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Investigation Sheds Light On The Foundation Of America's "Land-Grab Universities"

Old Main, University of Wyoming. Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If you've spent time on a college campus lately, you may have encountered a land acknowledgment - recognition of the tribes whose ancestral land the institution is built on. But land-grant universities, originally created to educate America's working class, also owe their founding to the seizure and sale of Indigenous land. The 1862 Morrill Act granted over 17 million acres for states to sell and raise endowment principal for the institutions.

Tristan Ahtone, editor of High Country News' Indigenous Affairs Desk, spent the last two years investigating the origins of that land. He and collaborator Robert Lee, a lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge, found that the United States paid less than $400,000 to extinguish Indigenous title to 10.7 million acres that were granted through the Morrill Act. For about a quarter of those parcels, they found that the United States didn't pay anything at all, and acquired the land through seizure or unratified treaty. Many states and universities, including the University of Wyoming, are still cashing in today.

Ahtone spoke to Wyoming Public Media's Savannah Maher about his investigation, which appeared in the latest issue of High County News.

Tristan Ahtone: Basically the elevator pitch is that expropriated Indigenous land is what funded and founded the system of higher education known as land-grant universities in the United States.

Savannah Maher: And the myth about land-grant universities is that this frontier land that was sort of gifted by the federal government.

TA: Yeah. That is one of the big things that we really wanted to look at was this idea that land-grant universities were just sort of given land, free land that nobody was using. Obviously with our understanding of the United States these days we know that that's not true. I think, abstractly, people sort of understand that the United States was not unoccupied territory. But I think the exciting thing that we've been able to do is use hard data to sort of show how land came into the possession of the United States and then was sliced up, and this particular slice given to land-grant universities. So, one of the big things about the story is making sure that people understand that there is a very strong mythology around land-grant universities and the United States as a whole, and that data shows something very different.

SM: And the University of Wyoming, which licenses Wyoming Public Radio, is part of that system. So where did UW's Morrill Act land come from?

TA: The University of Wyoming was granted 90,000 acres. Those 90,000 acres came out of a total of four different land cessions [from the Northern Arapaho, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone, Shoshone Bannock, Assiniboine and Sioux, and Crow tribes]. And the amount that the United States paid for title on those lands was $1,954, while the University of Wyoming was able to raise approximately $73,356. We believe that the University of Wyoming still benefits as well from mineral acres that would have been associated with those original Morrill Act grants. So there are still a number of states and universities that are benefiting from those lands. And I think the sort of next step that we have as reporters, not only at High Country News but also at local outlets, is to start getting a sense of what that benefit has continued to be over the years from that initial dispossession of land from Indigenous communities.

SM: And you've made all of your data and your methodology from this investigation public. What are you hoping people do with that?

TA: Yeah, all of our data is available for download. We've made all of the information that we are using. Reporters, researchers, historians, tribal historic preservation officers etc., anybody who wants to see how we put this thing together can do that and download it and use that information in essentially whatever way they're hoping to. With reporters, I'm really hoping to see more people sort of dive into the information and find the stories of actual real people that are impacted by this history.

SM: Do you think that your investigation will spark conversation and eventually action on campuses like the University of Wyoming?

TA: Well, we hope so. There's obviously a really heavy conversation that I think universities should be having, and we're beginning to see that happen on social media, at least, and lot of folks that are demanding that universities pay more attention to the data that we've put out and the story that we've put out.

SM: And you mention at least one example of university that has been conscious of all of this. Can you talk a little bit about that?

TA: South Dakota State University has taken a sort of attack that we were somewhat surprised by. They had gone through, not only identified the land and its original inhabitants, but also taken steps to make sure that the revenue that's being produced from those lands is still going to Indigenous students. I suspect one reason that that's happened is because the president of South Dakota State University is an Indigenous person. As I mentioned before, Wyoming and other states have the opportunity to make those moves if they so desired. We've also seen that folks have said that maybe revenues should be used to buy lands for affected tribes and start replacing land base. You know, I think there are a lot of different ways that this can work. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all for each university and each tribal nation, but I think that when universities start having conversations with the tribal nations that were impacted by their presence, there can be some sort of consensus that starts to grow.

SM: The findings of your investigation are obviously pretty bleak, but as somebody who covers Indigenous communities, it's really energizing to see investigative reporting and resources poured into something like this, and to see that there are outlets and readers who are hungry for this kind of reporting. So, thank you for that.

TA: Well thank you for reading and supporting, too. You know I think when it comes to sort of the state of Indigenous media, that what we have seen at High Country News and at other places is that there is a really big appetite for reading news from Indian Country. And I think as well, people are really primed to read things that they're not prepared for. And when I say not prepared for, I mean that as a desk at High Country News, the team really works hard to make sure that we're covering stories that nobody else is covering. That means sort of stepping away from the stories that are making headlines or making the rounds on social media, and really pushing a little bit further to make sure we are finding stories that have real impacts and really open up our understanding of the world a little bit differently.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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