Update on Racial Justice Project: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes

May 20, 2021

The December 2020 edition of the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) newsletter contained an article entitled “Stepping Out & Stepping Up: Toward Truth & Reconciliation with Dispossessed Native American Tribes.” In this piece, InFACT Executive Director Brian Snyder and Ohio State faculty member Stephen Gavazzi of the College of Education and Human Ecology described a fledgling effort to come to terms with the fact that, as the result of the Morrill Act of 1862, Native tribal lands had been taken and sold to create the original endowments for The Ohio State University and 51 other land-grant universities (LGUs). This initiative was designed to push these LGUs to “step out” of their comfort zones and “step up” to the responsibilities inherent to the ignoble roots of their foundational finances.

In partnership with First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), the Stepping Out & Stepping Up (SOSU) Project Team set out to accomplish two main objectives: 1) establish connections with the 108 tribes and bands whose land was used to fund Ohio State as per the Land-Grab Universities report; and 2) interview tribal leaders of those affected communities to determine an appropriate path forward. In so doing, the SOSU Project Team aimed to 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 reparative actions could be jointly designed through Tribal-University dialogue.

Since the SOSU project received its initial funding—a $49,000 grant from Ohio State's Seed Fund for Racial Justice—team members have acquired additional support for a more comprehensive overall effort. The second source of funding involves a $99,000 grant from the Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme Initiative (GA+HDT) reflecting cooperation between the Newark Earthworks Center and the Ohio State Humanities Institute in service to a series of activities with significant focus both on Ohio's historic indigenous inhabitants and the present-day American Indians who live in Ohio. Importantly, this grant will support a post-doctoral researcher who will join the SOSU Project Team in July 2021. A third source of support came from rolling in a prior GA+HDT grant that focuses attention on traditional Indigenous knowledge as related to Native American Arts and Humanities both past and present. This latter grant provides $49,900 to support the increased exposure of the Ohio State community to the works of various Indigenous artists, writers, and scholars, many with educational endeavors and research interests consistent with the SOSU Project Team and its objectives.

The most recent funding awarded to the SOSU Project comes from the InFACT Linkage and Leverage grant program. The $36,000 award supports an interdisciplinary team of faculty members representing six colleges at Ohio State—Ingrid Adams (Extension/CFAES/Medicine), Jennifer Garner (Public Affairs/Medicine), Steve Gavazzi (EHE), Ayaz Hyder (Public Health), Rick Livingston (Humanities Institute/Arts & Sciences), and Jacquelyn Meshelemiah (Social Work)—who together will focus on the invisibility of Native Americans and their culture in scholarly literature pertaining to food, families, and community life.

Our Team

In the previous newsletter article, we introduced our project team members, including John Low (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 descendent of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), and Casey Hoy (Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agricultural Ecosystem Management, professor of Entomology, and faculty director of InFACT). We also noted that FNDI was our community partner on the grant, but we did not introduce anyone from that organization. We have been fortunate to have had Michael Roberts, the President and CEO of FNDI, as our main nationwide contact on Tribal issues during the earliest stages of this initiative. Strategically, Mike invited Rick Williams, a Board Member for the American Indian Graduate Center (AIGC) and former President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund (AICF), to join the project team. Rick is the leading our outreach efforts with Tribal Leaders and conducting all interviews. We are grateful to have two outstanding professionals who can deftly move our group from the serious to the humorous and back again as warranted by the many situations we have faced together so far.

Early Findings

Here are some early findings as we approach the midpoint of our Racial Justice Seed Grant research:

  • Coming as a bit of a surprise to our non-Native team members, we now fully understand that there are two distinct groups of aggrieved Native American tribes with legitimate claims that need to be addressed. First, the target group of this study, which are the tribes that lost land for the sake of establishing the original funding for LGUs due to the Morrill Act of 1862—we think of these as the “Endowment Tribes.” Second, there are numerous tribes that had inhabited the territory now known as the State of Ohio before being removed further west to make way for mostly-white settlers, often through brute force—we now refer to these as the “Diasporic Tribes” due to their state of exile from their original homeland. It is important to understand these distinctions, because their situations are very different, and the sense of loss is particularly acute among the latter group when it comes to Ohio-based issues.
  • With respect to the Endowment Tribes, we have found that the challenges are greater than expected in terms of making initial contact, establishing a dialogue with the right people, and even providing context for the historical events that occurred. In other words, our challenge in part is to make victims of historical injustice fully aware of their losses, which fits well with the educational aspect of this project specifically and Ohio State's mission more generally.
  • We have become aware that most institutional “land acknowledgements” are woefully inadequate, particularly in the case of LGUs failing to acknowledge their legitimate debt to the Endowment Tribes. There also is a rampant tendency within university communities to adopt a fragmented approach with respect to acknowledgement statements. Therefore, we are elevating the urgency for our team to address this part of our project as described in the original proposal.

Additional Outreach Efforts

In addition to the GA+HDT grants that will allow our project team to connect with the Diasporic Tribes, we also are involved in two additional outreach efforts at this time:

  • Many Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) were granted land-grant status through the Equity in Educa­tional Land-Grant Status Act of 1994. Known as the 1994 land-grants, these TCUs serve many of the communities connected to the Endowment Tribes. Largely through relationships established by Rick Williams during his previous stint at AICF, we have initiated a dialogue with TCU leaders regarding their past and present dealings with 1862 land-grants, as well as what they might hope for in the future from those LGUs who understand the debt that is owed to the Endowment Tribes.
  • Thanks in part to a recent article published in the FNDI newsletter on our project, our project team has been in contact with groups from other 1862 LGUs who have wished to learn more about our project. So far, we are connected to teams from Cornell University, the University of California, the University of Connecticut, the University of Minnesota, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Texas A&M University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Vermont.

What's Next: Save the Date

The multiple grants awarded to our team to date—totaling over a quarter million dollars—have created an enormous amount of synergy both within The Ohio State University system and across the nation as we come into contact both with Native and non-Native stakeholders who recognize the importance of this work. We have been using the Land-Grant Truth website to provide periodic updates, and we hope to begin publishing our own newsletter soon. In the meantime, we would ask interested parties to hold October 6, 2021 from 12-2pm on their calendars, as we will be hosting Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee, the original authors of the Land-Grab Universities report, as keynote speakers for a webinar event entitled “Land-Grab Universities: Owning the Truth and Sharing the Path to Making Amends.”