by Professor Kurt Jordan, page last updated Dec. 22nd 2023

This site was initiated as part of the response of Cornell University’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) to a March 2020 High Country News investigative report by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone titled “Land-Grab Universities.”  This report tied the history of those educational institutions founded through the Land Grant College Act of 1862 (also known as the Morrill Act) to the forceful dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Essentially, the original funding for these land-grant universities is derived from land taken through a systematic and genocidal campaign of violence, fraud, forced treaties (some never ratified), dislocation, and death. Cornell received the most land through the provisions of the Morrill Act, almost 1 million acres in total. With the exception of some retained mineral rights, the University sold all of its Morrill Act parcels by 1938. Cornell made substantially more money from the manipulation and sales of these lands (and the natural resources thereupon) than any other land-grant institution. Revenue from these lands formed the lion’s share of the University’s operating budget for the first thirty years of its existence, and an endowment formed from Morrill Act monies still generates funds for the university today.

Given Cornell President Martha Pollack’s July 16, 2020 call to Cornellians to “think and act holistically to change structures and systems that inherently privilege some more than others,” AIISP faculty, staff, students, and alumni assert that the university must understand and address the legacy of its founding within structures of settler colonialism as an ethical and moral obligation. The High Country News article explicitly compared the “land-grab university” legacy to that of universities built and funded through enslaved labor, and suggested that a similar reckoning should take place. As many academic institutions built upon slave labor have done (for example, see efforts at HarvardBrown, William and Mary, Georgetown, and Amherst), Cornell has a moral obligation to acknowledge that its origins were based on a continental-scale program of Indigenous dispossession, and educate its faculty, staff, students, and the general public about this history and why it requires action in the present. Cornellians should learn that the university was not only funded through the forcible taking of Indigenous lands but also that its buildings today stand on Indigenous homelands.

To better understand this history and the specific impacts Cornell has had on Indigenous communities, AIISP formed a faculty committee to examine the issue in June 2020. Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession (CU&ID) Committee participants have included AIISP program directors Kurt Jordan and Troy Richardson, Professors Michael Charles, Eric Cheyfitz, Frederic Gleach, Jeffrey Palmer, Jon Parmenter, and Jolene Rickard, director emerita Jane Mt. Pleasant, AIISP program associate directors Leslie Logan and Ula Piasta-Mansfield, postdoctoral fellows Maia Dedrick, Eman Ghanayem, and Meredith Palmer, graduate students Dusti Bridges and Marina Johnson-Zafiris, and undergraduate students Aleesia Dillon and Peter Thais. AIISP administrative assistants Ben Maracle and Zoë Van Nostrand provided graphic and web support, and Karishma Bottari and Annabel Young helped with our diplomatic outreach efforts. The CU&ID committee’s task has been to present information and opinion about the implications of Indigenous dispossession for Cornell, and to advocate for redress to mend that history. A timeline of the CU&ID committee’s activities is available here.

While the committee was set up to examine Cornell’s Morrill Act legacy, we quickly determined that we must simultaneously treat all of Cornell’s past and present land entanglements.  Cornell presently has campuses in Ithaca, Geneva, and New York City and owns or leases many other parcels of land throughout the state.  Activities by Cornell Cooperative Extension take place in every New York county.  There are Cornell outposts in Washington, D.C., the Shoals Marine Lab on islands just off of the coastline of Maine and New Hampshire, and other properties and mineral rights holdings elsewhere within the United States.  Cornell has benefited, and Indigenous Nations barred, from all of these lands; thus, they too are part of the consideration of Cornell’s impact.

This site presents the ongoing results of our research.  Our posts include text articles and opinion pieces, videos of lectures and panels, and audio podcasts. We within our “Resources” collection we have listed Cornell-specific data (“Data Visualizations“) and Indigenous dispossession related responses that have occurred at other institutions (“Other Institutions“).  Our “Contributors” section provides biographical information on those people who have had a role in making this site.

One vital task undertaken by the committee has been to determine (to the best of our ability) those Indigenous communities who have been impacted by Cornell’s past and present landholding activities. Our current list includes 251 Nations and communities, encompassing groups that have been displaced into Canada and those groups within the U.S. who do not have federal recognition.  Our methods for determining who has been affected by Cornell are discussed here. AIISP has engaged in diplomatic outreach to these communities to inform them about their historical ties to Cornell and consult with them about possible remedies.
We welcome contributions by Cornell faculty, staff, students, alumni, members of impacted communities, and information from other land-grant universities who are trying to address their own Morrill Act legacies.  If you would like to contact us, please email us here.

If you are new to this site or the land-grab universities issue, here are four key posts: