Land-Grab Universities and Me

by Anik Chartrand

As an indigenous person, listening to “Land-Grab Universities” (Recall this Book 76) made me reflect on my own education–acquired from a land-grant institution. It was both sobering and stimulating to consider how I profited from a university whose historic and present-day rhetoric on land-grabbing, land acknowledgement, and land-use is a continued support for the settler colonialism project in the U.S.

The episode unfolds from Robert Lee and Tristan Athone’s project, “Land-Grab Universities,” a High Country News investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous Land. He explains that under the Morrill Act of 1862, colleges were built across the U.S. to teach branches of learning related to agricultural and mechanic arts to foster agricultural production. States received parcels of land to build their colleges on but also received land beyond the campus grounds to lease and sell for fundraising efforts. But before these states could be given parcels of land to sell, the federal government violently seized lands from Indigenous people – nearly 11 million acres of land from 250 tribes, bands and communities.

            Iowa was the first state to accept officially the provisions of the Morrill Act and raise funds for the Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm – which later became known as Iowa State University, my alma mater. The land-grant history entrenches the Iowa State identity – from the Morrill Hall building on the westside of campus that houses a land-grant legacy historical collection and art museum to the east campus Farm House historical site which celebrates the first college building on campus. Between the two land-grant centered buildings, there are numerous historical markers located throughout the sprawling agricultural and engineering college featuring the people, organizations, and events that led to the construction of Iowa State.

Figure 1 Morrill Hall on Iowa State University Campus

The land-grant legacy is even part of the ISU required undergraduate curriculum. The required first-year writing course, English 150, is designed to prepare students for successful communication in their future academic courses through the theme of the land-grant university. Students practice analyzing text by reading the university’s mission and land-grant history. They write profiles on how university organizations pertain to ISU’s history as a land-grant university and learn how to research by exploring historical buildings on campus and their relation to the Iowan agricultural community. They practice summary skills by summarizing the Morrill Act and analyze the paintings and photographs of agricultural landscape given to Iowa by the U.S. government as fundraisers for the buildings in which they attend their English classes. I taught English 150 during my first semester as a graduate student, gave presentations and lessons on the Morrill Act to the first-year students, toured the land-grant buildings and campus grounds. Here’s an astonishing fact: never once were Indigenous people mentioned in any training, tour, orientation, or text related to land-grants.

The only recognition of Indigenous people and the land violently extracted from Iowan tribes was through ISU’s land-acknowledgement, officially released in February 2020, a year and a half into my graduate program. Land-acknowledgement statements, as John Plotz and Jerome Tharaud discuss in the podcast, can be a university’s way to grapple with the double legacy of the U.S. higher education system: as institutions that both profit from the history of colonization and elimination of Native people and culture, and at the same time as a place where we go to study this history and learn how to decolonize our institutions.

While I respect universities who do not shy away from their history and their continued profit from colonization, land acknowledgments might also simply be a new outlet for the persistent collective settler guilt literary trope. Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, a scholar of settler colonialism at Virginia Tech, explains that persistent collective guilt is the continued experience of guilt for the overt violence of settler ancestors, compounded by one’s participation in continued acts of settlement. This trope, found in land acknowledgments from land-grant universities that continue to profit from the structure of settler colonialism, “serve as an expression of guilt and how settlement, as an enduring project, continues to be defended” (Frontier Fictions: Settler Sagas and Postcolonial Guilt, xviii-xix).

The discussion on the expropriation of Indigenous land in the name of agricultural and capital progress brought me to Winona LaDuke’s All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life . In a chapter titled Buffalo Nations, Buffalo Peoples, LaDuke connects the military policy of buffalo killing, land grabbing, and the expansion of cattle and beef industries as the key policies of colonizing the plains. She explains that to clear Indigenous people from the rich agricultural land in the prairies, hunters killed the buffalo and “thereby destroyed the major food source for the Native people of the prairie – and then set upon the land. Feeding those whom the government had deprived of food and sustenance became a major business and a new commercial opportunity for the fledgling western cattle industries” (142).

Figure 2 “Native Nation’ Land Losses to 1890” in “All Our Relations” by Winona LaDuke page 144

While LaDuke does not link the elimination of bison and Indigenous people in the early 19th century to the land-grab universities, we can see how the land cleared by bison hunters correlate to the land given to states under the Morrill Act in 1862. Located on Meskwaki and Sauk nation land that was cleared of buffalo in the 1800s (and later became one of the top agricultural and husbandry schools in the nation) institutions like Iowa State are at the center of the crossover between military, university and the agricultural industry that directly benefit from the extermination of Native people. Land-grant institutions’ profit from and participation in settlement continues to be experienced and defended today, years beyond the first campus building construction.

As I look back on my time at Iowa State, I wonder if the campus’ perfectly manicured lawns and grand architectural academic halls are simply a fantasy designed to distract students, such as myself. What will it take to look beyond the picturesque prairie campus landscape? What will it take not just to acknowledge but to realize that the institutions we belong to hold the history of and continue to profit from a colonized, politically oppressed, starved, and massacred people.

Links from the Blog:

Iowa State’s Land-Grant History

Iowa State Land-Grant Parcels Interactive Map created by Iowa State University

Indigenous Land Granted to Universities Interactive Map created by Land-Grab Universities

Invasion of America Interactive Map created by University of Georgia

Author: plotznik

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

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