Leilani Burke/Sun Staff Photographer

With the context of Cornell's dispossession history, indigenous students and faculty describe the lack of administrative support from the University.

May 8, 2023

Over 150 Years After its Founding, Cornell Still Wrestles With Legacy of Indigenous Dispossession

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Far above Cayuga’s waters, Cornell’s sprawling main campus sits on 2,300 acres of land. While today it is a bustling hub of academics and research, the land is also the traditional homeland of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people. Cornell’s history of dispossession of the lands of Indigenous peoples is long, stretching back to the University’s founding. Cornell profited off of and continues to profit from land that was home to more than 200 Native tribes.

In recent years, the University’s administration has taken steps to address Cornell’s history of dispossession. However, some students, faculty and staff have questioned the University’s willingness to have earnest conversations and to support Indigenous people both at Cornell and across the nation. 

A Legacy of Dispossession

In 1862, the Morrill Act was signed into law, dedicated to giving millions of acres of land to states for the funding of public colleges focused around agriculture, engineering and similar disciplines. According to an article authored by Prof. Jon Parmenter, history, Cornell University received nearly a million acres of land through over 6,000 land scrips granted by the government and was the largest benefactor of the act. Through Ezra Cornell’s management of the land, the University grew its endowment, allowing it to become a wealthy institution.

This profit, however, came at the expense of the displacement of over 200 Native tribes nationwide — from the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people that traditionally lived on the land the main University campus is located on to tribes in distant states. 

“Cornell profited millions and millions of dollars from Indigenous lands and the sale of timber and natural resources from those lands and they continue to benefit from those sales,” said Leslie Logan, a member of the Seneca Nation, a Haudenosaunee nation, and the associate director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program.

In 2020, AIISP launched the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project in response to an article published by High Country News. The article described Cornell as a “land-grab university,” citing the quarter-million acres of land Cornell redeemed scrip for in California that was taken from Native tribes. 

CU&ID is a faculty committee, and its stated goal is to “present information and opinion about the implications of Indigenous dispossession for the University, and to advocate for redress to mend that history.” However, according to Prof. Kurt Jordan, anthropology, Cornell administration’s response to dispossession concerns has been lackluster thus far. 

“I think that [lobbying Cornell administration] has been a frustrating and disappointing process so far. The central administration really doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the extent to which Cornell’s activities damaged indigenous communities and continues to damage them,” Jordan said. “I think they’ve offered very little in the way of redress so far.”

Logan also called for the Cornell administration to reach out and have earnest conversations with Indigenous people, claiming that the administration has not addressed her requests for meaningful engagement. CU&ID has frequently commented on this lack of engagement.

“It is time to polish the silver chain of friendship, meet with the Indigenous students and Nation leadership — traditional and elected — and restore strong relations,” Logan said. 

Deputy Provost Avery August addressed Cornell’s history of dispossession in a statement to The Sun.

“Cornell acknowledges its central place in this history as the largest recipient of appropriated Indigenous lands from the Morrill Act and as the institution that accrued the greatest financial benefit from that land. Cornell continues to examine these origins and their effects on Indigenous peoples across other North American Indigenous Nations and communities whose lands were dispossessed by the federal government and later included in land scrips from which Cornell benefited,” August wrote. “As more information emerges, the University will continue to recognize and present this history as part of our land-grant origins and to build and maintain relationships with North American Indigenous Nations and communities.”

The University has made strides in recent years to address its history of Indigenous dispossession, such as with the University’s land acknowledgment — which addresses the fact that Cornell sits on the homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people. However, Jordan noted that a land acknowledgment on its own is not sufficient action.

“Ideally, a land acknowledgment should be one step in a longer set of interactions and relationships,” Jordan said, noting that AIISP has relationships with the traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people and is forming relationships with other nations as well. “I don’t think the University has done that, they just viewed it as a one-and-done deal. And that’s one of the critical flaws of the University’s adoption of the land acknowledgment.”

AIISP has sent diplomatic outreach letters to the heads of around 240 Indigenous nations informing them of Cornell’s dispossession history and offering to meet, form relationships and discuss what actions Cornell should take in the future. 

Indigenous dispossession has also been a focus of the work of several Cornell students, such as Marina Johnson-Zafiris grad, a member of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee. Johnson-Zafiris is a Ph.D. candidate in information science and has studied and presented about Indigenous computing, which encompasses the use of computer science and data studies to confront Indigenous issues.

Johnson-Zafiris is also working with AIISP on a project dedicated to visualizing the extent of Cornell’s “land-grab” and how the profits were used by the University. A database will be created over the summer, and work on the visualization project will commence in the fall.

“We’re hoping that it will end up being a web-based platform that hosts these interactive visualizations that embody these data stories and an information repository that also contains the raw and post-processed archival data. We’ll mainly use that as an educational tool and resource,” Johnson-Zafiris said.

Being Indigenous at Cornell

Despite being located in the heart of traditional Haudenosaunee land, Indigenous students make up a small percentage of the total population of Cornell students. According to data released by the University, 2.2 percent of students in the entering class of 2025 identify as American Indian. 

“The population [of Native students] is way too small,” said Yanenowi Logan ’24, a member of the Seneca Nation. “I think though, because it’s small, we have an opportunity to maintain a very insular and very connected community.”

Logan, who serves as the chair of Native and Indigenous Students at Cornell — which serves as a forum for Indigenous students — said that growing the community and gaining attention for Indigenous student concerns has been challenging due to the University’s lack of support.

“I would say that 99.9 percent of the time, we just don’t have a relationship with the institution.” Logan said. “Everything that we do, and everything that we produce is our own and the University gets credit for it.” 

Johnson-Zafiris also commented on some of the failures she sees in the University’s relationship with Indigenous students.

“I don’t necessarily find support from the University, let alone the administration, more so from individual faculty and other students,” Johnson-Zafiris said. “The fact that we do not have a department of Indigenous studies to call home is incredibly concerning to me as a grad student. That means that my research can mainly be hosted under the computer and information science department which is not a bad thing, but simply in terms of representation it’s disheartening for Indigenous students.”

In an additional statement to The Sun, August affirmed that Cornell is actively working on the recruitment of Indigenous students.

“Cornell continues to develop and expand initiatives to provide education, outreach and support for Indigenous communities, including steps to enhance recruitment of Indigenous undergraduate students through the Office of the Vice Provost for Enrollment, which has added a staff member specifically focused on Indigenous student recruitment,” August said. “In addition, Cornell works with pre-college programs for high school youth and dedicated university staff to assist prospective Indigenous students navigating the admissions and financial aid process.”

In order to recruit more Indigenous students and make it more feasible for them to attend Cornell, some, such as Jordan, have proposed that Cornell offer scholarships or free tuition to admitted Indigenous students.

“We need to recognize that those nations and their descendants have already paid for Cornell and that they shouldn’t be made to pay twice,” Jordan said.

Some nearby colleges that are also located on Haudenosaunee land offer scholarships to Native students, such as Syracuse University’s Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship. However, due to Cornell and the Ivy League’s offering of financial aid on the basis of family need, it is unlikely that Cornell would offer such a scholarship, and the University did not directly address the question of the creation of scholarships for Indigenous students when asked by The Sun. 

Perched on the edge of North Campus, Akwe:kon — which recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary — is a program house dedicated to Native and Indigenous students. It is the first residence hall of its kind in the nation, and serves as a central hub for Indigenous culture on campus. 

An anniversary celebration for the house was held on May 5, which included a run in the morning in honor of the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. A medicinal garden was also planted outside of the building and an award ceremony for AIISP was held on the lawn. 

Yanenowi Logan lived in Akwe:kon during her freshman year at Cornell and described it as a positive experience. 

“I was really nervous because I was [entering college during COVID,]” Logan said. “But because the house was so small — there were only 25 residents at the time, maybe even less — we were pretty close. We would go get meals together, we would go to campus together.”

Charla Hall, a member of the Cherokee Nation and the Indigenous Visiting Scholar in Residence at Akwe:kon, said that the program house provides a sense of community for Native students and is a safe place for them to express their culture. 

“I love the random interactions that I have with students. Anytime that I’m down in one of these [common] rooms, almost always I’ll have a student that stops by and will have some sort of conversation,” Hall said. “It may not be earth-shattering, but it matters.”

Looking Towards the Future

Though Cornell’s relationship with Indigenous people has historically been complicated, in recent years the University has taken some actions to form and repair relationships with Native tribes. In February, human remains belonging to the Oneida Nation that had been kept in University storage for decades were returned to the tribe in a repatriation ceremony.

“Cornell was pleased to hold a campus ceremony on Feb. 21 with the leadership of the Oneida Indian Nation and many of its members to return their ancestral remains that had been kept in a University archive for six decades,” Joel M. Malina, the vice president for University Relations, wrote in a statement to The Sun.

With the strength of Cornell as an academic and research-focused institution, there is also the possibility that it could meaningfully help some tribes affected by its dispossession. According to Jordan, while AIISP was speaking with Native tribes, the prospect of Cornell sending experts in various fields — such as historians to go through records or scientists to help improve water quality on tribal lands — was discussed. A report on the names of the nations spoken to will be published and further conversations will be held after the spring semester ends. 

Prof. Michael Charles ’16, biological and environmental engineering, who is a member of the Diné Nation, runs a computational lab out of Riley-Robb Hall. His lab, which does work in mathematical modeling across several disciplines, has also collaborated with Native tribes. 

“We try to basically sit down with local experts, elders [and] young people and try to come up with a mathematical model that will help us work on policy implications for [issues such as] food systems and opportunities for housing,” Charles said. 

Charles also stated that in the future, there could be opportunities for universities like Cornell to collaborate with the 36 tribal colleges, which were designated as land-grant institutions in 1994 to ensure Native communities could have access to higher education programs. 

“Along with research, I think one of the greatest opportunities we’re seeing across a lot of these [land grant] institutions is the connection between land grant universities and tribal colleges, so we’re trying to figure out how we could maybe build a network,” Charles said. 

Charles elaborated that universities that don’t know how to start engaging with tribal nations could begin by cooperating with tribal colleges, perhaps with transfer programs and research opportunities. 

Ultimately, many Indigenous faculty and staff at Cornell expressed a desire for the University to have more open conversations with Indigenous people and tribes in the future. 

“The Native people would like a conversation, we would like a seat at the table,” Leslie Logan said. “And we keep getting the door slammed on us.”