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How a Civil War-era law turned Native American land into university endowments

The University of Missouri, and many others, benefited from the dispossession of Native Americans through land grants

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MU student center

As of April 2020, the University of Missouri student center is home to a mural by Yatika Starr Fields celebrating Indigenous heritage, a project organized by MU Four Directions.

The University of Missouri proudly touts its status as a land-grant institution under the 1862 Morrill Act, which gave states federal funding to establish public colleges.

But few people have thought to ask where the land granted to the university came from. A two-year investigation by the news outlet High Country News found that the U.S. government expropriated nearly 11 million acres of land from Native American tribes that was then sold to fund 52 modern-day universities – including the University of Missouri, which received land taken from the Osage people. 

The High Country News project, dubbed "Land Grab Universities," calls the land grants a "massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation."

“This idea about land-grant  universities building their dominance off of expropriated indigenous land is an idea I think that a lot of people have and maybe even abstractly understand on some level,” said Tristan Ahtone, who served as associate editor for indigenous affairs at High Country News during the project. The investigation makes that idea concrete, using data from the Bureau of Land Management and state and university archives.

MU map

An early plan for the University of Missouri campus, designed by B'vt Maj. J.W. Mac.Murray. 

Mizzou and the Osage

The land granted to the University of Missouri under the Morrill Act was ceded to the United States in two treaties with the Osage in 1808 and 1825, according to High Country News research. Because of a miscommunication during the negotiation of the 1808 treaty, the Osage didn’t realize they were giving up all rights to the ceded land and would no longer be able to hunt there. High Country News calculated that the land was purchased by the U.S. for less than $700.

By 1872, the Osage had been ceded almost all of their land to the US government, and the tribe was forced to move to a reservation in present-day Osage County, Oklahoma, a fraction of the land they once controlled. Unlike other tribes who were forcibly relocated, the Osage bought this land and were able to preserve their communal way of life. Other tribes were forced to live on privately-owned land allotments that could be purchased by people who weren't tribal members. 

The University of Missouri, established in 1839, is one of the few land-grant institutions that predate the Morrill Act. Today, although students are absent, the buildings that make up the University of Missouri’s flagship campus are still standing in Columbia, as they have since as early as 1867. The chancellor’s residence, the oldest building on Francis Quadrangle, was built five years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act.

Osage Warrior

A portrait of an Osage tribal member created after a tribal delegation visited Washington, D.C., following the Louisiana Purchase.

When asked for comment, Mizzou officials referred to a statement made earlier this year by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities: "Land-grant universities have a responsibility to continue to provide opportunities for Native American students while working to appropriately and respectfully serve as ready and willing partners to help address community challenges and needs. And land-grant universities will share and continue to learn from the history of the Native Americans, whose lives, traditions, and cultures are inextricably linked to their own history and the diverse character of the United States.”

The Morrill Act

When the Morrill Act was signed, beneficiary institutions were called “democracy’s colleges,” because they were meant to lift up the country by providing access to every American.

But not every American was able to share in the opportunities provided by the law. In 1862, “every American” didn’t include women or African Americans. It also didn’t include Native Americans. 

Morrill Act Overview

Without funding from the Morrill Act, higher education the United States wouldn’t exist in its current state. Even private universities receive federal support, based on the philosophy put forward in the Morrill Act that higher education is a public good. At the same time, the capital that funded these land-grant institutions was available because of the widespread belief that indigenous people’s lives and homes were less important than the expansion of the United States

“This is this is very much still living story,” Ahtone says in an interview with Vox. “It may seem like it's not because the act is more than 150 years old, but it still has impact and still has reverberations and is still a major, major part of why these institutions are able to survive even today.”

Morill Act Infographic

Native Americans at Mizzou today

As of fall 2018, American Indian students make up just 0.2% of the MU student body, according to the division of enrollment management. Ryder Jiron, a senior and president of the Four Directions student organization for indigenous students, says that membership in the organization has grown over the last four years. 

“The org really is kind of being revitalized,” he says. “We have a lot of members now. There’s four people on the exec board, and I’m used to there only being two.”

In the future, Jiron hopes that MU will provide more support to the native studies program and focus on retaining indigenous faculty and students. 

“Like with any other marginalized group, being at school is hard, staying in school is even harder if you have to be supporting people back home, or you don't have the resources that a lot of your peers have,” he says.

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