Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Over 150 years after the University's founding, Cornell researchers are calling on Cornell to confront its past with indigenous peoples' displacement.

October 28, 2020

Researchers and Students Call for Cornell to Reconcile History With Indigenous Peoples

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Under the 1862 Morrill Act, the federal government granted Cornell nearly 1 million acres of land — part of which was later sold to form the basis of its endowment.

Now, almost 160 years later, Cornell is one of many land-grant universities people across the nation are calling for to better recognize its role in the dispossession of land from Indigenous people.

At Cornell, a faculty group organized through the American Indian and Indigenous studies program started the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project, which aims to investigate the benefits reaped from the 19th century act.

The project was jolted into action after an investigation by High Country News examined how the act had distributed almost 10.7 million acres of land in the American West, with Cornell receiving the most of any university at the time.

As a result of the investigation, the program’s director, Prof. Kurt Jordan, anthropology, immediately saw the need for Cornell to understand this past and its impacts on the present day.

“The article was stating that these land grant universities across the country have moral obligations to the indigenous communities whose lands they had been afforded by the federal government,” Jordan said. “I think that’s certainly true.”

As a first step, contributors to the project want to understand Cornell’s history with Indigenous dispossession and how the University specifically benefited from these lands. The project’s goal is to initiate dialogue with neighboring Indigenous nations to identify actions the University can take to remedy some of the harmful effects of this forced dispossession.

However, the project has come with its fair share of difficulties. Cornell was awarded the most land of any land-grant institution — which spans 14 other states, further complicating contact with Indigenous nations.

The researchers’ long term goal is to propose a set of recommendations — informed by the dialogue with Indigenous nations — to the University. The team already has a few Cornell-specific suggestions in mind, including the expansion of the American Indian and Indigenous studies program into a full-fledged department, hiring more faculty that teach in this subject area and expanding the program to include a major rather than just a minor.

Eight other faculty members from a wide range of departments have joined Jordan in the undertaking of this project. One faculty member is Prof. Jeffrey Palmer, performing and media arts, who is co-creating a film about the Cayuga Nation and its relationship to Cornell and the greater Ithaca community.

“Hopefully [the film] will be something that can bring an untold story to the forefront and also bring a message of understanding to the larger Cornell community that might not necessarily know these stories,” Palmer said.

Through the program’s blog, the faculty committee hopes to share the findings of its research, respond to current events relating to local Indigenous communities and bring in perspectives from student organizations.

Though this Indigenous dispossession may have occurred over a century ago, Jordan said these events have had ongoing impacts for indigenous communities today.

Jordan emphasized that Cornell has the potential to be a model for other institutions looking to grapple with their own complicated history of Indigenous dispossession.

“This summer there has been a large focus on race and if you look at the historical legacy of Cornell, I think we have to put indigenous dispossession and colonialism right up there in the same category,” he said. “They are all of vital importance to the structure of inequality that exists in the United States today.”