Spurred on by a High Country News article regarding universities founded on dispossessed Indigenous land, a variety of panelists took to Zoom on Friday to unearth the legacy of UC profit that came with it and the movement to reclaim the land.
In 1862, the Morrill Act became the first legislative initiative to fund higher education, providing each state with public land to collect endowments and fund university operations. The nearly 11 million acres of land, however, were expropriated from tribal nations, lands that universities across the country — including the UC system — continue to benefit from today, according to the article.
“The idea was to expand educational opportunities for the industrial and agricultural classes of the United States,” said Robert Lee, University of Cambridge lecturer in American history, at the conference. “Most of the literature on the Morrill Act wrestles with the extent to which land-grant universities realized that goal of democratizing education in the United States and hasn’t concerned itself with the Indigenous origins of this land.”
By shedding light on this long-masked reality, Phenocia Bauerle, moderator and UC Berkeley director of Native American student development, hoped the forum would spur conversation about how people can engage with history, reconcile with a difficult past and bring visibility to Native people and the issues they continue to face.
The forum was sponsored by a broad coalition across UC Berkeley, other UC campuses and community partners.
To start the conversation, Tristan Ahtone, journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe, and Lee spoke about “Land-grab universities,” the High Country News piece they wrote that was published in March.
“The project’s goal was to unspool the Morrill Act knot completely,” Lee said at the conference. “To find every acre and to track down the Indigenous origins of each one of those parcels to gain a sense of the enormity of the wealth transfer that the Morrill Act entailed.”
According to Lee, they wanted to create an open-source database that would further the study of the Indigenous origins of land-grant universities in a “big empirical way.” Their findings revealed that the land was taken from roughly 250 different tribes and nations for a total of about $400,000.
According to Kat Whiteley, UC Berkeley ethnic studies postdoctoral fellow, in California, an attempt to claim Indigenous lands via 18 different treaties in exchange for reservations was rejected and buried by the Senate, with genocidal consequences.
In turn, the United States paid nothing for the Californian land and made a profit of $23 million by the early 1900s, now worth about $500 million, according to Lee. At its height, Lee added, the Morrill Act endowments covered more than a third of operating expenses for UC Berkeley.
Beth Rose Middleton, UC Davis professor and chair of the Native American studies department, said there is a new movement toward land return, restitution and justice. Initiatives include land and financial transfer, easements, investments in or waiver of the tuition of Native students and support of land-based education.
“With these lands, we have an opportunity to begin righting a great wrong,” Middleton said at the conference, quoting Farrell Cunningham, a Maidu Indian traditionalist. “We may be frightened of outcomes we are unsure of, but we should be even more frightened of living in a world where the foundation of injustice is honorable and the perpetuation of that injustice is acceptable.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the forum was organized by UC Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement. In fact, one of the event sponsors and organizers was Native American Student Development, which is part of Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement.