How Stolen Indigenous Land Continues to Fund Public Education

NDSU prides itself on being a “student-focused, land-grant, research university.” The emphasis of NDSU, a land-grant university, among the top three most notable aspects of the university, is strange for many. It is common for many students to complete their education while remaining completely unfamiliar with what a land-grant university is and why it is so important. But as important land-grant institutions are, they also originate from a history of inequality and dispossession, whose effects are still felt today.

The federal government in 1862 passed the Morrill Act (the origin behind the name of NDSU’s Morrill Hall), which transferred large portions of federal land to the states for the states to sell the land to fund many public services. Education was the primary benefactor, especially in K-12 schools but also in new higher education institutions.

Apart from funding, land-grant universities also have additional standards for researching and teaching in fields like agriculture, engineering, and science. This is why places like NDSU are proud to be a land-grant university.

States still hold onto large portions of the land and lease it to generate revenue and fund investments. The trusts generate a substantial amount of money. Currently, the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands is funding 17% of the cost of public education or $2142 per pupil. This funding has risen too. In 2009-2011, the funding was only 4%. A large portion of this growth is due to increased taxes on oil extraction.

A new investigation by Grist earlier this month revealed the extent to which land-grant public universities throughout the country continue to be funded in the billions by land from the original Morrill Act.

Grist found that 14 universities, including NDSU, continue to receive funding from state land trusts that also benefited from the Morrill Act. “The amount of acreage under management for land-grant universities varies widely, from as little as 15,000 acres above ground in North Dakota to more than 2.1 million below ground in Texas,” according to Grist.

An Unequal Past and Present

However important the funding from this land may be, the land, like the rest of the United States, rests on a history of coercion and expropriation against the indigenous inhabitants. Given this history, many members of the indigenous community have referred to land-grant universities as “land-grab universities.”

From a financial perspective, “combined, Indigenous nations were paid approximately $4.3 million in today’s dollars for these lands, but in many cases, nothing was paid at all,” said Grist. “In 2022 alone, these trust lands generated more than $2.2 billion for their schools. Between 2018 and 2022, the lands produced almost $6.7 billion.” Much of the land was ceased by the government illegally breaking treaties and just not paying. According to High Country News, a quarter of the land for the grants was not even compensated for.

NDSU, like many other land-grant universities, has a land acknowledgment that states this history and that “we will continue to learn how to live in unity with Mother Earth and build strong, mutually beneficial, trusting relationships with Indigenous Peoples of our region.” However, despite these symbolic pledges that aim to amend past crimes, large disparities still persist.

A third of Native Americans live in poverty. Only 72.7% of Native Americans in North Dakota graduate from high school, compared to 92.2% of whites. Likewise, 22% of Native Americans go on to enroll in college, compared to 40% of the general population. Only 44% of Native Americans graduate while obtaining a bachelor’s degree, compared to 63% of whites.

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