Land-grant institutions are deeply ingrained into our everyday geographies, but as an Indigenous scholar, these places have a complicated legacy.

By Deondre Smiles 

Growing up in the Midwest, and it’s easy to take for granted the stunning ways in which the land-grant university extends across so many different spheres of life. In my home-state of Minnesota, where I attended grade school, and received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees,  it was obvious even from a very young age just how much the University of Minnesota was a major part of the cultural fabric of the state. The University’s reach is statewide—besides its five campuses across Minnesota, the university also has presences in every county of the state through its extension system. The influence of the University in the intellectual, political, and social life of the state is indisputable. Scientific discoveries are made at the universities, new academic theories and agricultural development are made there. The Golden Gophers are omnipresent in Minnesota, especially as they compete for Big Ten and NCAA championships. At the heart of all of this is the University’s commitment to its Land-Grant mission to serve the citizens of Minnesota, a mission that means that it is committed to being accessible to every Minnesotan. 

The term “land-grant” conjures images of large, research-oriented public universities that have missions to serve the states whose names they carry, places like the University of Minnesota, The Ohio State University, or Iowa State University. There are blue-collar, hardworking connotations with that term, a sense that these institutions have historically made education accessible to multitudes of Americans, and have helped to build a strong society of educated citizens who can make positive contributions to the world. 

In recent years, however, and the term ‘land-grant’ has also become more controversial, reminding many of less positive words such as “land grab,” with all of the attendant implications of colonialism and genocide. Conversations have arisen about who land-grant universities really serve, and whether they are representative of all inhabitants of a given space, especially Indigenous peoples whose lands may have been appropriated to establish these institutions. As both an alumnus of several land-grant institutions as well as an Indigenous scholar, I want to better understand how this controversy is apparent in everyday contexts, sometimes unseen, both through the processes of how these institutions were established, as well as in the way such places have become a part of our everyday, whether we’re students or faculty, staff or administrators, residents or visitors. 

In March 2020, Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone argued in an essay of March 2020 from the Colorado-based non-profit news site High Country News that the university land-grant system in the United States amounted to Indigenous land theft. They described the ways in which the Morrill Act of 1862, the legislation that made land-grant universities possible, took stolen Indigenous land in order to be held for the benefit of an educational institution in each state that would be designated as a “land-grant university.” By mapping out the locations of American land-grant universities, Lee and Ahtone make clear that these institutions have been built upon a system of Indigenous land theft and genocide. 

Their argument touched off furious debates around the legacies of land-grant universities, and how such institutions could better serve the Indigenous communities on whose lands they sat, as well as to better serve their Indigenous students. Some institutions developed “land acknowledgements” that recognized local Indigenous communities. Others took less symbolic and more robust actions, such as South Dakota State’s Wokini Initative or Ohio State’s Stepping Out and Stepping Up project, which seek to build relationships with Indigenous communities though efforts such as Indigenous student retention, and soliciting tribal input in university-based, Indigenous-related initiatives and programs. 

As an Indigenous scholar of geography, I’ve had sustained personal experience at lang-grant universities, including the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus where I received my Master’s degree and The Ohio State University where I was granted my Doctorate. As a graduate student and post-doc at OSU, I was surrounded by homages to the land-grant status of the university in the everyday geographies of Columbus, Ohio. Campus buildings like Morill Hall, initiatives like the Morill Land Grant Scholars program, and local businesses like the Land Grant Brewing Company loom large against the landscape of the city, as ostensible reminders that Ohio State is a positive force in the lives of residents. 

Land-grant institution are deeply ingrained into our everyday geographies, but as an Indigenous scholar, these places have a complicated legacy. I want to situate this discussion through four personal vignettes about mundane geographies of the land-grant as they have played out in my own life.


Vignette 1: Columbus, Ohio, January 2021

In the spring of 2021, I taught a course at Ohio State entitled “Indigenous Environmental Activism.” In the class, we talked about the history of colonial dispossession of Indigenous land in the United States. Along the way, I explained what the Morrill Act was, tying it to the development of institutions like Ohio State and describing how land was taken from Indigenous nations in order to benefit these institutions. I pointed out just how ensconced the ’land-grant’ identity was in the United States, using examples such as buildings like OSU’s Morrill Tower, the Land Grant football rivalry trophy which Penn State and Michigan State often compete over, as well as local companies such as the aforementioned Land Grant Brewing Company. One of my students spoke up—it turned out they were a Morrill Scholar, a beneficiary of the prestigious program at OSU that provides scholarship support for students from diverse backgrounds and those who study issues of diversity and social justice. They expressed some shock— what might it mean for a scholarship program built on principles of diversity and social justice to be named after an act that was intrinsically tied up with land theft? Their questions remained unanswered.


Vignette 2: Minneapolis, MN, and Fargo, ND, May 2021

Not too long after the semester had finished, my wife and I took a road trip back home to Minnesota and North Dakota. A chance to relax and to visit family that we had not seen since the pandemic began. During the evenings we would walk around the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. One night, we passed a building and I noticed that the sign read “Morrill Hall.” A  question occurred to me – how many land-grant institutions had a building named Morrill Hall? A subsequent visit to my brother-in-law who studies at the University of Minnesota led to the discoverer of yet another Morrill Hall. Now I was inspired to actually find an answer to the question of how many land-grant institutions had a Morrill Hall? A quick Google and Wikipedia search told me that twelve institutions had such a building; fourteen if you include Ohio State, which has Morill Tower plus Morill Hall on its Marion campus. All of these universities were  land-grant institutions, including Cornell, which is an Ivy League school as well. There are 112 land grant institutions according to the USDA—so these physical spaces only make up a small portion of the overall pool of institutions—but they still represent spaces that many students encounter in their day-to-day activities on campus.


Vignette 3: Columbus, OH, August 2021

After a year-long wait due to COVID, my fellow 2020 OSU graduates  and I finally got to celebrate our graduations. A History Department colleague and I decided to go out for drinks the next day. She suggested Land Grant Brewing Company, and so we met there, on a hot and muggy August day. As we went inside to order our drinks, I noticed a couple of small plaques on the wall. I took a few moments to read them—one featured a picture of Justin Morrill, the namesake of the titular land-grant act, and spoke a bit about his work in drafting the legislation. “Enacted by President Lincoln in 1862, the Land-Grant Act established Federal funding for establishing many of the United States’ public colleges and universities and was instrumental in making higher education available to the masses,” read part of the plaque, while another featured text from the Act itself. As I nursed my cider back outside, I thought deeply about those plaques. The line quoted from the original legislations about such universities being  “available to the masses” stuck with me, especially as I thought about the relatively small Indigenous student population on the OSU campus (there were approximately 10-15 Indigenous graduate students enrolled at the University, alongside 45-50 undergraduate students during the time I was enrolled there from 2016-2020, which was compared to the approximately 61,000 students at the University). It didn’t always feel like higher education was accessible to students like me as we struggled to stay visible in a large institution. And accessible at whose expense? I was reminded about my first experience with Lee and Ahtone’s research, when I discovered that OSU had connections with parcels of land very close to my home reservation in Minnesota (the Leech Lake reservation) via the Morrill Act, some nine hundred miles away from Columbus. The professed egalitarian nature of the Act was compelling enough to be held up as something worthy of scholarship programs and buildings and trendy breweries, but what would it mean to tease apart what these everyday uses meant for how we view this particular strand of the land-grant story? What would it mean to me? 

This question is still one that I think about often, even though I find myself in another position at a school in Canada, a country that has its own reckoning with stolen Indigenous lands. As for the United States, there are promising signs about how the idea of the land-grant and its effect on everyday spaces is talked about. Besides the aforementioned initiatives at land-grant schools, some of the other spaces I’ve mentioned are similarly examining these connections. Even Land Grant Brewing Company, on their website, now includes a statement speaking about their acknowledgement of the dark legacy of the Morrill Act, and their support of initiatives towards rectifying those harms. It is likely far too early to tell where these efforts might lead, but if we are able to dig deep into the ways that the Act’s legacy can be seen in our everyday spaces, it makes it easier to discover ways to effect lasting justice for Indigenous peoples in the United States, and to perhaps pave the way forwards towards not just Land-Grant, but Land Back.

Deondre Smiles (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria. His research interests include critical Indigenous geographies, human-environment interactions, political ecology and Indigenous cultural resource management. Deondre holds a bachelor’s degree in Geography from St. Cloud State University, a master’s degree in Global Indigenous Studies from the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a PhD in Geography from The Ohio State University.