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Land-Grab Universities

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tags: Native American history, colleges and universities, Indigenous lands, Morrill Act



On August 29, 1911, a Yahi man known as Ishi came out of hiding near Oroville, California. He had spent decades evading settlers after the massacre of his community in the 1860s and had recently lost the last of his family. Whisked off to the University of California’s anthropology museum, he was described by the press as the “last wild Indian.” Ishi spent his final years living at the museum. When he wasn’t explaining his language to researchers or making arrow points for visitors, he swept the floors with a straw broom as a janitor’s assistant. In return, he was paid $25 a month by the same university that sold thousands of acres of his people’s land out from under him while he hid out in forests and river canyons.

Ishi may be known in Indian Country and to California public school students, but his story remains mostly obscure — though considerably less so than that of the millions of acres of Indigenous land sold to endow the land-grant universities of the United States.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune. Their students sit in halls named after the act’s sponsor, Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, and stroll past panoramic murals that embody creation stories that start with gifts of free land. 

Behind that myth lies a massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation. The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.  

Read entire article at High Country News

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