‘Land Grab Universities’: New database chronicles how the U.S. flipped Indigenous lands for fledgling universities

Aerial view of the Northrup Mall on the U. of M. Campus. Photo by Ben Franske, posted on Wikimedia.

The University of Minnesota is one of the country’s original land-grant institutions and proud of it, its website says. Yet where did the land for the land grant come from?

Colorado-based High Country News has created a detailed on-line database that tracks how “the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous land.”

The University of Minnesota and other land grant universities got early financial support through the Morrill Act of 1862. The Act gave states federal public lands to sell to raise money for universities — lands acquired mostly through treaties and through violence or the threat of violence. According to the law, the money was for the “endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

There are 106 land grant universities in the country, including Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, North Dakota State University, and South Dakota State University.

The Morrill Act passed the same year as the Dakota-U.S. War. It passed just 11 years after the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, treaties in which the Dakota people ceded, under duress, most of their lands in what is now Minnesota to the U.S. government.

Go to the “Universities” tab on Land Grab Universities website and select “Minnesota” from the drop-down menu. Here’s what it says.

In 1868, the University of Minnesota received 100 percent of Minnesota’s land grant. In modern terms, you would say the government flipped the land. Minnesota sold 94,631 acres under the Morrill Act. The federal government had paid Indigenous people $2,309 for those parcels. The state sold the land for $579,430, or more than 250 times what the federal government paid for it.

The Land Grab University website has a separate page tracking each of the hundreds of individual parcels sold in Minnesota to support the University of Minnesota. The database includes the county, the acreage sold, what the United State paid for the land, and how much it got when it sold the land. For instance, one 656-acre parcel in Faribault County sold for $4,016. For that same parcel, the federal government had paid the Dakota people $15.51.

The University of Minnesota had a 2018 enrollment of 50,734 students, the website said. Only 160 were American Indian or Alaska Natives.

The University of Minnesota did not respond to High Country News’ request for a comment on this data, the website said.

There is more to the story. Congress passed a second Morrill Act in 1890, aimed at the former Confederate states.

This act required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically Black colleges and universities.

In 1994, Congress passed a land-grant colleges act to support the tribal colleges and universities that began starting up in 1968.

While important repairs, they don’t undo the harm of the original land theft.

For more, also see The Circle Newspaper story: New database on Morrill Act & theft of Native land.

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