Courtesy of Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee (Left to Right)

Journalist Tristan Ahtone and Historian Robert Lee discussed how Cornell and other land grant universities and benefited from Indigenous dispossession.

September 14, 2022

Journalist Tristan Ahtone and Historian Robert Lee Discuss Indigenous Dispossession and Land Grant Universities, Including Cornell

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In the 2022 Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture, journalist Tristan Ahtone and historian Robert Lee discussed how their investigation of how land grant universities, including Cornell University, financially benefited from Indigenous displacement. 

The 1862 Morrill Act helped fund the creation of many universities across the United States, including Cornell, using the sale of land formerly inhabited by Indigenous people to support higher education. As part of the land acknowledgement of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the institutions acknowledge this history. Ahtone, a member of the Kiowa tribe and editor at large for the climate news organization Grist, and Lee, a history professor at the University of Cambridge, conducted a wide ranging investigation into the legacy of the Morrill Act. 

“How can land grant universities square their professed values with their colonial legacies?” Lee asked in the lecture.

According to Lee and Ahtone’s investigative reporting and in agreement with writing from Prof. John Parmenter, history, Cornell University’s co-founder Ezra Cornell purchased much of the University’s scrip — certificates which gave the owner the right to pick and claim a section of public land anywhere in the United States. Profits from the sale of the lands he selected, previously inhabited by indigenous nations including the Ojibwe, Miwok, Yokuts, and Dakota, were given to the University. Lee analyzed how Cornell has profited from the investment of Cornell’s Morrill Act Endowment over time, citing data collected from Cornell’s annual reports and archival documents. 

According to Lee, only limited records are publicly available from 2008 to the present, but he believes he has enough data to estimate that roughly 73 million dollars of Cornell’s current endowment is the result of Cornell’s Morrill Act Endowment. Lee calculated that Cornell’s total benefit since 1865 from the investment of its Morrill Act Endowment has been 665 million in present day dollars adjusted for inflation.

When asked for a comment, Joel M. Malina, Vice President for University Relations wrote to The Sun stating that “Cornell recognizes that the lands distributed to states to support the founding of land-grant universities were previously taken from Indigenous Nations by force and fraud that included treaty violations, treaties signed under duress or direct appropriation without compensation — and that the subsequent sales of these lands seeded endowments, including Cornell’s.”

The event began with a Cayuga and English language “words before all else” greeting from Stephen Henhawk, a Cayuga language teacher and faith keeper. After Henhawk spoke, the event continued with a land acknowledgement by Cornell Director of American Studies Prof. Shirley Samuels, literatures in English, and introductions by Samuels, Prof. Kurt Jordan, anthropology and Prof. Jeff Palmer, performing and media arts, member of the Kiowa nation. This lecture was part of the Daniel W. Kops Freedom of the Press Program, created in 1990 by Daniel Kops ’39, former editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun.

Lee and Ahtone met at  Lee’s Harvard University talk on using geospatial information system mapping to analyze Indigenous land dispossession, and Ahtone was in the audience as a Harvard Nieman Fellow. Through collaboration, they combined Lee’s historical research background and Ahtone’s expertise as an indigenous journalist who values community driven reporting. They believe that it is important for investigative reporting to be accessible and engage with the public.

According to Ahtone, Lee and Ahtone’s reporting has been cited in efforts in multiple states to provide tuition free education for Indigenous students, reconciliation efforts and additional investigations. For future investigative work, Ahtone and Lee will do broader research on the land holdings of universities, including but not limited to Morrill Act-related land holdings. 

“We know that institutions benefited from or still own stolen land,” Ahtone said. “The question for land grant universities is how they deal with that stolen property in their real estate inventories as well as how they use that land.”

Ahtone is particularly concerned with how land holdings of universities across the United States are currently being used, especially for resource extraction activities like oil and gas drilling. Ahtone sees resource extraction for the benefit of land grant universities as a major issue for fighting climate change. As he and Lee conduct their ongoing investigation, Ahtone alleges that Cornell has not provided any information about what land it owns, where these lands are and how they are used. 

According to Malina, the Office of the President and Provost have supported and are working with Cornell faculty, the Library’s University archivist and their Real Estate office to research Cornell’s history with Indigenous Nations’ lands, conducting archival research into Cornell real estate holdings. When Ahtone asked for records of Cornell University real estate holdings, Cornell responded that they were not subject to Freedom of Information Law information requests as a private university but recommended checking with local county offices for public records.

“We are here as Kops Freedom of the Press Lecturers at an institution that refuses to be transparent with reporters about what property it owns and how it’s used to finance the institution,” Ahtone said. “Change has to start here, and it has to start now.”