Confronting the Wealth Transfer from Tribal Nations That Established Land-Grant Universities

Steps toward atonement.
By Stephen M. Gavazzi and John N. Low

Cornell University from the NY historic buildings survey.

For nearly 160 years, land-grant universities have been a distinctive feature of our higher education system. Over this long history, they have had an undeniable impact on American society through their threefold mission: offering students a well-rounded liberal arts education coupled with opportunities to apply that knowledge in practice; leading the way in discovery and inventions produced through both basic and applied research; and undertaking outreach and engagement activities with a multitude of community partners as part of their service commitments.

Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee’s 2018 book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future, employed the term the people’s university to describe how historically these institutions of higher learning have sought to benefit communities both near their campus and throughout their state while also having a national and international impact. From the outset, land-grant universities were designed to meet the needs of the “sons and daughters of toil,” those offspring of working-class families who otherwise could not afford to earn a college degree. In essence, they offered educational opportunities “for the rest of us.”

In the last few years, however, these institutions have faced a reckoning. As researchers and journalists have documented the massive transfer of wealth from tribal nations that underwrote the founding of land-grant universities, these institutions—and institutions of higher education more generally—have begun to contend with hard questions about their relationship to Indigenous communities.

What People and Whose Land?

In 1862, the US Congress passed legislation granting federally owned land to the states for the express purpose of providing financial support for the development of public universities. In turn, the federal government made the states responsible for providing the land upon which these institutions of higher learning would be built as well as contributing financially to their ongoing growth and development. Known as the Morrill Act, this congressional action was designed specifically to support “at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The education provided by the land-grant institutions thus was supposed to be both freethinking and pragmatic, opening the door to the American Dream for the “industrial classes.”

When High Country News published a report titled Land-Grab Universities in March 2020, it blew the doors off the central myth surrounding the foundation of the land-grant universities. Although several important pieces of scholarship on land-grant universities’ obligations to Native American nations predated this report—for example, scholars such as Margaret Nash and Sharon Stein had focused previously on the settler colonialism of land-grant universities while calling out those “entanglements with conquest” that supporters of these institutions had deliberately disregarded over the years—Land-Grab Universities compiled exact details regarding the amount of land taken from specific tribal nations and meticulously documented the sums of money raised through the sale of these territories. In short, it laid bare how the bill designed to create public universities in each state of the Union—sponsored by Vermont congressman and later senator Justin Morrill and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln—gave away territories taken from Native American nations, typically by brute force, coercion, trickery, deception, and lopsided treaties. The noble and virtuous land-grant mission was founded on distortions, violence, and the ongoing suffering and sacrifice of dispossessed Native peoples.

Since the publication of Land-Grab Universities, the amount of academic writing on this topic has skyrocketed. Perhaps most impressive was a set of essays published in spring 2021 as part of a special issue of the journal Native American and Indigenous Studies. The work collected there draws attention to such topics as the parallels between the founding of American land-grant universities and settler-colonial exploitation around the world, how other types of universities benefited from the taking of Native American lands, and pedagogical practices that seem to justify the theft and ongoing use of tribal territories for educational purposes. Contributors to the issue also documented how land-grant universities do no better (and sometimes do worse) than other types of higher education institutions at enrolling and graduating American Indian and Native Alaskan students and pointed out that the full costs borne by Indigenous communities must be measured not only in land value (estimated at over half a billion dollars after accounting for inflation) but also in the cumulative losses experienced as a result of constrained economic opportunities tied to dispossession.

Where there was criticism, however, there likewise were some expressions of optimism. The issue contained articles that called for the development and strengthening of tribal-university relationships built on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-determination and appealed for improved relationships with land-grant tribal colleges and universities. The main authors of Land-Grab UniversitiesTristan Ahtone and Robert Lee—contributed an essay that pinned hope on movements toward accountability and atonement that were underway on an increasing number of land-grant university campuses.

Steps Toward Atonement

In what follows, we concentrate attention on activities that can be seen as attempts to grapple with the difficult truths surrounding the establishment of land-grant universities across the nation. In most instances, we believe these actions can reasonably be viewed as steps toward accountability and atonement.

Land Acknowledgments

Growing numbers of land-grant universities have taken some initial steps toward recognition of their history through the creation of land-acknowledgment statements. A tradition of the Māori is to ask permission before entering the land of another. This custom took on a more contemporary form as a response to the 2015 report filed by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and since then land acknowledgments have become a common way to raise public awareness of the fact that public institutions such as university campuses all rest on territory originally occupied by Indigenous peoples. Native advocates have rightly criticized the performative and often exceedingly shallow characteristics of these land acknowledgments. If they are to be employed, land acknowledgments should be seen as an opening gambit that signals a willingness to engage in active conversations with the tribal nations that are being named, not as an end unto themselves. While the educational aspects of a land acknowledgment can have value, there is more worth in such statements when they are a call to action: “We are the on the lands of Indigenous peoples. What commitments and obligations flow from that acknowledgment?”

Additionally, land-acknowledgment statements formulated by land-grant universities ought to focus attention on two distinct groups of tribal nations: first, those connected to the lands on which university campuses are located, and second, those whose lands were taken and sold to fund the land-grant universities themselves. The first group are owed recognition of the harms experienced as a consequence of their removal from territories and the loss of lands and resources to make way for settler expansion within each state. The second group should be accorded their own recognition for how their territories were transformed into an endowment fund that provided monetary support for the foundation of the land-grant university. Regrettably, to date precious few official land-acknowledgment statements specifically highlight the debt owed to both groups of tribal nations.

Financial Assistance for Native American Students

Growing numbers of land-grant universities—and sometimes entire states—have created various forms of tuition assistance for Native American students. At the institutional level, for example, the University of Maine provides tuition waivers and scholarships covering room and board for members of the historic tribes of Maine and for residents of Maine affiliated with any federally recognized or Canadian tribe. Colorado State University offers in-state tuition rates for members of the historic tribes of Colorado regardless of residence, and South Dakota State University provides scholarships to state residents who are members of the historic tribes of South Dakota.

At the state level, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Montana grant tuition waivers at all public universities for residents who are members of tribes historically located in their states. Iowa, Utah, and Washington offer free in-state tuition to members of any of the historic tribes of their states, regardless of their current residence. Other states, such as North Dakota, offer scholarships to residents who are enrolled members of any federally recognized tribe.

The gold standard here might well be free tuition for all Native American students, or perhaps at least for those students hailing from those tribes historic to that state and whose resources were transferred into the foundational funds used to establish land-grant universities. While the examples above do not represent a comprehensive list, tuition waivers and other forms of student financial assistance that result in enrollment of greater numbers of Native American students are a kind of reparative activity. Of course, much more could be done—providing room and board and stipends, for example—to better address the scope of the immense transfer of wealth from tribal nations to land-grant universities.

Partnerships between 1862 and 1994 Land-Grant Institutions

Scholars have emphasized the need for improved relations between the 1862 land-grant institutions and those tribal colleges that received land-grant status through the Equity in Educa­tional Land-Grant Status Act of 1994. John Phillips, the executive director of the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium (FALCON), has advocated for a fundamental shift in the relationships between the 1994 and 1862 land-grant institutions to address the huge resource imbalances between these two groups. In essence, Phillips argues that certain strengths of the tribal colleges—a deep embeddedness in the communities they serve through a guiding framework that focuses on the sacredness of land, food, and cultural identity, among other holistic values associated with Indigenous knowledge—are exactly those from which 1862 land-grant institutions might most benefit if they were to form partnerships. In return, the vast infrastructure for both research and outreach and engagement activities built over the years by the 1862 land-grants could be applied more generously to the pressing issues faced by the Native American communities that are served by the tribal colleges.

We are part of a research team that has investigated how 1862 land-grant universities have been working with sister organizations at 1994 tribal colleges, and our group has published its initial findings in a recent issue of the Tribal College Journal. Utilizing qualitative data gathered in ten interviews with leaders of tribal colleges, we reported on promising examples of collaboration and suggested additional ways the 1862 land-grants could work with the resource-starved 1994 land-grants.

All such partnership activities should be viewed as responses to a larger call to action to develop and strengthen relationships between universities and the tribal nations themselves. Native scholars such as Theresa Stewart-Ambo and Tsianina Lomawaima have argued that the prime directive for universities is to rec­ognize and respect the sovereignty and self-determination of tribal nations. In fact, the inherent sovereignty of Native nations creates a demand for interactions that more closely resemble mutually respectful government-to-government relationships.

Relationships with Tribal Nations

In response to a call for action on racial justice issued by the Office of the President at Ohio State University—along with $1 million in funding from the university’s Office of Research—a group of faculty and staff members created the Stepping Out and Stepping Up (SOSU) project. This initiative—in which we are both involved—was developed in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), the largest Native-controlled economic justice organization in the country, which provides economic development assistance, research, and advocacy for Native American reservations and tribal communities. The SOSU project was designed primarily to address the dispossession of tribal lands by the US government to fund the establishment of Ohio State University, focusing important attention on the past and present circumstances of those tribal nations.

Although public recognition of the colonial history of land-grant universities has increased in recent years, documentation of the perspectives of those Native Americans whose land was taken and sold to produce the capital used to create these public universities appears to be either scant or nonexistent in mainstream scholarly journals. In response to that gap in the literature, the SOSU project has been asking tribes what they view as appropriate steps toward recompense for the sacrifices of their ancestors and the hardships they are enduring to this day.

The project conceptualized the unjust actions historically taken against these tribal nations as having contributed to a wide range of economic, educational, and health disparities experienced by Native American peoples past and present. Beyond this framing of the influence of past inequities, we have also sought to be sensitive to how colonialism continues to sever Indigenous peoples from traditional territories and practices. Hence, the main task at hand was to facilitate the beginning of a restorative dialogue between Native peoples and SOSU project team members in the service of two main objectives: first, developing a shared understanding of the past and present injustices experienced by tribal nations and second, jointly creating a plan for specific reparative actions to benefit the Native American communities affected by the inequities associated with land dispossession.

To meet these objectives, FNDI staff members were designated as the “honest brokers” of information to be gleaned from tribal leaders through semistructured interviews under a research protocol developed jointly by FNDI and the SOSU project team members. After using the Land-Grab Universities report’s database to identify those tribal nations whose land was taken and sold to support the founding of Ohio State University—108 tribes and tribal bands in total—we contacted tribal leaders to set up interviews.

A forthcoming article in the Tribal College Journal by the SOSU research team will report on the results of the first twelve interviews we conducted with the leaders of those tribal nations. In these interviews, we asked tribal leaders about their familiarity with the Morrill Act of 1862 and its impact on their traditional homelands. Only a handful of the tribal leaders knew that the seizure and sale of their lands had benefited land-grant universities such as Ohio State, evidence that the findings of the Land-Grab Universities report have yet to reach many of the affected tribal communities.

Our research team also asked about the harms caused by land dispossession that tribal members were still experiencing. Here, we were able to document a wide range of damages that might be best summed up in the following quotation from one of our interviews: “Loss of our land, our way of life, our culture and traditions, our language, our independence as a people.” Finally, we asked what people associated with Ohio State University could do to make amends for these past and present harms. The responses again were wide-ranging, covering everything from apologies to more tangible reparative activities such as scholarships for Native American students and the return of material resources. While many of the respondents were not prepared to provide a complete list of all necessary and sufficient actions, there was a palpable sense that universities must have an ongoing commitment to restitution and healing.

Moving toward Collaboration

The ultimate hope of initiatives such as the one described above is to launch a process whereby land-grant universities can together confront the truth of their founding. In fact, one need look no further than the Universities Studying Slavery consortium to see how institutions can be brought together in a reckoning with the deep history of race and racism in US higher education.

High Country News is cataloging university initiatives undertaken in response to the Land-Grab Universities report. Its website currently lists programs at Cornell University, the University of California, the University of Florida, and Ohio State University. Publicity generated by a recent FNDI newsletter article about the SOSU project led groups at Michigan State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, South Dakota State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Minnesota, the University of Nebraska‒Lincoln, the University of Wisconsin‒Madison, and the University of Vermont to describe similar initiatives underway at their institutions. And many other land-grant universities may have fledgling projects that have not yet received publicity or notice.

While it is laudable that some land-grant universities have begun tackling issues surrounding the dispossession and sale of tribal lands, the fact that fifty-two land-grant universities were established through the same ignoble mechanism makes this a systemic problem, one that demands a systemic solution. Ultimately, the situation is best viewed as one in which a collection of comparable universities have an obligation to a large group of similarly positioned nations, rather than one in which a disparate set of institutions have varied obligations to various tribes.

Seen in this light, some level of collaboration likely would prove to be beneficial for all sides. Collaboration can occur at many different levels of intensity, ranging from networking to cooperation, coordination, coalition, and, finally, true collaboration. A total lack of interaction or the lowest level of collaboration, networking (characterized by sparse communication and independent decision-making), represents the current state of interactions among land-grant universities.

Given this reality, the next step would be to bring relevant institutions together at the cooperation level, which is characterized by increased information-sharing activities. We would propose a collective effort by groups at different institutions to establish a clearinghouse for information about efforts underway at each of the fifty-two land-grant universities, coupled with an email list or other social network that would unite various constituencies in an ongoing conversation about these efforts. Over time, the clearinghouse could become an authoritative source for best practices, lessons learned, and other topics of interest. In turn, the social network would facilitate conversations and information-sharing.

To advance to the level of coordination—characterized by more intensive information-sharing and frequent communication—interuniversity connections could be enhanced through a series of conferences, workshops, and colloquia. Such events could include presentations on past and present collaborative activities as well as brainstorming sessions that would help develop new partnerships. Representatives of higher education organizations such as the American Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the American Indian Higher Education Council (AIHEC), and FALCON also could be invited to provide regular updates on activities of interest to their constituents.

The involvement of an expanded number of professional organizations would allow for advancement to the coalition level, defined by resource sharing, frequent and prioritized communication, and group decision-making. This level of connectedness also might create opportunities for land-grant universities to take a unified approach to reparative actions. For example, all institutions might adopt a common student assistance package for Native American students and collectively develop culturally sensitive programming on campuses for these students. In turn, the participation of AIHEC and FALCON could lead other Native-focused organizations to join the coalition.

Finally, attainment of a true collaboration—characterized by formal membership in a publicly identifiable group, open and regular communication that is grounded in trust, and consensus-based decision-making—would be predicated on the eventual ability of land-grant representatives to work in unison on various projects and initiatives. For example, if all land-grant universities joined together to provide free (or greatly reduced) tuition to all Native American students, regardless of the state in which they reside, that would have much greater impact than anything a single land-grant university would be able to do.

The Need for Humility and Honesty

The steps outlined above are only the beginning of a much deeper transformation of educational institutions. No one should read what has been written here and conclude that the road ahead will be easy to traverse. And the last thing that faculty and staff members at predominantly white institutions should do is engage in paternalistic practices that reinforce the marginalization of the very people who have experienced historical and ongoing wrongs. Those who choose to do this work must take great care and adopt a commitment to “the long haul of decolonization.” We need to listen to what representatives of tribal nations say about appropriate reparative actions; the days of “telling American Indians what we are going to do for them” are over.

Dedication to this labor requires humility and honesty, traits that are sometimes lacking in the halls of academe. Faculty members are experts in their chosen fields, after all, and accustomed to being the authorities in the room. All the trappings of university pride and prestige should be checked at the proverbial door. And the inevitable failures that happen along the way should be embraced as part of the learning process. A more modest stance in this regard would include the commitment to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly.

Honesty begins with non-Native people being truthful with themselves and others about why exactly they are engaging in this work. Are they doing so because they really believe that land-grant faculty, staff members, and students have a responsibility to work toward the redress of past and ongoing wrongs? Or are they doing so, instead, because someone told them to? University representatives, in turn, should be transparent in their portrayal of what their institutions can accomplish. If they do not have a direct line to senior administrators, then they should say so at the outset and adopt the stance of an advocate. Alternatively, if key university decision-makers are more directly involved, it may still be important to “underpromise” in the hope of “overperforming” at some later date.


Following the centuries-long experiences of genocide and large-scale asset appropriation, Native Americans continue to be marginalized in the United States. The dispossession of tribal land and other resources has placed Indigenous communities at great economic disadvantage and in the process has made them all but invisible to white people and the mainstream media. The hiddenness of Native Americans from the eyes of large portions of the American public has prompted the National Congress of American Indians to describe American Indians and Alaska Natives as belonging to the “asterisk nation.” In the end, lack of recognition in all its forms significantly contributes to the ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples in a more modern form of genocide.

It is long past time for faculty, staff, and leaders at land-grant universities to step out of their comfort zones and step up to the responsibilities that flow from the immense wealth transfer their institutions received at the expense of Native American tribal nations. The work of redress is centuries overdue. And yet, there may be no time like the present to undertake it. The confluence of a global pandemic and the growing movement for racial justice may make this second decade of the twenty-first century the ideal inflection point for land-grant faculty, staff, students, and alumni to lead our nation’s citizens toward a higher and more honorable path.

Stephen M. Gavazzi is professor of human development and family science in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University. His email address is [email protected]. John N. Low is an enrolled citizen in the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians, the director of the Newark Earthworks Center, and associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University. An award-winning author, his most recent book is Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the City of Chicago (2016). His email address is [email protected].