Researchers reveal U’s painful past with Minnesota’s Indigenous people

Three women pose for a portrait
From left, Misty Blue, An Garagiola, and Audrianna Goodwin. The three worked on the TRUTH Project, helping produce the massive report released Tuesday examining the university's long, troubling history of mistreating Minnesota's Native people.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

Updated: 8:30 a.m.

A massive new report details the University of Minnesota’s long history of mistreating the state’s Native people and lays out recommendations, including “perpetual reparations,” to improve relations between the university and Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations.

Among its troubling findings, the report by the TRUTH (Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing) Project concludes:

  • The U’s founding board of regents “committed genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples for financial gain, using the institution as a shell corporation through which to launder lands and resources.”

  • The U’s permanent trust fund controls roughly $600 million in royalties from iron ore mining, timber sales and other revenues derived from land taken from the Ojibwe and the Dakota.

  • The university has contributed to the “erasure” of Native people by failing to teach a full history of the land on which it was founded.

Researchers didn’t put a dollar figure to their call for reparations but urged the university to do more to help tribal nations, including providing full tuition waivers to “all Indigenous people and descendants” and hiring more Native staff and faculty.

Totaling more than 500 pages, the report released Tuesday marks the first time a major American university has critically examined its history with Native people, said Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

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While Geshick praised the U’s willingness to help unmask its past, she said the reckoning around that awful history was long overdue.

“The TRUTH Project just rips that open and really reveals a narrative that a lot of people I think just don't know.” 

‘We carry all of that trauma’

The TRUTH effort draws on archival records, oral histories and other sources to examine through an Indigenous lens the troubled history between Native people and the state’s flagship university.

It launched following a series of reports in the publication High Country News in 2020 revealing how universities around the country were founded on the proceeds of land taken from tribes through the 1862 Morrill Act.

That included a financial bonanza — dubbed the “Minnesota windfall” — that channeled more than $500 million to the fledgling University of Minnesota from leases and sales of land taken from the Dakota after the federal government hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., in December 1862, ending the U.S.-Dakota war.

Riders on horseback trot on a gravel road, their breath is visible
Dakota 38+2 riders lead their horses across the state line from South Dakota into Minnesota on Dec. 18.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

Following the High Country News stories, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council called on the university to acknowledge its exploitation of Native peoples dating back to the U’s 1851 founding.

A team of Indigenous researchers began digging into university archives, cataloging and studying more than 5,000 pages related to the university’s founding. Early on, they realized the work would be much more emotionally taxing than they had anticipated.

“I remember a couple of times just sitting at a table and starting to cry,” recalled An Garagiola, a TRUTH Project coordinator and researcher who works for the Office of Native Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

In the archives, “you're reading communications and policy and decisions that were made on a daily basis to commit genocide against people … millions of little cuts that we don't think about.”

For Garagiola, a descendant of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the research hit close to home when fellow researcher Audrianna Goodwin came across documents showing the involvement of the University of Minnesota’s extension service in relocating 36 families on the Bois Forte reservation in the mid-20th century.

The names of the families weren’t mentioned in the documents. But her grandmother was relocated around that same time, and “thinking then of the trajectory that that set my family on, I guess I'm still trying to process that,” Goodwin said. “That was kind of the point where I knew I had to step away from the archives, because I couldn't take in any more of that at the time.”

A person poses for a portrait
“As soon as we got into the archives, and started to read through some of these firsthand accounts of what we experienced as a people, it was really hard to read and to learn about,” Audrianna Goodwin said.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

Goodwin, a research assistant for the TRUTH Project also appointed by the Red Lake Nation as a tribal research fellow, said she felt the sad weight of a brutal history as she pored over documents.

“As soon as we got into the archives, and started to read through some of these firsthand accounts of what we experienced as a people, it was really hard to read and to learn about,” she said. “You start to see the connections from the past with what we’re experiencing today.”

Native people have some of the highest rates of fatal overdoses from the opioid epidemic; some of the highest rates of suicide and diabetes, and of other health and social disparities.

The project received additional funding to pay for a Native American grief counselor and a spiritual advisor for researchers. The Mellon Foundation, which supported the TRUTH report through a $5 million higher education racial justice program called Minnesota Transform, paid for the added support.

For Goodwin, to see and touch documents detailing how Native people were dispossessed of their land provided powerful evidence of how actions from the university and other governmental entities in the early 1800s have resulted in intergenerational trauma 200 years later.

“Sometimes when we were researching, we would just have to stop,” she said. “Those emotions would become so overpowering, because we carry all of that trauma and all of that pain. Hopefully with this report, we won't have to carry that alone.”

‘Used as test subjects’

Researchers say the TRUTH report is notable for its Native-centered, community-driven approach. Each tribe appointed a research fellow to explore histories important to their communities.

For the Red Lake Nation in northwestern Minnesota, Goodwin explored the history of medical research that was conducted by University of Minnesota doctors on young Red Lake children in the 1960s.

After a disease outbreak in the 1950s killed a 2-year-old on the Red Lake reservation, U researchers planned a study around a decade later in which they enrolled about 100 children to conduct kidney biopsies. During that follow-up study, a second outbreak occurred.

According to Goodwin’s report, U researchers concluded during the first outbreak that a shot of penicillin was a viable cure for the disease. Yet in the second outbreak, they did not share that information with local doctors, the report said. Rather they enrolled more children in their study.

“Our tribal members were used as test subjects,” said Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong.

A person speaks during a public listening session
“Our tribal members were used as test subjects,” said Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2022

A companion report commissioned by the university tells a different story. The three physicians who compiled the report said there was no evidence penicillin would have helped stop the second outbreak, and said they were unable to determine whether parents had consented, in part because the tribe refused to share records.

“Not having seen the consent forms (or patient charts) used for this work, despite repeated requests, we were unable to draw a conclusion as to the adequacy of the consent process,” the researchers concluded.

That approach angers Strong, who says the university failed to keep records of the research. He said the university report also ignored strong circumstantial evidence that consent was not obtained in many cases.

“I was hoping for a more transparent and accountable university system. And it's really disheartening to see that they're trying to silence our voice, the harm that they caused to our community.”

A sign reads "Fond du Lac Reservation"
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has long pressed for the return of land now home to the Cloquet Forestry Center, transferred to the University without consent for use as an experimental forestry station.
Courtesy of Minnesota Indian Affairs Council

In northeastern Minnesota, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has long pressed for the return of land that’s now home to the Cloquet Forestry Center — 3,400 acres of land that was guaranteed to the Fond du Lac in an 1854 treaty was later transferred to the university without consent for use as an experimental forestry station.

The TRUTH report notes a frustrating reality: Band members aren’t allowed to hunt, fish or gather on the land, which is located entirely within the Fond du Lac reservation. But the U profits from the land through timber sales, tuition from forestry students and recognition for its forestry research.

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel, who is leaving the U to take over the University of Pittsburgh, recently recommended returning the Cloquet center to the Fond du Lac Band, a step it says would help restore its homeland.

In response to the report, the University of Minnesota made a statement Tuesday morning.

“First and foremost, we recognize that the countless hours of work reflected in this report and the truth-telling that will benefit us all going forward is built upon the time, effort and emotional labor of every individual involved. We want to reiterate our appreciation for each of you.

In recent years the University has committed to acknowledging the past and doing the necessary work to begin rebuilding and strengthening relationships with Tribal Nations and Native people. Openly receiving this report is another step toward honoring that commitment. While documenting the past, the TRUTH report also provides guidance as to how the University can solidify lasting relationships with Tribes and Indigenous peoples built on respect, open communication and action. As we engage in the important discussions that will now follow, that guidance will be invaluable.”

‘Can't do better until people know the truth’

While the TRUTH report offers a damning assessment of the university’s relationship with Native people over the decades, there are also passages reflecting slow, hopeful change.

Researchers, for instance, detail for the first time the recent return of a sacred arborglyph to the Fond Du Lac Band. Standing about 5 feet tall, the artifact was kept by the Cloquet Forestry Center when student researchers cut the tree down decades ago.

“It is a depiction of a spirit, completely unique to our people,” Charles Smith, Anishinaabe language specialist for the Fond Du Lac Band, explained in the report. “This ancestral artifact is rare. As this artifact is studied and grows older — its cultural significance will grow.”

Fond Du Lac Band leaders learned of the arborglyph’s existence in 2021 when forestry center staffers reached out.

“It sat in the campus for over 60 years, knowing Fond Du Lac reservation is literally down the road,” wrote Kami Diver, the research fellow for the project appointed by the band.

Researchers involved with the report understand that change won’t occur overnight. But Misty Blue, coordinator of the TRUTH Project, remains hopeful that the university can “move from a place of harm to a place of healing.”

A person poses for a portrait
Misty Blue
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

That’s a tall order, she acknowledged; “But I think that transformation can happen.”

The University has taken meaningful steps toward addressing some of their concerns, tribal leaders say. In 2021, the U created a program that offers free or substantially reduced tuition to many enrolled members of the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes.

Gabel created high-level positions within her administration focusing on Native American issues and tribal relations and held quarterly, face-to-face meetings with tribal leaders. But Geshick, with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said a lot more could have been done.

For example, she and others have called for an expansion of the scholarship program, which has been criticized for only benefiting a fraction of Native students.

“It’s a great start. But it shouldn't be the end,” said Robert Larsen, president of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

Tribal leaders who pushed for a full accounting of university-tribal relations were fueled by a desire for more people to understand the true history of how the university was built on the proceeds of land stolen from Native people, he added.

“It's not to shame or blame anybody here and now, but to put that simple truth out there,” Larsen said. “We really can't do better until people know the truth.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.