Over the last 50 years or more, Yale College has attempted to reckon with its historical ties to slavery in the face of mounting student protest and public outcry. These efforts have led to several high profile victories, including the renaming of what is now Grace Hopper college and the recent public acknowledgement by President Peter Salovey in Oct. 2021, where he stated at a Yale and Slavery conference that Yale was “acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade are part of Yale’s history. Our history.” The acknowledgement came in response to a report compiled by the Yale and Slavery working group, a task force created following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Salovey continued to announce three initial measures Yale would take to “[reconcile] the information about Yale’s past with the University’s responsibility to the present.” These actions — if they are indeed actions instead of mere words — are woefully overdue and crucially needed; Yale is almost 20 years behind other Ivy League institutions in this process. However, there is another violent and insidious history that Yale must also simultaneously reckon with and act upon.
The creation of the United States was founded upon two of humanity’s most egregious crimes: the forced labor and atrocities committed against Black people during chattel slavery and the forced removal and genocide of Indigenous populations across Turtle Island. Yale directly benefited from both. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act (The Act). The Act was part of a larger system of hundreds of violence-backed treaties and seizures that extinguished Indigenous title to over two billion acres of the “United States.” The Act set aside “federal lands” to create or fund colleges to benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts. The Act “redistributed” nearly 11 million acres, broken up into 80,000 parcels, to 52 institutions.
The State of Connecticut, namely Yale, received 180,000 acres in the Midwest, which it sold immediately in one block in 1863 for $135,000, or a measly 75 cents per acre. The land was made up of parcels stolen from 53 tribal nations, acquired through 33 ratified and unratified treaties made between the years 1808 and 1858. More than 70 percent of the grant was made up of land from the Ojibwa and Odawa Nations.
In an ensuing argument between Yale College and Connecticut farmers, funding from the land grant was transferred to Storrs agricultural college, which would go on to become the University of Connecticut, or UConn. In a warped sense of logic, Yale believed it had been cheated, and therefore sued for the loss of revenue earned off of stolen Native land. Yale goes on to reach a settlement deal that awards the full $135,000 plus interests, an amount that equals $4.8 million in today’s dollars.
So what can Yale do to begin to “reconcile this information about Yale’s past with the University’s responsibility to the present”? The loss of land and the inseparable cultural genocide that accompanies land theft and forced removal can never be fully remedied. However, Yale can and must pursue steps to benefit those communities it has directly exploited in the past. The Native and Indigenous Student Association, or NISAY, is currently in the process of organizing meetings with President Salovey and other University officials to communicate the following demands. Firstly, NISAY is pushing for a community approved land acknowledgement to precede all University events. This declaration would not only acknowledge the Quinnipiac Tribe as original stewards of the land Yale sits on, but also reckon with the fact of Yale’s existence as a result of land theft across America. Secondly, NISAY wants Yale to follow the lead of South Dakota State University and create a program similar to the Wokini Initiative. This program redirects income from remaining Morrill acreage into programming, support and scholarships for Native students. NISAY is particularly keen on providing support to students from the two major nations that made up the land grant, Odawa and Ojibwa. Finally, NISAY is calling on Yale to develop a Native Studies major program. As one of only two Ivies — Yale and Cornell — to benefit from The Act, Yale must make an effort to become a conference leader in Native Studies. NISAY is requiring Yale to work to establish a Native Studies program with at least eight faculty and around 25 courses offered at any one time. This would put the program at equal standing with Dartmouth, which currently has the most faculty and course offerings for any Ivy League institution.
The Native Studies major is also urgently required not only as a step towards reconciliation, but as an educational tool in a community where typical stereotypes are still common. In the year and a half since starting Yale, an apparently “woke” institution, I have been asked questions such as “so the Natives still want their land back?” as well as regularly having to walk past individuals wearing sports apparel with racist mascots in my dining hall. In one encounter, a student mimicked shooting darts out of a blow gun “like the Indians used to.” On being corrected by another student who informed him that the correct term was “Native American,” the individual then proceeded to attempt to save face by saying “It’s okay, I’m a quarter Indian.” His grandfather is Asian Indian. When approached for comment on the benefits of a Native studies program, Dean Matthew Makomenaw, director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale, stated that “Native American studies program and courses allows Native and non-Native students the opportunity to learn about the variety of cultures and people that is often absent from education. Native representation in the curriculum and classroom plays a significant role in countering stereotypes and misinformation about Native people. In addition, Native American Studies is a multi-disciplinary area of study that can permeate through a variety of degree programs.” While Native history is by no means the only ethnic minority absent from Yale’s curriculum, it is a glaring omission that students have advocated for for years.
NISAY is looking forward to working with the Yale administration to begin implementation of these measures, realizing this will be a long term endeavor. To quote President Barry Dunn, South Dakota State University president and a key figure in the creation of the Wokini Initiative: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start today and change the ending.”
OSCAR TURNER is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College, and the outreach chair for the Native and Indigenous Student Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.