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Cornell University, a private Ivy League institution in upstate New York, is responsible for dispossessing 251 tribal nations from their homelands in its formation, a report from the university’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program released this week showed.


 
That’s according to a list the university’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program has been compiling since March 2020 when High Country News (HCN) reporters Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee broke the investigative story about how federal policy turned Indigenous land into college endowments. Their work showed how The Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, redistributed 10.7 million acres of land taken from 250 tribal nations throughout the United States into seed money to support 52 universities.
 

Out of the 52 land grant universities, Cornell University was the greatest beneficiary, High Country News’ research shows: it received federal vouchers for the selection of Indigenous-held land parcels in the Western United States. Cornell sold all of its Morrill Act lands by 1938, and its revenues funded the university’s operating budget for the next 30 years, according to the report.

In response to the 2020 High Country News story, Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program formed a Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Committee (CU&ID). The goal of that Committee was to determine federally recognized and unrecognized tribal nations—including First Nations in Canada— who were displaced as a result of Cornell’s land grabs, notify each group by written letter, and “advocate for redress to mend that history.”

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“…Cornell has a moral obligation to acknowledge that its origins were based on a continental-scale program of Indigenous dispossession, and educate its faculty, staff, students, and the general public about this history and why it requires action in the present,” Cornell University’s  former American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program Director Kurt Jordan wrote on the CU&ID homepage. “Cornellians should learn that the university was not only funded through the forcible taking of Indigenous lands but also that its buildings today stand on Indigenous homelands.”

The Committee’s first step of formally informing each impacted tribal nation or community of its land-grab status was completed as of June 2023, according to the CU&ID’s press release dated October 7. “To date, members of the committee have had dialogue with approximately 10% of the dispossessed tribes,” it says.

Leslie Logan, a Seneca Nation citizen, the Committee’s co-chair and the associate director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell, told Native News Online that the process of redress will be devised by the tribes themselves.

“We would like to hear directly from Nation leadership and communities what initiatives they would like to pursue—whether in terms of collaborative research, fortified community engagement efforts, dialogue, specific recommendations regarding Indigenous students,” Logan said. “We want Native people from impacted tribes to determine what the course of action should be.”

Logan told Native News Online that she’d like to see Tribal Nations band together to create a list of demands, as they did in Minnesota. 

As a result of the High Country News reporting, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in 2020 called for a specific accounting of Mni Sóta Maḳoce’s land grab, where the federal government expropriated 100,000 acres of land from the 11 Minnesota tribes to fund re-opening the bankrupt University of Minnesota. The state’s 11 tribal nations created the TRUTH Project—Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing, funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation— to research university-tribal relations from an Indigenous perspective.  

Now, Minnesota Tribes are asking the University of Minnesota for land back, representation among administrators and the student body, and a commitment to “repatriations in perpetuity.”

Cornell University’s administration has been resistant to the idea of tuition waivers for accepted Indigenous students, though they publicly claim a commitment to Native enrollment. 

“We have raised that, and it’s gone nowhere,” Logan said of tuition waivers. While the university’s enrollment numbers reflect 87 self-identified first-year Native students, Logan said the number of engaged students with ties to their culture and communities is closer to 35, or about 100 undergraduates in total. 

“If the university has gained and benefited so much, and tribes have lost so much, then what is the minimal thing that you could possibly do? And if you’re committed to increasing the numbers of Indigenous students here at the institution, what would really catalyze that?”

To Micahel Charles (Diné), an Assistant Professor in Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell and a member of the CU&ID, support of the Committee’s restorative work has stopped short of the institution’s administration.

“To me, it seems like all the support is coming from staff and faculty [of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program],” Charles told Native News Online by phone from a First Americans Land-Grant Consortium conference in Denver. “But if it requires any extra actions, admissions of wrong, or conversations around land use or bringing funding towards Indigenous students, that’s where the administration starts to get quiet really quick.”

Charles’ advice for impacted tribal nations is to use the land grab data as leverage:

“I see a big opportunity for tribes to be proactive in using this data to help build a story that advocates for themselves,” he said. “Rather than a university saying, ‘Here’s what we can offer you,’ [tribes] can make a lot more targeted demands.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with some clarifying corrections.

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.