Pati Li/Sun Contributor

Climate Justice Cornell, Cornell on Fire and Native American Indigenous and Indigenous Students at Cornell gathered on the Arts Quad to reclaim Earth Day.

April 24, 2024

Indigenous and Climate Justice Student Groups March to “Reclaim Earth Day”

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Cornell student groups celebrated Earth Day with advocacy.

On Monday, Climate Justice Cornell and Cornell on Fire joined Native American Indigenous and Indigenous Students at Cornell to promote climate justice for underserved communities.

Students held signs reading “Reclaim Earth Day,” “Planet over Profit” and “End Climate Imperialism” to call for climate justice and support for Indigenous people. A flier passed out by organizers at the event read, “Earth Day has systemically excluded communities of color.” 

According to the movement’s official website, Earth Day originated in the United States in 1970 due to the efforts of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-W.I.) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-C.A.) and was inspired by a 1969 Santa Barbara, CA oil spill that killed sea mammals and thousands of birds. By 1990, Earth Day had spread to 141 countries.

Despite Earth Day’s prominence and celebration across the world, a 2020 NGO Report Card found that the climate movement has struggled to represent people of color and that most climate justice organizations have predominantly white boards. Two major environmental organizations — The Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society — have struggled in recent years to reconcile with their namesakes’ racist views and organizational histories of racism and exclusion.

At the same time, communities of color are the most likely to suffer from climate-related harms such as heat waves, and many Indigenous communities in particular are facing more direct impacts of climate change as a result of dispossession. Cornellians are actively seeking to change this.

NAISAC member MJ Raade ’25, who is a descendant of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe nation of the Wisconsin Great Lakes area, spoke about disparate connections between people and their environments due to the University profiting off of native land obtained through the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862. 

The Morrill Act granted institutions land parcels in the Midwest as a method of funding higher education. These parcels predominantly resulted from Indigenous land seized by the federal government.

Cornell bought 500,000 acres of land in Wisconsin in 1865 for 60 cents per acre. The University maintained ownership until it sold the land in the early 1900s for as much as $82 per acre, profiting around $5 million. At the time of the sale, Cornell maintained a 50 percent mineral interest on 155,340 acres of land in 12 Wisconsin counties – which Cornell still owns today.

Students section off a one-acre parcel of the arts quad to call attention to the University’s dispossession of parcels of Indigenous land. (Pat Li/Sun Contributor)

“Ezra Cornell specifically targeted lands that [had been] recently taken from the Ojibwe people because of the area’s rich natural abundance in white pine trees,” Raade said. “Cornell sold these lands to lumber companies who destroyed the ecosystem, including wild rice patches.”

Raade criticized the University’s mineral interest in the Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry, a sacred Indigenous site in northern Wisconsin, and emphasized the necessity of considering Cornell’s history of dispossession.

“Disconnection from lands prevents Indigenous people from attaining general self-determination and self-sufficiency,” Raade said. “The 50 percent mineral interest that Cornell still owns should be immediately transferred to the rightful Indigenous owners.”

Alex Bentley ’25, a speaker at the rally, told The Sun that Cornell’s inadequate acknowledgment of its historical maltreatment of Indigenous communities actively harms its Indigenous students.

“Cornell University has yet to adopt the land acknowledgment proposed by the Indigenous Dispossession Project which acknowledges that Cornell’s founding was enabled in the course of a national genocide with the sale of almost one million acres of stolen Indian land under the Morrill Act of 1862,” Bentley said.

Bethany Ojalehto Mays, a community organizer involved with Cornell on Fire and the effort to “reclaim” Earth Day, explained that the rally came after roughly three months of planning with NAISAC and national climate organizers.

“I’m here to support decolonization as part of climate action and climate justice,” Ojalehto Mays said. “We’re really excited because this is really a coalition effort.”

Student activists marched from Ho Plaza to the Arts Quad to spread awareness of climate and Indigenous issues through art and symbolism. 

Students raise awareness about climate justice through painting. (Pat Li/Sun Contributor)

Prof. Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, natural resources and the environment, from the Kanaka Maoli native Hawaiian community, spoke about the significance of the one-acre parcel students delineated on the Arts Quad as only a small gesture compared to the magnitude of native land that the University previously owned.

“It’s one acre that we’re asking back from the University to give to our Ojibwe relatives,” Mana’oakamai Johnson said. “It’s not much.”

Mana’oakamai Johnson, who studies climate solutions for coastal and Indigenous communities as part of his “kuleana” — a responsibility to give back to the environment — talked about his optimism about the growing inclusion of Indigenous people in Earth Day.

“The original call for Earth Day was built on a lot of exclusion of people who look like me, who come from places like me,” Mana’oakamai Johnson said. “There’s now solidarity and support from everyone here for people who look like me [and] our very courageous and eloquent students who spoke earlier in today’s rally. There’s a space for Indigenous knowledge, a space for Indigenous relationships to the land.”

Mana’oakamai Johnson’s vision, and that of Cornell’s Indigenous and climate justice groups, hopes to make issues about inequitable access to land more central to the Earth Day movement.

“Earth Day has been kind of commodified over the last handful of years,” Mana’oakamai Johnson said. “It’s all about what it looks like on social media, but it’s not asking the hard questions of are people more connected with land. That’s what a lot of today’s call is for.”