Jessie Guillen/Sun Contributor

Before selling the land in the early 1900s, Cornell owned over 500,000 acres of land in Wisconsin.

April 24, 2024

The Morrill Act, a Pipestone Quarry and the Fight for Repatriation: The Story of Cornell’s Ties to 155,340 Acres of Wisconsin Land

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Cornell University will celebrate another birthday this Saturday. 159 years ago, on April 27, 1865, New York Governor Reuben E. Fenton signed the bill chartering the University on Ezra Cornell’s Ithaca farm. Three years later in 1868, Cornell University accepted its first class of 412 students. 

However, Indigenous communities at Cornell and in Wisconsin have criticized the University’s founding permitted by the 1862 Morrill Act, which distributed public land — often obtained through seizures of native land by the federal government — to land-grant institutions.

Mr. Cornell raised almost $6 million from Ojibwe, Miwok, Yokut and Dakota land acquired through 63 treaties or seizures, making him the single largest beneficiary of the act with around 980,000 expropriated acres from over 230 Indigenous peoples.

Cornell’s Dispossession

Though Mr. Cornell received nearly 10 percent of the land distributed under the Morrill Act across 15 states, he predominantly focused on the Wisconsin Great Lakes Area — the ancestral home of the Ojibwe — due to prospective logging profits from white pine trees.

Mr. Cornell bought around 500,000 acres of white pine timberland in 1865. The University later sold it to lumber companies in the early 1900s for around $5 million.

Michael Whalen of Cornell University’s Division and Planning Budget reported that the profits from this sale “fueled the operation of the University through most of the 19th century.”

But, Mr. Cornell’s business ventures in Wisconsin came at a high cost to Indigenous communities.

Rick St. Germaine, a knowledge-keeper for the Lac Courtes Oreilles community of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in Wisconsin, said that deforestation harmed Ojibwe through the deprivation of both resources and spirituality.

“To watch the trees just all sawed down and the land ravaged was very hurtful to us,” St. Germaine said. “To lose places that were sacred to us was even much more hurtful.”

According to Prof. Jon Parmenter, history, “Cornell University played an essential role in not only setting the prices for standing timber, but also setting the pace of settler-colonial intrusion” by instigating the mass deforestation in what Parmenter described as “the conclusive or final dispossession of lands and resources of Wisconsin’s Indigenous peoples.”

The Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry

The University maintains a 50 percent mineral interest on a 155,340-acre parcel of Wisconsin land, including the Barron County Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to soft pipestone historically used by the Lac Courtes Oreilles to craft pipes for Midewiwin religious ceremonies.

Last month, St. Germaine spoke to Cornellians about the quarry’s spiritual significance to the Ojibwe in a lecture titled, “Cornell University and the Blue Hills (WI) Pipestone Quarry: A Perspective from Anishinaabewaki.”

“[The quarry] is one of the most important [sites],” St. Germaine said. “It is an essential component of the way we send messages to our Creator.”

However, St. Germaine spoke about how Indigenous access to the quarry has been restricted since Barron County bought the land rights to the quarry in 1975 from private owners.

“Our people were told to stay out, that we were trespassing,” St. Germaine said.

Though the University owns only the mineral rights, transferring them to the Lac Courtes Oreilles could open legal negotiations with Barron County over access to the quarry. 

“[The Lac Courtes Oreilles] would have to be consulted about any use of the minerals on that property,” Parmenter told The Sun. “They [could] also initiate use of minerals on that property.”

According to Parmenter, Barron County administrators reached out to him after St. Germaine spoke at the University. Parmenter described the county’s reaction as “mortified.”

Barron County administrators, including Tyler Gruetzmacher of the Soil and Water Conservation Department, drafted a letter with St. Germaine clarifying quarry access. 

“We had a really nice discussion expressing that the county is not going to limit [Lac Courtes Oreilles’] access to [the quarry],” Gruetzmacher said. “We don’t feel we have any reason to.”

Gruetzmacher, who said he is “the county point person” on quarry matters, told The Sun that he plans to meet with St. Germaine later this month for further discussion.

Gruetzmacher added that “it’s a total mystery” to him and other administrators as to why the Lac Courtes Oreilles were previously denied access to the quarry.

St. Germaine did not respond to requests for comment on the meeting with county administrators and whether he felt that access to the quarry would be secure in the future.

Jim Leary — the son of Warren Leary who owned the quarry from 1959 until 1975 — said that even after the county’s clarification, the denial of Indigenous access to the quarry “didn’t surprise [him]” due to ongoing anti-Indigenous racism in northern Wisconsin.

“I think [racism] is still there, sad to say,” Leary said. “During the treaty rights period, I had a pro-treaty rights bumper sticker on my car, and occasionally I’d get hassled in minor ways.”

According to St. Germaine, the Lac Courtes Oreilles were able to access the quarry during Leary’s ownership and were only denied access since Barron County purchased it.

However, St. Germaine recalled experiencing an increase in Indigenous racism in the years following Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions restoring Indigenous hunting and fishing rights on public land.

“We would launch our boats from a public landing as was required in our agreement with the state, and all of a sudden we’d have a thousand non-Indians there with slingshots,” St. Germaine said. “We were hit. A lot of people were injured, and the tires were slashed on our trailers. They fought tooth and nail and really attacked us.”

Calls for Repatriation

Despite the clarification of Indigenous access to the quarry, Parmenter maintains a strong belief that it is necessary for the University to repatriate its mineral rights on the quarry to its original owners, the Lac Courtes Oreilles.

“Cornell [is not] off the hook for this,” Parmenter said. “Those mineral rights represent an object of cultural patrimony in the University’s possession, and it belongs to the Indigenous community. The only way their rights to [the quarry] are going to be secure is if they have that.”

Parmenter added that access to the quarry is highly unstable and “dependent on good will and personalities [of county leadership], and as we’ve seen, that doesn’t always last.”

There is precedent for the University to repatriate its mineral rights to the Lac Courtes Oreilles. 

In 2020, the University returned the diaries of Fidelia “Flying Bird” Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot language, to the Mohegan Tribe. The University acquired the diaries in 2004 when it received the Native American Collection of Huntington Free Library in Bronx, New York.

“[Repatriating the mineral rights] is a really simple, straightforward opportunity for the University to do a good thing,” Parmenter told The Sun.

MJ Raade ’25, a descendant of the Ojibwe nation, actively advocates for the repatriation of mineral rights as a member of Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell

“It’s unsettling, the amount of people that don’t know about it,” Raade said. “[Repatriating] the quarry site is a small step. I don’t understand why [the University is] not doing it.”

Raade also criticized the University for its land acknowledgement. NAISAC has proposed adding a clause stating that “Cornell’s founding was enabled in the course of a national genocide by the sale of almost one million acres of stolen Indian land.”

“When Cornell [isn’t] recognizing the [full] history of the Morrill Act, it’s really demoralizing,” Raade said.

Indigenous communities in Wisconsin also seek repatriation of the quarry due to urgent concerns about resource and cultural preservation.

Miranda Washinawatok, known as Wāqsanāhkuhkiw meaning “Bright Star Woman” within the Menominee community, spoke to The Sun about her work studying pipestone as a graduate student of archaeology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Washinawatok, who carries a pipe and is in the process of hand-carving another, said her journey in graduate school is motivated by “speak[ing] up against Indigenous issues.”

“I started to pursue research related to pipestone materials simply because I recognize [that] crafts related to ceremony and cultural lifeways are unfortunately [becoming] neglected, forgotten or the youth seem to not have opportunities like those who are older,” Washinawatok said.

Washinawatok believes that these “cultural lifeways” would experience a revival if quarry rights were returned to Indigenous communities.

Additionally, the lack of access to local quarries like the Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry makes Washinawatok concerned about the future sustainability of harvesting pipestone.

“Another accessibility issue that we’ll have to address at some point is knowing how to broaden the materials we’re seeking,” Washinawatok said. “It’s a lot easier for Wisconsin folk to travel to closer sites to quarry, but these locations are either on private property or fenced off, inhibit[ing] our access.”

According to Washinawatok, decreased access to local quarries causes pipemakers to travel to “more popular quarries” such as Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. This has contributed to concerns about the overuse of resources without other quarry alternatives.

St. Germaine also sees an urgent need to repatriate the mineral rights to the quarry to revitalize the Ojibwe language.

“When our last elders were passing away, the ones who did all of our ceremonies for us, it suddenly became a realization that us folks, myself included — we had turned our back on the language,” St. Germaine said.

St. Germaine currently teaches Ojibwe children at the Waadookodaading Language Institute and believes that access to the quarry would allow students to learn about pipemaking and other cultural practices in the Ojibwe language.

“I work with students and I just smile sometimes when they speak in sentences,” St. Germaine said. “If I were able to bring them back to [the quarry], we would incorporate it into our language curriculum, and I could help with some of the stories that were shared with me when I was younger.”

Parmenter echoed these concerns after St. Germaine’s lecture at the University.

“There is kind of an urgency here,” Parmenter said. “The knowledge that Rick holds needs to be cultivated among the younger generation of people through having access to [the quarry].”

Considerations on Charter Day

Parmenter believes that Cornellians should learn the University’s history in its totality and recognize it as an opportunity for repatriation. 

Parmenter called the administration’s response to his initial outreach “disappointing,” but acknowledged that “dispossession” is often perceived as “halting in nature.” 

“This stems, I think, from the perception in Day Hall that connecting Cornell’s history to Indigenous dispossession constitutes an attack on the University’s past when in fact, it should be seen as an enlargement of our knowledge of its past,” Parmenter said. “History is not usually as distant from us as we might think or hope.”

Parmenter believes that as an educational institution, the University must embrace “its history, what built this place, its dependence on the income that came from these areas and, most importantly, that the history’s not over.”

St. Germaine hopes that the University will consider what its past of dispossession could hold for Indigenous futures.

“It is my hope that the University will look favorably upon this remote site on the side of a steep hill in northern Wisconsin,” St. Germaine said. “That was once a very dear and sacred place to the Ojibwe people, and there would be much joy were the subsurface mining rights restored to our people.”