Stepping Out & Stepping Up to Address Issues Related to Native Land Dispossession

November 23, 2021

The term “land grant university” is quite common in the United States but few have interrogated what that term really means — from whom was this land “granted”?

“I was chagrined to have received three degrees from two land-grant universities, worked at a land-grant university for over 30 years, and yet had never thought to ask where the land came from,” says Stephen Gavazzi, professor of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Education and Human Ecology. “As it turns out, there was an immense transfer of wealth from Tribal Nations to establish these institutions of higher learning.”

Gavazzi became interested in this subject following his co-authorship on the 2018 book Land-Grant Universities of the Future and his work as co-editor of the 2020 book, Fulfilling the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission, published by The Ohio State University Press in August 2020. Shortly before the 2020 book was released, High Country News published an in-depth report, “Land-Grab Universities,” by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, which investigated the outcomes of the Morrill Act, which was signed by President Lincoln and redistributed 11 million acres of land occupied and utilized by tribal nations. Piqued by his work and that of High Country News, Gavazzi began digging into the subject, looking at how the Morrill Act affects our lives to this day.

One of the most significant and obvious effects in the seizure of indigenous peoples' lands is the loss of the places they had hunted, foraged and farmed for generations. Generations of food culture and knowledge were lost in a geological moment. Some of these lands were used for endowments creating state-supported institutions, including Ohio State. While there are not federally recognized tribes in Ohio, Native Americans live here still, as did their ancestors, and communities still suffer from these massive losses.

“There is very much a feeling of peeling back an onion,” Gavazzi says. The intricacies and depth of the situation make it difficult to quickly understand, let alone determine what to do next. “For example,” Gavazzi says, “we only recently found that The Ohio State University benefitted not only from 615,000 acres of land given to the state of Ohio through the Morrill Act, but also some 70,000 acres of land right here in Ohio through a legislative act that coincided with the chartering of The Ohio State University.” That means there is an obligation to address the losses of tribes whose land was outside of Ohio's borders as well as those who historically lived on the lands Ohio State presently occupies.

This is the core of the work that started with Gavazzi's Stepping Out & Stepping Up: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes project.

Stepping Out & Stepping Up was among 10 initially funded in Ohio State's Seed Fund for Racial Justice. As the project has developed, other aspects have found funding in InFACT's own Linkage & Leverage Grants program and a Collaborative Centers Grant with the Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme.

Gavazzi has sought out knowledgeable sources and partnerships who guide his work. “In mainstream literature, this is really an emerging area as more and more scholars discover the truth about the establishment of land-grant universities through the seizure and sale of lands from Native Americans,” Gavazzi said. “People like Sharon Stein and Margaret Nash were writing on this subject area prior to publication of the Land Grab Universities Report. And of course, Native scholars such as Cheryl Crazy Bull, Emily White Hat and Eve Tuck have been writing on related issues for a much longer amount of time.”

Gavazzi has developed multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams to look at various aspects of Native land dispossession. A couple of these projects are closely tied to InFACT. “For the Stepping Out and Stepping Up Native American Racial Justice Project, I am working with John Low and Marti Chaatsmith from the Newark Earthworks Center (NEC), Casey Hoy and Brian Snyder from InFACT, and Mike Roberts and Rick Williams from the First Nations Development Institute,” Gavazzi says. “The InFACT Linkage and Leverage grant we received has pulled together Ingrid Adams (Medicine/CFAES), Ayaz Hyder (Public Health), Jennifer Garner (Medicine/Public Policy), Rick Livingston (ASC) and Jacquelyn Meshelemiah (Social Work).” These projects aim to look at the ongoing effects and adjustments forced by the mass forced migration of tribes, from a holistic perspective, utilizing people with various backgrounds and research interests.

What happened and its effects are still being uncovered, and of course the outcomes haven't been the same for all Indigenous peoples and tribes. This is a situation that won't be resolved quickly. “To quote Sharon Stein, truth comes before reparations,” Gavazzi says. “So, there must be a recognition of past wrongdoings. Land acknowledgements, done correctly, begin that sort of process. That said, an acknowledgement without accompanying actions will ring hollow.” Cultivating authentic, good-faith and long-term relationships with Tribes will allow for dialogue about the situation. “An openness to contrasting viewpoints and continued learning from new information allows our teams to remain in a place where we can appreciate the complexities that have arisen over the past 150+ years of the land-grant university's existence,” Gavazzi says.

If you are interested in a discussion regarding shared interests in past, present and future research on Indigenous food systems with a focus on precolonial times, register here for a webinar Monday, November 29, 12 - 1:30. This is a continuation of Gavazzi's work on the Stepping Out & Stepping Up: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes project. The event will include a robust and enlightening exchange of ideas and planning with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research efforts that could occur in the future to help assure the food security and/or sovereignty of Native communities here in Ohio and the well-being of all people. We will begin with a presentation regarding sensitivities in doing research involving Indigenous knowledge and communities and hear also from a few folks who have already worked in this important area. We would love to hear of your interests as well!