Amid a reckoning, some Native Americans call for reparations

More than 150 years ago, 11 Native American tribes sold, for a fraction of its worth, nearly 94,440 acres of land to make room for what is now the University of Minnesota, researchers said. It was the start of a century-long toxic relationship, they said, and it is time for the university and other higher education institutions to pay restitution.

“You have these schools that have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, but they are not looking at any ways they can improve living situations for Indigenous peoples today,” said An Garagiola, a descendant of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. “Yet their existence as institutions, as schools of learning, are only there today because of everything that was taken.”

Colleges and universities across the country are facing a reckoning from Native communities and scrambling to find ways to make amends. Cornell University has embarked on a research project to account for all the land that it took from Native communities. The University of Madison at Wisconsin flew the flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation on campus for the first time in 2021 to acknowledge land taken from the tribe. And the University of California system has pledged to give free tuition to some Native American students amid a movement to reclaim tribal lands.

The 11 tribes calling for reparations at the University of Minnesota, including Red Lake Nation and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said they have not settled on a specific amount, partly because of the difficulty of quantifying all the harm done. But the university has a duty to address this history, they said.

University officials have acknowledged many of the advocates findings and said they considering ways to make recompense. “We welcome the opportunity to examine the university’s history. It is important that we work in collaboration with the tribal nations to chart our course from here,” Janie Mayeron, chair of the board of regents for the University of Minnesota, said at a board meeting in May.

The effort is part of a movement by Indigenous groups to reclaim their history, artifacts and land. But, so far, Native advocates said colleges have fallen short of providing real reparations. The restitution colleges have offered benefit “a small collection of people,” said Kyle Mays, an associate professor in the department of African American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. “I am not upset at any individual who gets the tuition paid for,” he said. “But that’s not real structural change at all.”

The United States attempted to provide reparations to Native Americans before. To show gratitude to Native Americans who served in World War II, in 1946 Congress created the Indian Claims Commission, to compensate federally recognized tribe for stolen land. The commission, which was active until 1978, paid out $1.3 billion, according to the New York Times, which amounted to about $1,000 for each tribal member.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ordered the United States to pay the Sioux nation over $105 million for the illegal government seizure of its land. But many Native American leaders called for the return of the sacred land, not financial compensation. The money which sits in a trust and has since grown to more than $1 billion, remains unclaimed.

This is happening at the same time dozens of states and cities consider reparations for Black Americans. California is proposing to give more than $1 million to some Black residents, and Providence, R.I., has set aside a $10 million budget for its reparations program for Black and Native American residents.

This has lent a potential blueprint for tribes now seeking reparations, though there will be some key differences, advocates said. Reparations for Black and Indigenous people should be considered together, Mays said. “Without combining the conversations that is, of Black and Indigenous reparations we are missing the point and the possibilities for our for justice in a certain sense,” Mays, who is Black and Indigenous, said.

But Rebecca Tsosie, a law professor at the University of Arizona who is of Yaqui descent, said reparations for Native tribes would be “very, very different” from proposals to provide recompense for Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people.

Federally recognized tribes have a unique political relationship with the United States, with Indigenous nations governing themselves independently, Tsosie said. “There is no other group that has that form of a claim,” she said. “Indigenous peoples are still in their context of separate and distinct peoples. So as nations, other nations within the nation.”

“I do not see how much compensation you can get for a mass amount of genocide without trying to restructure economies at large scale, restructure how we connect with land, and how we utilize land,” Mays said. “Which I just do not see is possible under capitalism in a certain way.”

The reckoning with Native communities was sparked by a March 2020 article in High Country News about “land-grab universities” that described how 10.7 million acres of land was taken from 250 tribes after the signing of the Morrill Act by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The law turned land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education.

The law was named after Justin Smith Morrill, an entrepreneur and a member of Congress, whose name adorns the buildings in many college campuses across the country, including the University of Maryland at College Park, South Dakota State University and the University of Vermont, among others.

One of the largest benefactors of the law was Cornell University, which received more than 987,000 acres across 15 current states, according to High Country News researchers. It built Morrill Hall, a 40,000 square-foot building, in 1866.

“Cornell acknowledges our central place in this history,” Joel Malina, vice president of university relations at Cornell, said in an statement. The college is working “to build and maintain relationships with North American Indigenous Nations and communities,” he said, including establishing educational programs and “partnerships specifically geared to meeting the needs of Indigenous student.”

But Kurt Anders Jordan, director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell, said the school should be doing more. He has assembled a team to dig more deeply into its past, including contacting Native communities that may have been affected by Cornell taking land from tribes.

The team found about 240 tribal nations, federally recognized, state recognized or unrecognized across the United States and Canada, that have been affected by the landholdings of Cornell, Jordan said. “I think that is going to move us into a different stage of visibility and generating action,” he said of the research plan to submit soon.

At the University of Minnesota, the Truth Project, led by a Native research group, went beyond land holdings, examining the history of kidney and skin biopsies that school researchers conducted on Native children in the 1960s.

At the time, children in the area suffered from two epidemics of kidney disease, the first in 1953 and the second in 1966. The second epidemic coincided with a study underway by University of Minnesota researchers examining the impact of the kidney infections. To study the disease, researchers conducted kidney biopsies on Native children. At the time, that involved physicians jabbing patients with a long needle without the help of an ultrasound to guide their movements, researchers said.

“When you imagine what that procedure would have looked like in the 1960s compared to today, especially when considering the age of some of these children they conducted biopsies on, it just does not make you feel good,” said Audrianna Goodwin, a researcher who is a member of the Red Lake Nation tribe, one of the tribes whose land was taken to build the university. The school did not obtain proper written consent from the parents of patients before including them in the experiment, said Goodwin, who researched the experiment as part of the Truth Project.

Rather than give the children penicillin, which has been used to treat patients during the first epidemic, the researchers conducted the biopsies to further their research, she said. In a separate report, the University of Minnesota disputed that penicillin would have stymied the epidemic, and found that “although a signed consent form was not available for review, it appears that parental consent was obtained for kidney biopsies.”

It is “inappropriate” to use modern medical standards to research conducted decades ago, the report said. Goodwin said researchers should have done more. “If they had understood our communities, had respect for our communities, that this research wouldn’t have been conducted in this way.”

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