Recognizing Indigenous Lands & Peoples: OSU’s Land Grant Legacy

In fall of 2018, the OSU150 Land Grant Festival was held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of OSU’s designation as a land-grant college. A series of tours, open house events, and presentations – the festival was designed to showcase what it means to be a land-grant university and how OSU embodies this spirit in terms of both mission and practice.  

Serving as the festival’s centerpiece, OSU’s impressive track record of innovation, education, and outreach is undoubtedly an important part of their land-grant legacy. Just as important, however, are questions about how the land that kick-started these universities was acquired, and who its native occupants were. 

An arm of the OSU150 festival entitled “We Are All Treaty People” took up these questions by acknowledging the long and complex history of the school’s land-grant origins. The series of talks and events was dedicated to “developing a deeper understanding of our shared treaty responsibilities” as members and beneficiaries of a land-grant institution. 

The Land Grant “Legacy” 

The event’s website defines a land-grant university as an institution of higher education designated by a state to receive the benefits of the 1862 Morrill Act. Passed by President Lincoln, the Morrill Act promoted education and innovation in the disciplines of agriculture and the mechanic arts.  

The webpage reads, “OSU’s status as a land-grant university began at its origins, when Oregon Agricultural College was established in 1868 with funds from the sale of 90,000 acres granted to the state by the federal government.” 

Indigenous Land Recognition 

The site poses the question, “What is the legacy of the land-grant university in the 21st century?” 

In a conversation about how OSU acknowledges this sense of treaty responsibility on a day-to-day basis, Vice President of Relations & Marketing Steve Clark noted how all Associated Students of Oregon State University events—and many other events on campus—begin with a statement of Indigenous Land Recognition.  

The statement acknowledges that OSU is located within the traditional homelands of the Mary’s River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya, and that the Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855.  

While a critical gesture that needs repeating, the statement does not paint the entire picture when it comes to recognizing all of the Native nations whose ancestral lands were used in order to kick-start OSU.  

The Land-Grab University Database 

Until recently, finding the details surrounding OSU’s land-grant legacy would have involved some serious archival digging. Now, thanks to investigative work done by a team led by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone at High Country News, these figures – as they relate to OSU and more than 50 other land-grant universities across the country – are now readily available in one comprehensive database.  

Land-Grab Universities,” the exposé that grew out of this massive data project, convincingly presents a detailed argument showing that land-grant universities were built “not just on Indigenous land, but with Indigenous land.” 

As detailed in the piece, the Morrill Act redistributed nearly 11 million acres of land expropriated from tribal nations  an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. To squelch indigenous title to lands transferred through the Morrill Act, the U.S. paid less than $400,000. For more than a quarter of these parcels, the U.S. paid nothing at all – parcels acquired either through outright seizure or through treaties that were never ratified by the federal government.  

By the early 20th century, these grants had raised $17.7 million for university endowments, with unsold lands valued at an additional $5.1 million. The Morrill Act stipulated that all money made from land sales must be used in perpetuity, meaning those funds still remain on university ledgers to this day.  

As the HCN article points out, these funds provided interest income, inspired gifts, and boosted local economies. Altogether, when adjusted for inflation, the grants were worth about half a billion dollars. 

Using the interactive database generated for this project, one can see exactly how and to what extent OSU benefitted from this exploitative system, and at the expense of which specific Native nations.  

OSU’s Treaty Responsibility 

According to the HCN data, the U.S. paid approximately $1,179 for title to the 91,629 indigenous acres that were donated to the state of Oregon under the terms of the Morrill Act.  

Officially designated as the state’s agricultural college in 1870, Corvallis College became the sole recipient of income derived from the sale of this land. From these sales, $208,112 was raised in endowment principal at a return rate of 117-to-1 on payments to tribes. Adjusted for inflation, this converts to $29,714 paid for indigenous titles and $4,182,259 in endowment principal raised, amounting to a return rate of 141-to-1.  

Going beyond the numbers, the HCN database also allows you to see where these parcels of land were located, as well as what treaties were signed with which tribes in order to acquire the titles.  

A majority of the parcels that bolstered the OSU endowment were located in what is now Klamath and Lake County in southern Oregon. This land was ceded to the U.S. government by a treaty signed on October 14, 1864 with representatives of the Klamath and Modoc tribes, and the Yahuskin Band of Northern Paiute.  

The treaty ceded more than 13.3 million acres to the U.S. government, established the boundaries of the Klamath Indian Reservation, and coerced these diverse tribes to relocate their communities within the reservation’s boundaries. Ultimately, OSU raised $178,939 in endowment principal ($3,596,185 adjusted for inflation) from the sale of 79,370 acres acquired through this 1864 treaty.  

The Violence of Dispossession 

The authors at HCN point out that the results of their study “reveal the violence of dispossession on land-grant university ledgers.”  

Taking a closer look at the aforementioned 1864 treaty, one finds that this treaty and the reservation it established can be pinpointed as the determining cause of a year-long armed conflict that lasted from 1872-1873, now referred to as the Modoc War or Modoc Campaign.  

After being rounded up by the U.S. Army, forced to resettle on the Oregon reservation, and facing antagonism from the more sizeable Klamath tribe, a group of Modoc men led by Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, attempted to return to their own country in northeastern California. Facing pressure from the army, the insurgent group of around 50 men eventually took refuge in the lava beds around Lassen Peak, a part of their ancestral homeland. Engaging in effective guerrilla warfare, the outnumbered band made a prolonged stand.  

The standoff’s violent conclusion was ensured when, in a negotiating meeting, Kintpuash killed U.S. General Edward R. S. Canby and another commissioner after learning that his party’s request to return to their ancestral lands would be denied and that surrender was their only option.  

With more reinforcements, the army then advanced upon the Modoc stronghold in April 1873, forcing the indigenous fighters to flee. Kintpuash and several other captured Modocs were eventually imprisoned and hanged at Alcatraz.  

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in her account of the Modoc War, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, the four months of fighting cost the U.S. almost $500,000 ($10 million when adjusted for inflation) and the lives of more than four hundred soldiers, including one general. Kintpuash’s corpse was embalmed and exhibited at circuses around the country. The Modoc families that accompanied the band were scattered and incarcerated on various reservations across the west — this displacement is the reason there is a federally recognized Modoc tribe in Oklahoma.  

For anyone who might consider these events irrelevant or far-removed from our current moment, consider that in 2003, Assistant U.S. Attorney General John C. Yoo cited The Modoc Indian Prisoners legal opinion of 1873 in order justify categorizing Guantanamo detainees as stateless terrorist combatants not entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions. This argument was offered within a larger set of legal memoranda that has come to be referred to as the Torture Memos.  

This is not to suggest that OSU played any real role in this bloody piece of history. However, it is the case that a majority of the land that kick-started the school was acquired by the U.S. Government under the same treaty that displaced the Modoc tribe and precipitated the Modoc War.  

Lava Beds National Park, which now marks the site where Kintpuash’s group made its stand, is located a mere 34 miles from several parcels of land in Lorella, OR, which were sold to the benefit OSU. While the Modoc War reached its violent conclusion in 1873, according to the HCN data the parcels mentioned above were patented in 1874, along with many of the other parcels in southern Oregon that were sold to raise OSU’s endowment principal.  

HCN’s database has the potential to bring many stories and connections like this into light. It is an invaluable tool for the project of reassessing the legacy of the land-grant university in the 21st Century and recognizing the indigenous peoples who suffered harm and injustice in its name.  

By JD Brookbank