September 26, 2022

LEVIN | Cornell Stole Native Land and All We Got Was This Land Acknowledgment 

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At Cornell, land acknowledgment statements have become a lukewarm formality, an excuse for inaction and ignorance. These statements of guilt, which can be important stepping stones for advancement, only add insult to injury when given halfheartedly and when not followed by real change. 

To help guide my research, I sat down with Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, a faculty member with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP), to talk about what Cornell has yet to do for the Native Americans displaced from their land and the unjust history that Cornell benefits from still.

Cheyfitz shared a painful story that dates back to the very founding of our nation, a story that is told incompletely in history books. During the Revolutionary War, General Sullivan, who was appointed by General George Washington, and his men came to what would later become Cornell University and the Ithaca area. There, they razed Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ land, burned to ashes their rolling fields and orchards and dispersed the men, women and children who were later forced to cede their land to the Union. Through fraud and theft, war and deceit, the United States gained the historical homelands of diverse indigenous nations that would become Cornell and other land-grant universities. 

Later, money gained from the sale of government-granted stolen indigenous land given to Cornell under the Morrill Act of 1862 founded the University, helping it amass one of the largest endowments of any American school in the late 1800s. Those among you who aren’t American history buffs might ask: what is the Morrill Act and how exactly has Cornell profited from it? “The Morrill Act is a genocidal accumulation of land from native communities,” Cheyfitz informed me. “There was $5,739,657 that Cornell got from the sale of the land that it was given by the federal government through the Morrill Act. Over time, from that initial investment, which founded the University, of $5,739,657 with interest, Cornell has spent $655,000,000. Today, there’s still $73,000,000 left in that endowment fund, and that’s accruing $2,300,000 per year in interest payments.”

That’s right, Cornell is still profiting off of the money it gained from the strategic sale of indigenous territory that it shouldn’t have had any right to sell in the first place. The University wouldn’t be possible without the land that revolutionary troops forced the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people from and Ezra Cornell’s lucrative deal with the federal government. Yet Cornell still fails to acknowledge these truths. 

Our current land acknowledgment statement reads as follows: 

Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ (the Cayuga Nation). The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign Nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.

Nowhere in that statement are acknowledgments that Cornell still profits from native land it sold or that men, women and children were brutally massacred for the University’s land. Cornell claims to “honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people … to these lands and waters,” but I’m hardly convinced that’s the case. What has Cornell done to bolster that ongoing connection? Nothing. No land given back. Not a single cent of restitution. Just a solitary land acknowledgment statement.

That current land acknowledgment is insufficient to the facts of history. So the AIISP and Cheyfitz requested that Cornell adopt a firmer, transparent statement in addition to its current land acknowledgment, one that acknowledges the Morrill Act as a genocidal and backward statute that culminated in Cornell gaining this land as well as the fact that Cornell has done nothing to substantively address its debt to Native Americans — unless you consider a misleadingly incomplete land acknowledgment statement enough. 

Prof. Cheyfitz and I certainly don’t. 

Other land-grant universities have reckoned with their histories by offering scholarships and other forms of restitution to Native Americans. UC Berkeley gives scholarships to California students of federally-recognized tribes. South Dakota State has implemented its own restitution program. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Cheyfitz described to me the bureaucratic impasse that the AIISP faces from Cornell University: “We have a problem and it’s two-fold: we want a frank acknowledgment that this land was taken in the course of a national genocide and we want a significant form of restitution for the sale of the land that enabled its founding. We have presented these asks and the response has been virtually nil.” 

As I see it, Cornell has no intention in the slightest of ever repaying its debt to the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people or even properly acknowledging what that debt is, unless we students demand change. The best way for that to happen is to keep discussion alive on this issue. You can do that by engaging with Cheyfitz’s work, which raises questions about the relationship between Cornell’s complicity in Native American displacement and the University’s present ties to authoritarian regimes that are either committing race-based human rights abuses, employing forced labor or both (I might mention Qatar, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia, as examples, all of which have strong partnerships with Cornell).

On Oct. 5 at the A.D. White House, Cheyfitz and other scholars will host the final panel in a series of discussions on the similarities between the oppression of Native Americans by the United States government and the abuse of Palestinians by the Israeli regime, called “Settler Colonialism, Sovereignty and Apartheid.” I strongly recommend that you watch. 

My hope is that by recognizing Cornell’s true history through a better land acknowledgment statement and long overdue restitution, we can come closer to finding some semblance of justice beyond the mediocrity Cornell is currently offering up. 

Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.