Stories That Matter: How High Country News Exposed the Dark Origin Stories of Some of Our Greatest Universities

A team of journalists and scholars was able to draw a direct line between the taking of Indigenous land and the founding of some of America's preeminent institutions of higher learning.

Social-justice protests are common on university campuses. Especially in recent years, students and faculty have been among the most vocal opponents of economic inequality and white privilege.

But there’s a certain irony to holding rallies on the quad. In many cases, the institutions these activists are affiliated with owe their existence to the forces they are fighting against.

Schools such as the University of California–Berkeley, where Robert Lee earned his Ph.D., received some of their earliest seed money through a federal program in which they were granted tracts of valuable land. While this may have been a wise investment for a growing nation, the legacy is complicated by a forgotten fact: The land — more than 10 million acres in total — had previously belonged to Indigenous nations.

Read the Original HCN Story

“The gift of free land is part of the story of where these universities came from,” says Lee, who co-authored a remarkable project that was published last year in High Country News. “Our story looks at the underside of that. These are resources that were appropriated from Indigenous people, and transferred to the universities from the federal government.”

The direct line between the taking of Native American land and the establishment of some of our most prestigious universities was drawn by a remarkable collaboration of journalists and academics led by Lee and Tristan Ahtone. Their work, which includes a downloadable database available for further research, won a 2021 Sigma Award and a George Polk Award.

Lee, who is currently a university lecturer in American history at the University of Cambridge, spoke with The Postscript about the origins and continuing impact of the project. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. What exactly is a land-grant university?

Lee: When people talk about land-grant universities, they usually are referring to the universities that were created or funded through the Morrill Act of 1862. That’s the Civil War-era law that created a funding system for universities — most of them public, state-run universities, but a few that are privately funded like M.I.T. Some of them are flagship universities, like UC–Berkeley or the University of Minnesota.

These universities would get land out of the public domain of the United States, which was created through the taking of land from Indigenous nations. That land was used to raise perpetual endowments for the universities. So this physical grant of land was seed funding for the universities. Today, there are around 112 land-grant universities. Only about half of them were original beneficiaries of the Morrill Act of 1862. Others were added over time.

This was fairly progressive legislation for its day, wasn’t it? It was an attempt to kick-start a widespread system of higher education in the U.S. The rub is how the land was obtained.

Lee: That’s right. The Morrill Act grew out of a big push for scientific and agricultural higher education in the 19th century. The phrase you’ll see a lot in the literature is “democracy’s colleges.” It represented the opening up of higher education to the sons and daughters of the white middle class. You see that expressed in murals in many of these universities, in statues of Justin Morrill (the Vermont senator who sponsored the legislation), and in the naming of buildings such as “Morrill Halls.” But rather than looking at this gift of free land as a “wealth donation,” we approached it as a “resource transfer,” in which land was transferred from Indigenous nations to the universities through the federal government.

How did this project get started?

Lee: I work on land and U.S. expansion in the American West. I had spent a lot of time with the Bureau of Land Management’s land-patent records — the deeds that the U.S. would sell or gift. I had gotten to the stage of figuring out just how much work it would take to unpack the Morrill Act entirely. It distributed nearly 11 million acres of land — an area about the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined.

In 2018, when I was a post-doc at Harvard University, I gave a presentation on this research. It included an appeal for help. I hoped to do this project in a collaborative way, and to get the resources and manpower to be able to do it comprehensively. Tristan was in the audience. It was a fortuitous meeting! We run in different circles — he’s a journalist, I’m a historian — but we were able to put our two skill-sets together to produce this project.

That’s when this process really kicked off, in early 2018. It took another two years of research, putting the material together, and building the database, to get to the point where we released the project in the spring of 2020 — just as everything was falling apart due to COVID.

Why go the journalism route rather than academic publishing?

Lee: It’s really a hybrid of the two. It’s trying to push the typical barriers that we have between disciplines. It’s powerful to go outside traditional channels of academia for a whole host of reasons. In this project, we’re working with a lot of data that doesn’t lend itself to the format of a traditional journal article. It has contemporary relevance that isn’t as obvious with a lot of historical research. So it seemed important to get this information out there in a journalistic way. It cuts across disciplines. We are working with tools that are often used by historians, geographers, and economists, and taking those bits and pieces and put them into a public-facing work of scholarship.

How did the collaboration actually work? Journalists and historians generally work on different time frames, to put it mildly.

Lee: We started this just as Tristan was leaving Harvard, so most of this was done remotely. We were doing remote work before it became fashionable! I would occasionally go on trips to pick up materials from archives. It then became even more remote when I moved to England to take up my current position.

Tristan and I were collecting material and trying to get funding from various places. Then we recruited other members of the collaboration, including a photographer, a web designer. The time scale did become uncomfortable for me as a historian at the end. The last four or five months was a compressed period of work, including sharing Google docs and conducting virtual meetings on Zoom.

At one point, we figured out we were missing a piece of evidence that we needed — a list of parcels in New Mexico. Our photographer, Kalen Goodluck, lived in New Mexico; she was able to go to the archive and FaceTime with me from there, so I could tell them what we needed. He then grabbed it off of the microfilm. So it wound up working really well in the end.

It sounds like your research required you — and others — to physically go to various archives to find information that isn’t available online. Is that right?

Lee: It’s a mix. One of the challenges of putting together the data set is it wasn’t certain how much land there was. We had to figure out the size of the bucket we were trying to fill before we could figure out how to fill it. We eventually realized we could fill 80 to 85 percent of it with digital material. The rest had to come from national archives, university archives, state archives. In the end, we found there were approximately 80,000 of these parcels (that were taken by the government and given to universities) scattered across 24 states. We had to transcribe about 10,000 of them by hand.

When you say “transcribe by hand,” what do you mean?

Lee: We had to transcribe the public land survey system notation. When you fly over the U.S., you see all the squares out of the plane window when you look down. All of that was public-domain land, and it got surveyed in a specific way. We had to digitally generate representations of the parcels based on public land survey data. That way we could (come up with) geo-data you can put into your phone and then drive to the parcels and stand on the actual piece of land.

Once we located a parcel, we could use data on 19th-century treaties based on collections that have been digitized in the past few years. Then, using relatively straightforward tools, we could match the location. If you know where the parcels are that were ceded, and you know which universities are connected with the parcels, you can connect the university to the Indigenous nation (that was its involuntary benefactor) through the parcel.

I gather the universities were not eager to talk about this.

Lee: We put all of the responses on the individual university pages on the website, I think we got responses from about half of them. Most of those were a single response that was created by the organization of land-grant universities. However, after the story came out, we got a strong reaction from students, faculty and staff. We’ve seen a lot of interest in thinking about the ramifications of the legacy of building these universities with appropriated Indigenous land.

You mention in the piece that South Dakota State University has increased scholarship money for Native American students in recognition of this history. Are other universities considering this?

Lee: It hasn’t happened elsewhere, but I think it will be considered. South Dakota State was way ahead of the curve in terms of reallocating the funds they received from the Morrill Act, which are considerable compared to some other universities. They were doing this before we began working on the story. They supplemented their Morrill Act funds through fundraising that was connected to their efforts to create a new Indigenous Students Center.

Are people still contacting you about the story? What kind of reactions are you getting?

Lee: There has been a wide range. Within a few months of publication, petitions started to emerge at universities, including Cornell and the University of Florida, calling for a look into this history and more resources for Indigenous students. A number of initiatives have been organized by faculty, staff, and students to look into the consequences of the Morrill Act at their universities. At Cornell, there is an Indigenous Dispossession Project that is looking into this. They are in the process of contacting all of the nations that were affected by this process. This is going on at a bunch of places. At the University of Washington, they changed their land acknowledgement statement to incorporate the data from the project. People are looking into this at the University of Minnesota, and at the University of Wisconsin.

There are two big questions: What to do in the light of this history, and how to go about doing it. Both have a lot of moving parts, and it’ll take time for universities to figure this out. But there are a lot of people who are interested in taking up those questions.

Do you see this as part of the larger social-justice movement that is taking place today? Clearly this hasn’t been looked into in any depth until now is we don’t really want to explore the dark side of our origin stories.

Lee: I do think it’s a social-justice issue. It’s an issue of how we allocate resources as a society. Every square mile of the United States was once Indigenous land. That includes the places where we live and work. It’s easy to push that under the rug, but it becomes more real when you break it down into its constituent parts. We’re uncovering how specific plots of land were taken from specific Indigenous nations, and how these were given to universities that were able to convert them into opportunity and prosperity. It’s a question of how to repay those debts.

Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Predict: What Happens Next?

Robert Lee is continuing to work on Morrill Act-related projects, and hopes to publish additional information later this year. But his long-term goal is to encourage a new field of research.

“We took a bird’s eye view of the problem,” he notes. “We located all the land and unspooled the knot that connected the universities to the Indigenous nations whose land was taken. We didn’t tell the stories in depth of what happened at these universities as a result. How much money was earned over time? Who did that benefit? What were the implications of this type of funding over time? One of the hopes of the project is to try to stimulate people at the universities where these materials are available to try to answer these questions.”

“I would love to see seminars at some of these schools, where students go into their local archives and try to figure out the implications of land-grant funding for those universities,” Lee adds. “We’re starting to see some of that happen.”

Read: More on Land-Grant Universities

Meet: About the Author

Tom Jacobs is a former senior staff writer for Santa Barbara-based Pacific Standard magazine, and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. He tracks and analyzes trends in the arts and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture, and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.