76 Land-Grab Universities with Robert Lee (Jerome Tharaud, JP)

John and new host Jerome Tharaud (author of Apocalyptic Geographies) learn exactly how the growth of America’s public universities relied on shameful seizures of Native American land. Working with Tristan Athone (editor of Grist and a member of the Kiowa Tribe) historian Robert Lee wrote a stunning series of pieces that reveal how many public land-grant universities were fundamentally financed and sustained by a long-lasting settle-colonial “land grab.” Their meticulous work paints an unusually detailed picture of how most highly praised institutions of higher education in America (Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley and virtually all of the great Midwestern public universities) were initially launched and sometimes later sustained by a flood of cash deriving directly or indirectly from that stolen and seized land.

explore land-grab maps further here

Jerome and John discuss with Lee issues that are covered in the initial article in High Country News, a dedicated website with a better version of this fantastic map, a follow-up article tracing land that was never sold, and a scholarly forum that followed from their findings.

read the initial article here

The conversation covers crucial turning points in the settler-colonial onslaught. For example, the Morrill Act 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, and that is no coincidence. Its author Justin Morrill, a Vermont Senator, argued the land-grants were a payback for the East’s investment in opening the West. The West was “a plundered province” wrote Bernard de Voto (Harpers, August 1934). What Bobby calls “Treaty-like agreements” from 1871 and all the way to Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 offered a spurious legal cover for the various takings that funded public universities. Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 was one back-door that legitimated dispossession: so-called “surplus land” in reservations was distributed to settlers. (In fact, Brandeis’ own Karen Hansen wrote Encounter on the Great Plains [2016] about poor Scandinavian immigrants who benefited from just such transfers.)

On the slightly brighter side, South Dakota State’s Wokini Initiative aims to acknowledge and begin to redress the legacy of dispossession by funneling income from the university’s remaining Morrill parcels into scholarships and programming for Native students. Other universities including Ohio State and the University of Minnesota have also begun to explore possible ways of addressing their histories of profiting from stolen Native land.

Books and Articles Mentioned in the Episode

How have the land-grant universities who profited most from grabbed land done in terms of educating Native and Indigenous students? Not well, according to Feir and Jones, “Repaying a Debt? The Performance of Morrill Act University Beneficiaries as Measured by Native Enrollment and Graduation Rates.” Native American and Indigenous Studies, vol. 8 no. 1, 2021, p. 129-138. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/784825.

Walter Benjamin, “Ten Theses on the Philosophy of History“: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Land Acknowledgements: Washington State Pullman did change its land acknowledgement‘ to reflect this reality.

“Greater Britain” Land-Grabs has precedents dating back as far perhaps as Trinity College, Dublin in late 1500s. A recent article discusses 19th century examples spread throughout the British Empire. Harvey, Caitlin P. A. “The Wealth of Knowledge: Land-Grab Universities in a British Imperial and Global Context.” Native American and Indigenous Studies, vol. 8 no. 1, 2021, p. 97-105. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/784821.

Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities

Recallable Books

Paul Wallace Gates, The Wisconsin Pinelands of Cornell University (originally c.1934 recently reissued) Bobby finds it brilliant on how Cornell’s land speculation operated–yet it has not a single sentence on the original Native American ownership of that land.

Eve Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, (1990) writes about an “epistemology of ignorance”–questions not asked.

Jerome praised Brenda J. Childs’s 2014 article, “The Boarding School as Metaphor.” He also mentioned N. Scott Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn (1968), Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977) and D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded (1936), a brilliant novel by a Montanan writer of the Salish Kootenai nation that will also be the central work for the 2022 Brandeis Novel Symposium.

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925).

Listen to the episode here.

Read the transcript here.

Upcoming: Rounding out March, a lively conversation with Christina Thompson about Polynesian culture and its edgy 1970’s cultural revival in Hawaii. April is fantasy month: we kick it off with Tolkien scholar Anna Vaniskaya and then turn to novelist Madeline Miller, who speaks with RtB about her critically acclaimed bestseller, Circe.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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