- Stolen Lands and Stolen Opportunities
the land-grab universities (lgu) research project, conducted by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone in 2020, has established that the Morrill Act of 1862 effectively alienated 11 million acres of land from Indigenous peoples, communities, and individuals for the benefit of fifty-two U.S. universities throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am excited by this work, as it serves as a foundation for further research on assessing the adverse effects that the stealing of Indigenous peoples' lands may have had on the development, growth, and well-being of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
While there has been some assessment of other U.S. government programs such as the General Allotment Act (or Dawes Act), the role of U.S. treatymaking, and forced annexation or relocation in the dispossession of lands from Indigenous peoples, very little was known about the role of the Morrill Act (Meriam et al. 1928; Carlson 1981, 1983). Through their work, Lee and Ahtone have documented the entire scope of Indigenous lands that were stolen or compensated at far below the true value and then granted to dozens of fledgling universities in the United States. The data that they have compiled are unique in their completeness; tracing the original ownership (or caretakers) of the parcels, the size of the landholdings, and the valuation are valuable contributions to future researchers (Lee 2020).
Lee and Ahtone's research complements recent findings that several prominent U.S. universities were endowed at their founding and in their early years with slaves from wealthy donors (Swarns 2016). The establishment of higher institutions of learning such as Georgetown and Cornell University with land assets stolen from Indigenous peoples and/or the enslavement and commodification of other humans is an important story that requires more attention. In particular, the success of these U.S. educational institutions must be evaluated in light of these newly uncovered facts. These institutions were founded on the theft of land and enslaved labor resources of others; there has been no accounting or thorough restitution made.
The Role of Landownership in Well-Being
The theft of land has immediate consequences for individuals and communities; it can mean eviction and removal from the land and homes. This [End Page 123] alone can be quite disruptive and wreak havoc in communities and families. However, I want to focus on the long-term intergenerational impact of the land theft on Indigenous families and communities. Land serves multiple purposes: it is a cultural and historical connection for Indigenous peoples; it provides food and vital resources such as timber for housing; it can also be a commodity for trading and selling; and it is a place for people to live and raise their families. Theft precludes all of these uses for the former owners or caretakers of the land.
Recent research has identified how the deprivation of land and housing in the African American community has affected intergenerational well-being. Specifically, African Americans were denied homeownership and landownership due to decades of discriminatory laws and regulations that made it nearly impossible to buy, own, and bequeath home or properties. As a result, few African Americans were able to buy homes and to maintain them for their descendants; when they were allowed to buy homes, they were often charged exorbitant mortgage rates and/or property taxes (Logan and Parman 2017; Rothstein 2017). The U.S. tax system provides significant advantages to homeowners in the form of the home mortgage tax deduction, which is not available to renters. As a result, the median net wealth of African American households is $11,200, while it was thirteen times greater ($144,200) for white households in 2013 (Bialik and Cilluffo 2017). The lack of savings subsequently impacts the ability of families to send their children to college, invest in new businesses, pay for necessary healthcare, or improve their homes. Deprivation accumulates over generations. These disparities in wealth persist into 2020—a full generation after the creation of the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act.
While the methods of deprivation have been different for Indigenous peoples in the United States, the outcomes are very similar to those for...