And while reckoning with this history has created more open debate about sports mascots, state flags and seals, water and land rights, and the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, this expanded conversation is missing a crucial element: discussion of land-grant colleges and universities.
Land-grant colleges are some of the a country’s most-celebrated public universities, and they include many Big Ten institutions and other flagship state universities. Frequently referred to as “the people’s colleges,” these are great schools that educate students from within states, and from across the nation and around the world, often at a fraction of the cost of private education. The schools support research that helps boost state economies, and they collaborate with state businesses, government and K-12 schools in productive partnerships.
“Land-grant” means that the federal government set aside tracts of unclaimed public land and said that when that land was sold, the profit would go to support new and already existing colleges in each state. The problem was that the U.S. government could only claim land as available for purchase because of earlier decades of warfare with Native Americans that resulted in coerced cessions of land by tribes to the government, and the forced removal of tribes to smaller and smaller reservations.
This Indian dispossession provided the federal government with land on which to build its infrastructure and create opportunities for its expanding white citizenry. This was the very purpose of the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which aimed to provide education to promote scientific farming, produce skilled labor, foster technological innovation, bolster transportation and inculcate civic knowledge. The law was designed to benefit colleges across the country so that it could gain support in Congress, where the majority of representatives were from the much more populous East. Every state was credited with 30,000 acres of land per congressional representative, most of which was in newly acquired territories west of the Mississippi. The sale of more than 10 million acres of this land went to fund higher education.
Newly formed states in the West founded colleges on some of the land and sold the rest to help pay for the schools. The University of Nebraska, for example, was founded in 1869 and built on land that had been lived on by various tribes, including the Otoe and Missouria. The land was “available” for purchase because for the previous four decades, the government had forced the removal of these tribes, often onto unhealthy, swampy and unfarmable reservations. While the university embarked on a new and prosperous future for its state residents, displaced Native Americans suffered tremendously. In 1869 alone, the living conditions of Native Americans were so dire on the Otoe-Missouria reservation that one-fourth of all the native children died.
In the East, each state designated an already existing college as the one that would receive the land-grant money. Eastern states, with no available public land to sell, got scrip (a sort of coupon) for public land in the West. They would sell the scrip and use the proceeds to fund the college in their state that they designated as the land-grant college. The University of Delaware, for instance, sold scrip to people who used it to claim land that had been inhabited by the Quapaw in what is now Arkansas. Over 200,000 acres of land in Missouri alone were purchased with scrip, with all of the sales benefiting land-grant schools in the East including the Sheffield Scientific School in Connecticut (a part of Yale University), Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maine and Ohio State University.
Like the Homestead Act, which gave 84 million acres to settlers willing to move West, and other laws granting 127 million acres of land to railroad companies, the legislation promoted the settlement of the West with the hope of Christianizing people and “Americanizing” land that otherwise was inhabited by people who had their own languages, religions and customs.
The Land-Grant Act did not create the federal policy of involuntary removal, but it established a way to make use of land that had been forcibly acquired. It promoted western migration, white dominance and the education of citizens who would build the infrastructure of an increasingly powerful nation. Political theorist Adam Dahl writes that “dominant narratives of American democracy … emphasize colonial settlement while neglecting colonial dispossession.” This is also true of land-grant colleges, where the predominant narratives are of democratic expansion of education, while neglecting the process of Indian dispossession that made the colleges possible.
Recently, universities began grappling with this violent legacy through land-acknowledgment statements. These statements have been common in Canada for decades, and recently some U.S. institutions (art museums as well as universities) have adopted them. Colorado State University includes on its website a statement that “our founding came at a dire cost to native nations and peoples whose land this university was built upon. This acknowledgment is the education and inclusion we must practice in recognizing our institutional history, responsibility, and commitment.”
Land-acknowledgment statements are a good first step but should not be the only step. As Rachel Mishenene, an Ojibwa educator, says, “A land acknowledgment without action is just a statement.” Universities also must make themselves accountable, as the Michigan State University acknowledgment statement notes, to the needs of local Native American populations. Universities might foster strong relationships with tribal communities, offer support services for Native American students, promote courses and programs that teach native cultures and histories and in other ways serve native populations. Some colleges and universities, land-grant and not, are taking these steps.
As the nation reckons with its complicated history, land-grant institutions, too, need to acknowledge their legacy of being created “at a dire cost to native nations and peoples.” Doing so, and working with native peoples to address current issues, will give these great institutions a powerful legacy of which we can all be proud.