President Trump recently declared November “National American History and Founders Month,” a move that critics have alleged aims to erase Native Americans’ heritage; November has been recognized since 1990 as Native American Heritage Month. This erasure builds on a longer history of failing to recognize harms perpetrated against native peoples.
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.
And they would not exist as land-grant institutions except for the forced removal of American Indians from their lands. As these institutions confront 21st-century challenges in higher education, they also need to grapple with the dispossession of Native Americans in the 19th century that made the colleges’ success possible.
“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.