Troubling stories surface as U probes its history with Native people

Three women pose for a portrait
From left, Misty Blue, An Garagiola and Audrianna Goodwin pose for a portrait outside Elliott Hall at University of Minnesota.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The federal government’s hanging of 38 Dakota men from a Mankato, Minn., gallows in December 1862 brought an end to the U.S.-Dakota war. It also triggered a financial bonanza for the University of Minnesota.

Dubbed the “Minnesota Windfall,” sales and leases of parcels taken from the Dakota raised nearly $580,000 for the young university — part of a massive grab of wealth cleaved from Native people and given to American universities.

That troubling piece of American history remained largely hidden until two investigative reporters began digging into how colleges benefited from the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, signed into law six months before the Mankato hangings.

The University of Minnesota is now broadly reviewing its treatment of Native people going back to its founding in 1851. Researchers with the TRUTH (Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing) Project are expected to release a report this summer. 

What’s come to light so far suggests that history will be painful to read.

A person poses for a portrait
Audrianna Goodwin, poses for a portrait outside Elliott Hall, at University of Minnesota.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

‘Almost unbelievable truths’

Coming just weeks after the Mankato executions, the “Minnesota Windfall” was especially egregious, said Tristan Ahtone, who along with fellow High Country News reporter Robert Lee documented millions of acres granted to universities that were taken from Indigenous people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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“We had found about nearly 11 million acres of land that originally belonged to Indigenous tribes and communities acquired by the United States through about 250 different treaties, many of them outright land seizures, many of those treaties backed by violence,” said Ahtone. “Those lands had basically been divided up for 52 universities.” 

High Country News revealed those land grants raised almost $18 million for university endowments, with unsold lands valued at more than $5 million. Adjusted for inflation, that land would be worth about $500 million today.

“When it comes to higher education, the Morrill Act in 1862 provides the receipts for how the modern public university system in the United States was founded and how it was funded through the selling of Native land,” said Nick Estes, a professor who will join the University of Minnesota in the fall and whose ancestors were exiled to South Dakota following the Dakota conflict.

The TRUTH Project offers the U and other universities a chance to reflect on that history, he said.

The project includes fellows appointed by tribal nations, University of Minnesota graduate researchers and faculty who’ve spent the past year conducting research to better understand the relationship between the university and tribal nations.

“We're talking about a lot of really sensitive things. Intergenerational trauma, secondary trauma, almost painful, almost unbelievable truths that the University of Minnesota was involved in with our community,” said Audrianna Goodwin, a master’s degree candidate and TRUTH Project researcher appointed by the Red Lake Nation who’s examining the University of Minnesota Medical School’s study of children with kidney disease at Red Lake in the 1950s and 60s. 

Researchers are also examining issues including the return of human remains and funerary objects held by the university, and the legacy of a boarding school on what's now the University of Minnesota campus in Morris., Minn.

The work offers the university a chance to understand its impact on tribal communities, said An Garagiola, a Bois Forte Ojibwe descendant and graduate student researcher helping to lead the TRUTH Project. 

“This is an opportunity for the university to recognize the disastrous impacts its formation has and continues to have on our communities. And to look for ways to not only improve relations with Indigenous people,” Garagiola said. “But to also recognize the role that it's played in things like the perpetual opportunity gaps in education and housing — all of that is directly correlated to land dispossession.”

The project, she added, is “a lot bigger than any of us anticipated when we started.“

A person poses for a portrait
An Garagiola, poses for a portrait outside Elliott Hall, at University of Minnesota.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

‘Reconciliation way, way down the road’

The TRUTH Project‘s report this summer is likely to unearth more pain, although those connected to the research see it as a path to healing. 

In a presentation last May to the university's regents, Karen Diver, special advisor on Native affairs for university president Joan Gabel, addressed the potential impact of the TRUTH Project.

“This is actually really groundbreaking. A true part of reconciliation is really allowing people to have that space and time to speak their truth,” Diver said, adding that she hoped “for healing and for a resetting of the relationship, so that we can start to clear that plate and look forward to more meaningful relationships that aren’t clouded by the things left unsaid.”

Tadd Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Ojibwe, led the TRUTH Project in his roles as a professor of American Indian Studies, director of graduate studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and senior director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations before recently retiring from the U.

A man speaks, raising his hands while talking.
Tadd Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Duluth, talks about the TRUTH Project on June 21 at Cina Hall on the UMD campus in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He said when he began meeting with tribal leaders on these issues a decade ago, there was no relationship between the university’s leadership and Minnesota’s tribes.

“They said, ‘Why don't we know who the president of the University of Minnesota is?’ and ‘Why don't we know anything about the regents?” he recalled.

For him, the TRUTH Project is an opportunity for Gabel and the regents to listen to concerns raised by tribal officials and communities.

“Reconciliation is way, way down the road,” said Johnson. “What we first need to get is the Native American perspective on their relationship with the University of Minnesota.”

Correction (June 30, 2022): A previous version misidentified Elliott Hall in photo captions. The captions have been updated.

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.