Stepping Out & Stepping Up: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes

Followers of news from the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) have recently seen both our executive director and faculty director highlighting a situation we can ignore no longer, i.e. the original dispossession of land from Native American tribes in order to fund the establishment of Ohio State and other land-grant universities across the country. Shortly after the release of the Land-Grab Universities report in March 2020, we were fortunate to join with Stephen Gavazzi of the College of Education and Human Ecology in an effort to respond to the seemingly egregious situation of our university's founding. Steve's article addressing the matter had already laid a groundwork for the partnership to develop.

For context, the typical origin story of the land-grant university has focused attention on President Abraham Lincoln and his having signed into law the Morrill Act of 1862. This congressional action, spearheaded by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, provided each state with federal land that subsequently was sold and used to found what became known as America's public land-grant universities. Tragically, detailed records demonstrate that a significant amount of the federal land used in this manner was wrongly acquired, sometimes through violence and/or unfair treaties, from tribal nations across the country. The dispossession of these territories—alongside other expropriations of land, food production, and water and mineral rights by white settlers—has contributed to the current plight of America's original inhabitants, many of whom are now among the most food insecure in the world.

The effects of conquest and genocide also have taken their toll, by some measures having reduced the indigenous population in the United State from as high as 10 million to a low in the late 19th Century of just over a quarter of a million, before rebounding to about three million today. To make matters worse, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, surviving American Indian communities are among the most vulnerable to infection and rapid transmission of the coronavirus, the result of rampant preexisting diet-related illnesses and inadequate healthcare services.

Documentation of the immense transfer of resources away from indigenous peoples and toward the establishment of land-grant universities has illuminated the “original sin” of these institutions of higher learning. The founding of our own university is a case in point. In 1870, the State of Ohio received 614,165 acres of Indian land that, when sold, yielded a total endowment of $340,818, upon which The Ohio State University was founded—an amount that would be worth quite significantly more in today's dollars, bolstered by normal accrual. Territories included in these sales came from at least 29 First Nations (and 39 corresponding bands) scattered across the United States. Territories from tribes residing in states as close as Michigan (Chippewa, Ottawa, Menomini, Wyandot and Potawatomi) and as far away as California (Si-yan-te, Po-to-yan-ti, Co-co-noon, Aplache, A-wall-a-che, A-pang-asse, Ya-wil-chine, Wo-la-si, Wack-sa-che and Po-ken-well) were affected by this dispossession.

To be fair, some land-grant universities have started to provide at least limited recognition of the land-grab nature of their founding. For example, land acknowledgment statements—an act of contrition when done properly—now are spoken at the beginning of certain academic and social events hosted by these universities. In fact, the growing number of universities employing these sorts of proclamations has made them somewhat vogueish if not de rigueur. And therein lies the major problem with land acknowledgement statements. Contrition without restitution begins to ring hollow over time.

We assert it is long past time for truth and reconciliation. In partnership with First Nations Development Institute, our expanded team seeks to open a path toward both a reckoning of this inglorious history within our university community, as well as the conversations necessary with the affected tribes to determine an appropriate path forward. To undertake this sort of work, we are also joined by John Low (associate professor of Comparative Studies, director of the Newark Earthworks Center, and citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians), Marti Chaatsmith, (associate director of the Newark Earthworks Center, enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation, and direct descendant of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), and Casey Hoy (Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agricultural Ecosystem Management, professor of Entomology, and faculty director of InFACT).

Working directly with Michael Roberts, the president and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, we will connect with Tribal Nations across the U.S.—who were removed from Ohio or whose land was granted to Ohio State—to facilitate new dialogue between Native peoples and representatives of our university. In so doing, we will develop an initial understanding of what specific reparative actions would most benefit the Native American communities impacted by this land dispossession, particularly with respect to food security and sovereignty, and the process by which it could be jointly designed.

We also will be advancing an enhanced land acknowledgment statement that moves our university away from its current “past tense” and more sentimental recognition of transgressions. Our aim would be to routinely remind the Ohio State community regarding the pervasiveness of colonialism and the opportunity to foster a mindfulness of our present-day obligations, thus promoting a more genuine relationship upon which future interactions with indigenous communities can be based.

Finally, because we see this work as only the very beginning of a longer and more comprehensive university response, we will undertake a series of planning efforts as well. This includes the formulation of a demonstration/research project at the Newark Earthworks Center regarding indigenous farming practices, with attention to how traditional practices may improve food sovereignty in Native American communities today, and the incorporation of indigenous agricultural wisdom and practices into a new Sustainable Agriculture major and modern agricultural practices more broadly. We also will be recommending to Ohio State and the State of Ohio a reconciliation plan, outlining both the people and processes required for progress to occur.

We can't change the history regarding how the State of Ohio and Ohio State University came to be, but we can certainly take steps to honestly acknowledge that history, including those who were wronged in the process, and begin to make amends in meaningful ways. This is ultimately the greatest challenge any person, organization or society faces, to step out of our comfort zones and step up purposefully to take responsibility and reconcile injustices to the extent possible. Future Buckeyes would expect nothing less as they look back on our efforts to address this situation today.

Stephen M. Gavazzi – Professor, Department of Human Sciences (Gavazzi.1@osu.edu)
Brian Snyder – Executive Director, InFACT (snyder.1534@osu.edu)