- Myths, Erasure, and Violence:The Immoral Triad of the Morrill Act
the land-grab universities (lgu) project leaves us in awe and deeply curious. The result of years of meticulous research, LGU points to the fact that fifty-two land-grant universities in the United States would not exist without the dispossession of lands through the violent removal and killing of Native peoples. Much of the existence of these universities has relied and continues to rely on myths, erasure, and violence. We engage these concepts separately, yet it is worth noting that they are interconnected, forming an immoral triad in which each element builds each the other. Their beginnings are steeped in violence, they are marinated in myths, and their continuation is based in erasure. Bryan Brayboy and his colleague Jeremiah Chin have written about the importance of detangling origins and beginnings (Brayboy and Chin 2020). Origins are tied directly to cosmological events. For many Indigenous peoples, emergence is manifested in our origin stories, which are different from our beginning stories (Brayboy and Chin 2020; Vaught, Chin, and Brayboy n.d.). The conditions that make it possible for land-grant universities to exist begin with the violent separation (effectively the erasure) of Indigenous peoples from their lands, a process whose essence is a spiritual and ontological attack. Universities have established beginning stories (often denoted by "est." followed by the date of their founding), which are not the same as origin stories. The beginning stories of universities, pleasurable marinations of myths, omit the origins and write new stories that are rooted in the erasure of Indigenous peoples' connections to place. In our response, we link and unmask the myths, erasure, and violence.
LGU asks us to rethink what we have come to believe and know about land-grant institutions. Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone write, "Behind the myth [of gifts of free land] lies a massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation" (2020, 1). This revelation challenges the beginning stories of these institutions through the meticulous analysis of how eleven million acres of land were set aside for their creation. We see the dangers of myths that emerge in this moment. The power of myth (Brayboy and Chin 2020) is not [End Page 139] in its initial telling. Power is in the initial retelling, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. In each retelling, the myth edges toward "truth," and there we can see the ongoing harmful wreckage unfolding. The original peoples fade from existence, and the retelling of myths becomes the prevailing truth in their absence. Prevailing "truth" springs from what Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron call "genesis amnesia," the "naïve illusion that things have always been as they are" (1977, 9). As the original peoples fade away, historians interpret and analyze, universities entrench themselves and their stories, and time marches on. The myth becomes "truth."
Lee and Ahtone have offered us a powerful opportunity to revisit the beginning, to question it, reimagine it, and rewrite it.1 We see and feel the tensions in that rewriting. Tensions reside in the fact that we are both scholars of higher education and have made arguments that Indigenous peoples earning degrees is one way for tribal nations and communities to strengthen and build capacity. We understand the inherent tensions in suggesting that schooling as a way to engage in self-determination. We also understand the messy practicalities associated with knowing that we are both Indigenous peoples and graduates of universities that received some of their land base from the Morrill Act and the other challenges concomitant with the beginnings of our universities. The myths have become truths. We are products of the myths and of lands that were involuntarily turned over for the larger project of higher education in the United States.
We pause to wonder about who benefits from these myths. Language is important; words and text have the power to plant (and nurture) the seeds of myths, casting away groups of peoples and imaginaries. Candis Callison (Tahltan member) and Natalie Diaz (Mohave) provoke us to examine the power of language, its...