investigation into how the expropriation of Indigenous land became the foundation for the land-grant university system, led by Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee and published in High Country News, has won the prestigious 2020 George Polk Award for Education Reporting. 

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

Tristan Ahtone

“I’m absolutely delighted that ‘Land-grab universities’ has been honored with this award, and hopefully will inspire even more reporters and researchers to dig into the data,” Ahtone said. “It’s absolutely critical that more newsrooms dedicate resources to investigative reporting in Indigenous communities, and I hope this project helps to reveal the breadth, and impact, possible when supporting teams focused on Indigenous affairs reporting.”

Ahtone joins Ed and Betsy Marston (1986) and Ray Ring (2006) as winners of a George Polk Award for work published by High Country News.

Since “Land-grab universities” was published, institutions such as 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

“I was grateful to hear we had received the Polk Award,” Lee said. “Since its publication, ‘Land-grab universities’ has sparked public conversations about the debts universities owe to Indigenous nations. This recognition will extend its reach. The Polk also has a track record of amplifying innovative forms of journalism. 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.”

“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, 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).

Now in their 73rd year, the George Polk Awards are administered by Long Island University in New York and place a premium on investigative reporting that gains attention and produces results. This year’s winners in 18 categories include CNN, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post, among others.

For more than 50 years, High Country News has reported the stories of the Western U.S. that are often overlooked by larger media outlets. The nonprofit news organization has won numerous awards over the years, including the Utne Media Award, the George Polk Award (previously), the Science in Society Award, the Society of Environmental Journalists Award, and many others. 

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

###

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...