Cornell University: The erasure of memory

by Professor Eric Cheyfitz

Originally published in LA Progressive on June 7, 2020.

On May 7 of this year, the NY Times published an op-ed by By Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee titled “Ask Who Paid for America’s Universities.”

The article concerned the Morrill Act of 1862, which was the basis for the founding of land-grant universities and colleges. The focus of the article was the source of this funding, which created the endowments for these schools. As Ahtone and Lee note: “The Morrill Act was a wealth transfer disguised as a donation. The government took land from Indigenous people that it had paid little or nothing for and turned that land into endowments for fledgling universities.” As the article goes on to note this land was taken by “genocide.” The institutions involved were granted scrips to this land, much of it located far away from their sites, which they subsequently sold to finance their endowments.

As the authors note, Cornell, where I am a professor in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program,“converted nearly a million acres into the largest Morrill Act fortune.” In addition to this, Cornell sits on the homeland of the Cayuga Nation, which was taken from them by force and fraud in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1779, the agricultural economy of the Cayugas was destroyed by the revolutionary war campaign of General John Sullivan against those tribes in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy allied with the British. Then in 1795 and 1807, the Cayugas, divested of any negotiating power, signed treaties with the state of New York, transferring the remainder of their land to the state, which were never authorized by the federal government, as was required by law. In 2005, after losing a federal lawsuit asking for both land and monetary compensation for this land theft based in illegal treaties, the Cayugas have neither. For those who know the colonialist basis of U.S. federal Indian law this outcome is not surprising.

Obscuring the history of Cornell University’s founding from profits made by the sale of Native lands, never formally acknowledged by the university, we find the following in a message sent to the Cornell community by its president, Martha Pollack, expressing her thoughts on the murder of George Floyd:  “We are ashamed of the injustices that are perpetrated in our country, every day, against people of color; and of the reality that 155 years after Cornell was founded to help heal the wounds of a broken nation, that nation is, in many ways, still so badly broken.”

There is an unacknowledged contradiction spoken here between the stated reason for Cornell’s founding during the Civil War—to help the country heal—and the injustice of its founding in the midst of a genocide from which it profited. This contradiction is literally foundational. Thus, until it is addressed institutionally, the university cannot begin to heal from its racial wounds, which run deep.

This genocidal history of Cornell’s founding, which was recounted in an April 24, 2020 article in The Cornell Daily Sun, referencing the extensive report written by Ahtone and Lee, has so far been erased from the written and public pronouncements of the university, just as Native genocide has been effectively erased from the official history of the United States. The past is present. But unless we acknowledge that past, the work of social justice cannot begin.