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Investigation shows how land-grant universities continue to profit from stolen Indigenous lands

A plume of smoke rises in the distance. In the foreground, a hawk sits on a massive piece of irrigation equipment in a field.
Eliseu Cavalcante
A parcel of land in Willcox, Arizona, that was granted to the University of Arizona. The University of Wyoming is one of the land-grant universities featured in "Grist's" recent "Misplaced Trust" investigation.

Over the past year, the media organization "Grist" located and mapped more than 8 million acres of land taken from 123 Indigenous nations in the form of state-trust lands. Their Misplaced Trust series explores how these lands have produced billions of dollars for fourteen land-grant universities, including the University of Wyoming.

Wyoming Public Radio's Hannah Habermann spoke with "Grist" editor-at-large Tristan Ahtone and "Grist" spatial data analyst Maria Parazo Rose about the project.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Tristan Ahtone: Land-grant universities are a set of institutions that owe their beginnings to something called the Morrill Act, which was signed into existence by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. What that law did was more or less take newly-acquired land, land that had been taken from tribes, then the law cut that land up and distributed it to those institutions in order to sell it or make money off of it in order to get off the ground.

Hannah Habermann: What is the relationship between these universities and state trust lands?

TA: These institutions were first given land to get off the ground. But state trust lands were also provided to these institutions to continue to produce revenue for them. It wasn’t just a one-time gift from the Morrill Act, it's a new piece of legislation that's establishing these state trust lands that provide a new source of revenue.

State trust lands are basically established when states become states, as part of their graduation. They're sort of like a dowry for joining the Union. [The U.S. Congress] pass[ed] enabling acts, and usually in these enabling acts, land is granted to institutions like universities, but also to other sorts of infrastructure. In the state of Wyoming, I believe the Miner’s Hospital, a penitentiary, K-12 schools, and a lot of different sorts of state institutions benefit from these trust lands.

HH: What were some of the top findings or things that really stood out as you started looking at this data?

TA: One big thing was the sheer amount of acreage. Our findings put it at about 8.3 million surface and subsurface acres of land. But I think one of the biggest ones was the amount of money that institutions are making off of these lands. Between 2018 and 2022, we were able to track about $6.6 billion in revenue that was coming off of these lands.

And looking at how much was actually paid for those lands, if anything was paid at all to Indigenous nations, our calculations put it at the U.S. paid about $4.3 million in title for these lands. That’s just a tiny, tiny amount compared to that $6.6 billion, when the U.S. actually paid anything. For instance, in Arizona, those lands were taken through combat and conflict. In almost the entire state of Arizona, nothing was ever paid to any of the tribes for that land.

Maria Parazo Rose: When we talk about how these trust lands have generated revenue for universities for all these different beneficiaries, the way that's happening is through all different kinds of land-use activity, predominantly through different kinds of leasing.

In our investigation, we found a lot of different kinds of extractive activity as well. Ultimately, we found roughly a quarter of all of the lands were designated for some kind of extractive activity. It's interesting to see that in relation to other kinds of activity. For example, renewables constituted .25 percent of all the land. So, fractions in comparison.

HH: One of the universities included in your investigation is the University of Wyoming. What did your reporting find specifically about how the University of Wyoming is benefiting from Indigenous land and how that revenue is being created?

TA: Well, our data shows that the University of Wyoming benefits from combined about 223,000 acres. We have established that that land was taken from about 22 different Indigenous nations. Between fiscal year 2018 and 2022, Wyoming made about $5.4 million off of those lands, but $95,000 was paid by the United States for title to those lands. So, we're able to see the large land footprint that's going on there within Wyoming alone.

MPR: For activities as of November 2023, which is when our dataset is dated to, the majority of the leases that we see are grazing leases. But there's also a good amount of oil and gas leasing, and metallic and non-metallic mineral leasing. There is extractive activity going on there as well.

HH: To summarize, state trust lands continue to transfer wealth that benefits land grant universities. Have any of these universities acknowledged this? Are they giving back to Indigenous nations or supporting Native students in any way?

TA: The short answer is no. In our reporting, there's maybe two universities that are aware of their state trust lands and the history with them. South Dakota State University has been covered quite a lot for their acknowledgment of Morrill Act lands and state trust lands and has sent revenue from those lands to support Native students.

We're aware that some of the schools that we talked to, like Washington State University, know about this stuff, but have not necessarily made any sort of strides toward putting those resources into Native students.

MPR: Personally, one thing I've been thinking about a lot is how these land-grant universities built up their institutions off of these lands, which at one point were their primary source of income. But that's no longer the case. I think it opens up this avenue for questioning around how universities at this point in time are truly benefiting from these lands. To what extent is that a part of their overall portfolio? It’s just a good place to ask questions.

HH: What do you hope people take away from this investigation?

TA: Being able to engage with this information and this investigation opens the door for a lot of questions. When you know that you have an institution, are at an institution or you're part of an institution that is rooted in a history of injustice, it opens a door for people to start thinking about what a just future can look like.

Of course, it does require that those individuals and that institution are actually open to thinking about this and talking about this. The University of Wyoming did not respond to us or our requests. I think that may speak to the intentions that the university may or may not have in terms of dealing with its history, its future, and most specifically with its Indigenous students and how to best support them. But I hope it opens up some doorways for people to demand more from their institutions.

MPR: To me, what's really interesting about this story is that it is asking a lot of big questions about land. For people who live in the U.S. to understand that this is a crucial part of history, that these kinds of policies have literally shaped the land that we're on and where people are.

In doing the reporting, when we were reaching out to different state agencies and asking questions, many people didn't know these histories and weren't able to directly give us the information we were asking for. Which isn’t a reflection on them as much as it is on the fact that these policies are so deeply embedded in how all of these lands have been shaped and who's benefited from them.

I encourage people to read [the investigation] because it's a really important part of history. I hope people see that it's asking questions that, to some extent, we’re all related to – about land and who belongs where and what that means.

One thing that’s important to me about this investigation is that we've worked really hard to make sure that the data is publicly accessible, to make sure that all the information and all the code is something that people can use. We've been sharing it with journalists, but anybody can look at it, whether you're a student or someone who's just curious. There are plenty of ways to engage with the story.

Grist also recently published another story as part of their Misplaced Trust series, which looks at the ways in which at least ten states own state-trust lands within Indian reservations and profit from them.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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