US universities ponder massive debt to Native Americans

In year since land-grant institutions learned they were funded by theft, serious conversations have barely begun

October 19, 2021
Source: Getty

Already struggling to address its historical debt to enslaved black Americans, US higher education is now beginning to confront one of its central origin stories: a massive theft from indigenous populations.

That recognition began growing over the past year, after an extensive analysis showed that 52 US universities – largely major public institutions – were built on land directly taken from Native Americans.

That land, presented and long understood as gifts from federal holdings, has an estimated current value of nearly $500 million (£360 million), according to the investigation led by a Native American journalist and a University of Cambridge history lecturer.

Even Native American tribes were unaware of the foundational role of indigenous land seizures in the long-revered Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, and are still trying to sort out the implications.

“This is blowing everybody’s mind,” said John Low, associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University and a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

In the year since the discovery by the investigative team headed by Tristan Ahtone of the Kiowa tribe and Robert Lee of Cambridge, most US universities have been slow to respond, said Stephen Gavazzi, a professor of human development and family science working with Dr Low and other Ohio State colleagues to guide their university’s response.

Many institutions have issued statements acknowledging the reality of native land theft, Professor Gavazzi said. But Ohio State, he said, is among only about five that have begun the work of contacting all the affected tribes – Ohio State alone has land taken from 108 of them – to hear their thoughts on what should happen.

“A lot of what is happening right now is catching people up on the historical significance of what happened,” Professor Gavazzi said.

The revelations come less than a decade after Georgetown University admitting raising money by selling 272 enslaved people in 1838, pushing dozens more universities in the US and beyond to look harder at their own slavery-related profits and the accumulated debts they entail.

In both instances, experts said, university administrators and trustees have been slow to respond, typically forced to act only by the demands of students, faculty and outside activists.

“US higher education has been an utter failure in rectifying this grave, historic and profitable injustice,” Davarian Baldwin, professor of American studies at Connecticut’s Trinity College, said of the stolen indigenous land.

The revelations stand as especially jarring for US institutions given the heroic stature of the Morrill Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, which gave institutions native lands they could either use directly or sell to raise revenue. Its beneficiaries included Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, although the act mainly funded flagship public institutions with an aim of democratising the availability of higher education.

Their main membership group, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, has long celebrated Morrill as their moment of altruistic birth. Shortly after the Ahtone-Lee report, deriding the 52 beneficiaries as “Land-Grab Universities”, the APLU added to its website a “statement of land acknowledgment” that includes a general promise to better serve Native American students and their communities.

The APLU said it has partnered with member institutions to support indigenous students, and planned to convene a meeting next month of indigenous leaders from across North America to consider additional steps.

Dr Low said he agreed that asking Native American leaders for their ideas was the most important initial step. Those already taking that step, beyond Ohio State, he said, included MIT, Cornell and the University of Connecticut.

The most advanced efforts involve South Dakota State University, which began its Wokini Initiative in 2017, well ahead of the Ahtone-Lee revelations. Its outreach includes scholarships for indigenous students and expanded Native American educational programmes.

A major challenge for other universities involved finding tribal representatives, Professor Gavazzi said. He said that his team, stymied by the pandemic and the limited resources of native populations, has been able reach only 12 of the 108 tribes whose land funded Ohio State.

From those dozen, Dr Low said, ideas for redress beyond scholarships and returning land outright include hiring more indigenous faculty, creating on-campus community centres for indigenous students, and expanding humanities-oriented Native American curricula to provide more science and engineering options.

Massive amounts of student aid and community services should be seen as just a start, Professor Baldwin said. “The bottom line must be: land back,” he said.

Professor Gavazzi said he understood the importance of land restoration. But he also urged talk at this early stage to be tempered by reality.

“If we’re going to start something, we had better finish it,” he said. “Because these tribal nations have heard this before – they’ve been sold lots of bills of empty promises and broken treaties – so we have to be very careful in what we’re doing here, and make sure that we under-promise and over-perform.”


Print headline: US universities struggle to repay Native American debt

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Reader's comments (3)

You can only "steal" something is it was owned in the first place. If it was farmland that had been worked, it could be said to be owned (according to Locke, who was no innocent in these matters). Otherwise, some lesser charge would be a more appropriate term for the assumption of the lost rights.
That's nothing. Today British Universities sit on land that was dispossessed from ancient tribes by William the Conqueror. The later relatives of William the Conqueror sat on minerals that drove the industrial revolution. To acquire the skills necessary to take that industry forward the enriched families left land to start educational facilities, which turned into modern universities. Problem is today the now incorporated university acts as a 10th century business which disregards its founding principles of education, and instead builds hotels on its land. That means the land dispossessed from local people no longer serves local people, it provides them with nothing, so it serves the business of well who exactly. Who is actually greasing the palms of the decision makers. Keele come clean.
'It's not stealing if it's not owned' is to impose your own legal system on theirs. Besides, in a very real sense, under 'our' law they owned the land communally by collectively and continuously using it exclusively. Legal systems change. So for sure the white man ignored indigenous legal systems and economies and just took what he wanted. Then there are the humanitarian and human rights arguments....... We owe the indigenous at least a share of that land and certainly a university education. In the UK 1% own 99% of the land, and we call that a system?