‘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].


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