/ Modified mar 7, 2024 6:01 p.m.

The Buzz: The Legacy and impact of Land Grant Institutions

A look at how an 1862 act impacted Native lands and eventually led to UA's fossil fuel use despite climate pledges.

UA tribal flags Flags from Arizona's 22 federally recognized tribes displayed at the University of Arizona bookstore in November 2020.
Chris Richards/University of Arizona
The Buzz

The Buzz for March 8, 2024

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In 1885, the University of Arizona became one of 52 land grant universities across the country to receive federal land through the Morrill Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. Those lands were used to create universities that would “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts” as the United States continued its expansion into the West. That act seized and redistributed nearly 11 million acres of land from hundreds of native tribes across the country.

A team of reporters and editors at Grist, an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to sharing stories about climate change, tracked how those once native lands are used today by universities across the nation, including the UA.

“Land grant institutions are more or less like America's sort of original Nepo babies, right?” Grist Editor-at-Large Tristan Ahtone said. “Like they're being given all of this wealth that's being transferred so that they can get off the ground.”

Their investigation found that nearly 25% of land-grant university trust lands are used for fossil fuel production and/or mineral mining, while only one-quarter of 1% of the land they documented is used for renewable energy production. However, for some universities like UA, this contrast contradicts their commitments to combat climate change. For example, the UA is hoping to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

“In the West, many states and institutions hold on to these lands, and then use them to generate revenue,” Ahtone said. “That can be for agriculture; that can be for oil and gas; that can be for timber. It can be for a myriad of different uses that continue to sort of provide revenue to institutions.”

However, as documented by Grist, while UA continues to make a profit off of what once was Native resources, Native students are still responsible for the cost of attendance that is not covered by the Arizona Native Scholars Grant, like room and board.

“Paying a cost of tuition is like the absolute least they could be doing for tribal citizens,” Ahtone said. “Paying the cost of attendance for every Native student at the University of Arizona, if I recall, was something around like $9 million when we did the calculations.”

Before Grist published their investigation, the UA James E. Rogers College of Law made its own attempt to understand the university’s land history. The University of Arizona Land-Grant Project delves into the treaty history of all 22 federally recognized Arizona tribes, the taking of their lands, land transfers and what is being done today.

“It's easy to say, well, you know, the tribes in Arizona were colonized and then put on reservations,” Faculty Co-Chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Law and Policy Program Robert Williams said. “But that's not where the story ends because where did that land go that wasn't included in the reservation.”

As a way to acknowledge past injustices that came from colonialism and Westward Expansion, Williams says UA is attempting to serve local Native communities through land acknowledgments, full tuition grants, virtual and physical micro campuses on native reservations, and more.

“There is no other university in the world that's invested like this university has in top-notch Indigenous faculty, top-notch Indigenous programs, top-notch Indigenous research, and top-notch teaching.”

However, Williams says there is more to be done.

“How do we get all that expertise here at the University out into Indian Country, out into the Indigenous world?”

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