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  • The Future Is in the Past:How Land-Grab Universities Can Shape the Future of Higher Education
  • Theresa Stewart-Ambo (bio)

indigenous people and scholars have long contested the history of U.S. colleges and universities. The late educational historian Irvin Lee "Bobby" Wright was among the first to challenge the idyllic narrative of colonial colleges that profited from and aimed to assimilate Indigenous youth.1 In the last decade, the idyllic narrative has been critiqued by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars who have laid bare the violently dispossessive origins of higher education in the U.S. settler-colonial state, particularly land-grant universities. The Land-Grab Universities (LGU) project rejects the myth of land-grant universities by tracing the distribution of approximately 10.7 million acres under the 1862 Morrill Act—land taken from nearly 250 Native nations through more than 160 violence-backed land cessions. Historian Robert Lee and journalist Tristan Ahtone also document how land-grant universities have (in the past and present) monetarily profited from the sale of land vouchers, known as "scrip," and mineral rights. The report, public database, and digital project are compelling; what I find to be even more insightful is where LGU points us.2

As a doctoral student in higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 2016, I began searching for information on how Tovaangar (Tongva territory now known as the Los Angeles Basin) came to be the present-day campus. The truth, as described by Lee and Ahtone, was "hiding in plain sight."3 In California, "thirty-two land-grant universities got a share of California Indian land, raising approximately $3.6 million from over 1.7 million acres."4 As a Tongva/Luiseño woman, an alumnus of UCLA, and assistant professor of education at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I reflect on California, the UC system, and UCLA to draw additional insights from Lee and Ahtone's research. I will close by offering my perspective on how the LGU project can inform the present and future of higher education, providing implications for institutions and asking the question: How can the past shape the future? [End Page 162]

Land-Grant Universities in California

LGU is framed by the dispossession of California's Indigenous population, so it feels fitting to orient readers with additional history of the state.5 Much like that of the rest of the United States, the history of California is complicated. The state has always been well known for its diverse ecology and climate, as well as being home to the most politically, socially, and culturally diverse Indigenous population in the nation. The Indigenous people of California endured settler colonialism by the Spanish, Mexican, Russian (in the north), and U.S. empires. Beginning in 1769 with the introduction of the Spanish mission system, Indigenous people of the state resisted the introduction of foreign diseases, forced labor, state and federally sanctioned genocide, and forced removal and relocation. Conspiring to eliminate the Indigenous population, settlers systematically and strategically murdered and removed hundreds of thousands of people to gain control of the state's resource-rich and ecologically desirable territory.6

After California became a state in 1850, the state government enacted discriminatory policies that had devastating consequences for California Indians. Implemented that year, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians criminalized the very existence of Indigenous people and created a system of indentured servitude rooted in surveillance, control, and confinement. Under these circumstances the federal government dispensed Indian agents to California to negotiate treaties. Between 1851 and 1852, eighteen treaties were signed with 118 tribes, with signatories "agreeing" to cede their lands to the United States in exchange for reservation lands and other benefits. Nineteen reservations were designated, totaling 7.488 million acres, which represented only 7.5 percent of California. Understanding the value of the land, the U.S. Senate rejected all of the treaties in a secret session; meanwhile, many California Indians were moved to reservations. In 1860, following the treaty period but preceding the Morrill Act, the U.S. Congress endorsed and financed an appropriations bill for $400,000 called the Act for the Payment of Expenses...


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