In a Movement Toward Truth and Reconciliation, First Nations Partners with Ohio State in Acknowledging Native Lands and People
Throughout the nation, for over 150 years, some of America’s finest universities have been instilling education, facilitating research, and providing direct services to their communities, all on lands that were stolen from Native tribes and peoples. Now, universities are beginning to recognize their land’s original inhabitants, acknowledge the truth of their histories, and explore ways in which reparations with Native people can be made. In a new project toward truth and reconciliation, First Nations is working with leaders at The Ohio State University to examine the dispossession of tribal lands at this land-grant university and the effects it has had on the economic, educational, and health disparities of Ohio’s Native peoples.
History of Land Grant Institutions
The work is part of Ohio State’s “Stepping Out and Stepping Up Racial Justice” project, funded in part by the university’s Seed Fund for Racial Justice. The project seeks to address the “original sin” of the nation’s first public universities, how schools like The Ohio State University came to be, and how the stealing of these lands has continued to marginalize Native people.
The project’s principle investigator and First Nations’ partner is Stephen M. Gavazzi, PhD, a professor in Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology. Dr. Gavazzi explains in Forbes that America’s first public universities came into existence with the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Named after its main sponsor, Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, this congressional action provided each state with parcels of land that could be used or sold off to build an institution of higher learning.
As a result of this act, Dr. Gavazzi writes, some of the world’s finest public universities – 52 altogether – were created to bring science, technology, agriculture, and the arts to the American people. These universities include, for example, Cornell, Maryland, Michigan State, MIT, Ohio State, Penn State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, and the University of California. But, while creating hubs for higher education may have seemed noble, the truth is that the parcels granted to state governments were from territories taken from Native American tribes, typically by brute force or lopsided treaties.
This stolen land and long-term impact can be quantified. Dr. Gavazzi reports that the land-base of America’s “land-grab” universities account for almost 11 million acres seized from approximately 250 tribes.
“And because the original Morrill Act stipulated that the money raised from the land had to be used in perpetuity, the funds remain on university ledgers to this day. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that these parcels have a current estimated worth of approximately half a billion dollars when adjusted for inflation,” writes Dr. Gavazzi.
Understanding Harm to Native Communities
Recognizing the violence and atrocities behind the land seizure of the nations’ land-grant universities is the first step to righting this historic and ongoing wrong. According to Dr. Gavazzi, this involves contrition – a call for remorse and apology. Schools like Colorado State University and University of Minnesota have taken this step with official acknowledgements of tribes affected by the land seizures that led to their founding. Schools like South Dakota State University have taken a second step: In addition to acknowledging the truth, they are moving toward reconciliation and compensation to their lands’ original inhabitants. The university’s Wokini Initiative is designed to give back to the Native American people living in the state the total estimated $600,000 annual income gleaned from the 160,000 acres originally given to the university, in the form of scholarships and programs aimed to support tribal members.
A Focus in Ohio
The Ohio State University is joining with the growing number of land-grant universities in committing similar resources to the Indigenous peoples impacted by the taking of their land. But in Ohio, understanding the tribal history of the land can be challenging.
In the early 1800s, more than 40 First Nations were dispersed during the establishment of U.S. federal authority over what is now the State of Ohio. The last Indigenous people of Ohio were removed in 1843 when the Wyandots were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Then, in 1870, the state of Ohio received 614,165 acres of Indian land that, when sold, yielded a total endowment of $340,818, upon which The Ohio State University was founded. These funds remain on Ohio State’s ledgers to this day, displaying a current market value of at least $3 million.
First Nations President and CEO Michael Roberts explains that the appropriated use of American Indian assets has created, in the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest economies, including many of the assets that are now stored in institutional endowments. “But this same appropriation of assets has had a negative impact on American Indians’ economic and human rights,” he says. “And it has seemingly made these same Native Americans exempt from the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by non-Native Americans.”
Today, there are no federally recognized tribes in Ohio, and the many people of Native American descent in Ohio are not necessarily included as members of any tribes that once called Ohio home. Yet, there are detailed records of a significant number of tribes located outside of Ohio whose territories were taken from them by brute force or unjust treaties and then were sold to fund The Ohio State University’s land grant.
Stepping Out & Stepping Up
Through the project, fully titled “Stepping Out & Stepping Up: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes,” First Nations will leverage the organization’s connections with tribes across the country who were removed from Ohio or whose land was granted to Ohio State to facilitate a new dialogue between Native peoples and the representatives of the university. This will lead to an initial understanding of what specific reparative actions would most benefit the Native American communities impacted by this land dispossession and the process by which it could be jointly designed.
The project will ultimately result in the advancing of a Land Acknowledgment statement that moves the university away from its current “past tense” recognition of transgressions and toward an Indigenous relationship. “We hope to remind the Ohio State community about the pervasiveness of colonialism and create an opportunity to foster a mindfulness of our present-day obligations, thus establishing a more genuine relationship upon which future interactions can be based,” says Dr. Gavazzi.
First Nations’ consultant Richard Williams says that the impact of this project will dovetail with other First Nations’ efforts toward truth and reconciliation.
“At these land-grant university and throughout all institutions, we need America to understand what happened to Indigenous people and their plight. We need to explore what were the causes of the alienation of Indian people from their land and the impact of the destruction of their economies. People have to understand what happened in America and know the truth about the destruction of Native people, the loss of their land, their religion, their culture, and in some cases the genocide that led to the complete extinction of people,” he says. “Without truth there can be no reconciliation. We need the truth to heal and to advance a bright future for Native people.”
At part of the project, First Nations is currently reaching out to tribes in the surrounding Ohio area who are interested in participating in the research project. Tribal leaders listed below are specifically being contacted and are encouraged to connect with Rick Williams at (720) 724-6453.
As Williams concludes, “If we are able to create a greater awareness about the truth of what happened in America to Native people, and people are responsive, we will create a change in the future for all of Americans.”
First Nations looks forward to creating this change.
To stay up to date on this project to dot the “i” at The Ohio State University and create a plan toward both truth and reconciliation, bookmark www.firstnations.org. To learn more about Stepping Out & Stepping Up, visit https://u.osu.edu/landgranttruth/
Are you the chair, president, or chief of a tribe listed here? Call Rick Williams at (720) 724-6453.
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan
Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation of Wisconsin
Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin
Sokaogon Chippewa Community, Wisconsin
Mille Lacs (Minnesota)
St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin
The Osage Nation
The Kaw Nation
Bay Mills Indian Community, Michigan
Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Michigan
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians
Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma
Little River Band of Ottawa Indians
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – Leech Lake Band
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – Cass Lake Band Winnibigashish -Leech Lake
Red Lake Tribe
Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians of the Bad River Reservation, Wisconsin
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – Grand Portage
Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Michigan
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – Fond du Lac Band
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan
Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin
Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation
Santee Sioux Nation, Nebraska
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota
Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of the Crow Creek Reservation, South Dakota
Upper Sioux Community, Minnesota
Lower Sioux Indian Community in the State of Minnesota
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota
Omaha Tribe of Nebraska
Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma
Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska
Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma
Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa
Sac and Fox Nation, Oklahoma Sac and Fox Nation
Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska
Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota
Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska