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Seized tribal lands generate billions for land grant universities

Land grant universities across the U.S. earn over $2.2B annually from oil and gas extraction on lands that were taken from Indigenous tribes. That includes New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. But, tribes almost never see a penny of it. That’s one of the recent findings of an investigation by environmental news outlet Grist.

KUNM sat down with one of the authors, Tristan Ahtone, to talk about the implications this system has on our climate and what possible redress tribes could pursue.

TRISTAN AHTONE: Land grant universities were created in 1862 with theMorril Act under Abraham Lincoln, and they are universities that were given land by the federal government to sell.

KUNM: This story we're talking about is a continuation of reporting at High Country News in the past. What did you find out back then?

AHTONE: Our initial investigation more or less looked into that founding piece of legislation, the Morril Act. Basically what we did was look at the land that those land grant universities got and where it came from. So, as I said, the story around land grant universities has been that they were given the gift of free land to bring education to the masses. What we did was just look at where the land came from, and basically that the land is stolen, indigenous land. We tracked about 11 million acres that went to 52 universities that was sold, in most cases sold, some of it was held on to by institutions, but more or less raised about half a billion dollars by the beginning of the 20th century for the institutions.

KUNM: As you built on that story in the past, what new information did you find out? 

AHTONE: Well, one of the things that we really wanted to do following up on that original investigation was look at other land laws that divvied up land for universities. And one area that we're focusing on now is something called State Enabling Acts. So you might have heard of them in your high school classes. Basically, it's what graduates a territory into a state. So, Arizona Territory becomes Arizona State, by passing an enabling act. Inside these enabling acts, the federal government grants that newly acquired land to states to use for institutions like land grant universities. They're also used for K-12, schools, hospitals, you name it, public institutions are generally being funded by these lands.

KUNM: Indigenous nations were paid approximately $4.3 million in 2023 dollars, for these lands. And you also mentioned in many cases, nothing was paid at all. As we look at the exploitation of these lands and natural resources, what solutions could be potentially pursued to give some sense of economic equity to tribes in the area?

AHTONE: The simplest solution, at least right off the bat here is providing full ride scholarships to Native students to attend these institutions. And that's probably the easiest thing that institutions can do. But starting from there, on the farthest spectrum, it would be land returns or land swaps or working to return those resources to tribes. It's always the limits of our imagination, basically, like what can you think of? people are always asking like: "Well, land returns, what would that even be like?" And it's sort of like: “Well, have you thought about it?”

KUNM: Many of these land grant universities have made climate commitments to reach some sort of net emissions in a decade or two. How can universities reliant on oil and gas money even do this in the first place? It just sounds impossible.

AHTONE: It requires not only just a commitment, but it does require work on these institutions. That's really dependent on whether or not those schools want to. I mean, we're just seeing, as of this week, that the University of Arizona is in a financial crisis at the moment. One of the things they've done to try and get back on track is basically completely ax their climate commitments in order to balance the budget. When it comes down to sort of like staying alive for the next year, institutions have very, very different priorities. And thinking 10 years ahead, 20, 50 years ahead, that footprint for future generations is often not on the table for these institutions.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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