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3 North Dakota colleges may soon acknowledge campuses are on Indigenous land

A man wears traditional regalia during the grand entry of the Mandaree Hidatsa Powwow July 19 in Mandaree, N.D. Forum News Service file photo

FARGO — Staff with North Dakota’s two flagship universities and a college in Wahpeton, N.D., are working on statements that will recognize the campuses sit on land that once belonged to Native Americans.

Experts say land acknowledgments are a way to respect tribes who occupied the land before the U.S., recognize the atrocities committed in taking that land, give people an understanding how colonialism impacts Native Americans today and start a conversation about the future.

"That practice, even if it is only a ritual formality, it nevertheless, I believe, sets a tone that makes for a more civil society in a land where a settler society lives alongside Indigenous peoples," said Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University.

Several NDSU employees have addressed Fargo’s Native American Commission, sharing two draft versions of a land acknowledgment agreement that says the Anishinaabe, Dakota, Lakota and Nakota peoples lived on and cared for land now occupied by the campus.

“We feel at NDSU that it’s really important to honor and acknowledge and remember the land we’re on and its people who were here before NDSU was established,” Seinquis Leinen, associate director of the university’s admission office, said during a Feb. 6 meeting of the commission.

Vanessa Tibbitts, an Oglala Lakota from South Dakota who serves as a public health education manager at NDSU’s American Indian Public Health Resource Center, said a land acknowledgment statement is a good opportunity to work on reconciliation.

Members of Fargo's Native American Commission seemed supportive of a land acknowledgment statement for NDSU. Commission Chair Lenore King said it is important to recognize who came before NDSU.

"We're standing together, and we're being strong together," she said.

It will help raise awareness of Indigenous history that is often suppressed, forgotten and disregarded, said Ryan Eagle, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota who also works at the center.

“Our land is not just a space that we occupy,” said Eagle, a public health research project manager at the center. “It’s the depository of our culture, history and traditions."

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and North Dakota State College of Science, with campuses in Wahpeton and Fargo, are pursuing similar efforts, spokespeople confirmed.

Several stakeholders and experts have contributed input to the land acknowledgment efforts, Leinen said.

NDSU leadership declined to comment on work to develop a land acknowledgment statement. “It sounds like the small group that went to the commission was seeking discussion and input for a possible statement that they might use,” NDSU spokeswoman Brynn Rawlings said in an email. “They did not intend to represent a universitywide decision at this time.”

When asked if NDSU would support a land acknowledgment statement, Rawlings said, “There has been no formal discussion on this topic, so it would be premature to speculate.”

'Land the railroad wanted'

As pioneers and railroad companies gained land from the federal government as a way to settle the West, tribes were driven from lands they once occupied, Isern said. Eventually, treaties were drawn up for Native Americans to cede land to the U.S., ultimately driving tribes onto reservations.

"A Century Together," a 1975 book commemorating Fargo-Moorhead's centennial, described such a treaty with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians to cede 3 million acres of land in Minnesota and North Dakota. The land where Fargo sits now was not part of that agreement, according to the book.

"It was widely believed that the railroad officials discovered the Indian claim and precipitated the raid on Fargo ... in an attempt to remove squatters from land the railroad wanted," the book said.

In 1873, Congress ratified a treaty that dictated tribes in that area would get $800,000 in goods, provisions, manual labor, public schoolhouses and other items, but there isn't a record of any payments made under the agreement, the book said.

NDSU, initially known as the North Dakota Agricultural College, was founded in 1890 as a land grant school under the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act. The act gave states federally controlled land to sell or be used for profit, and the proceeds would be used to establish a higher education school.

Though the Morrill Act didn't authorize the taking of Indigenous lands, land obtained from Native Americans was used to establish land grant universities, according to a peer-reviewed academic article published in November by the Cambridge University Press. The piece's author, Margaret Nash, wrote that land grant colleges were "an element of settler colonialism."

"Native American dispossession was not merely an unfortunate by-product of the establishment of land-grant colleges," Nash wrote. "Rather, the colleges exist only because of a state-sponsored system of Native dispossession."

'Opportunity of self-reflection'

Land acknowledgments are a way to come to terms with the past, Nash wrote. For example, the University of Minnesota Duluth wrote a statement that was endorsed by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in June.

“Land acknowledgments do not exist in a past tense or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build the mindfulness of our present participation,” UMD's statement said.

The movement also has been seen around the world, from Australia to Canada.

Land acknowledgments are read at a wide range of events in Winnipeg, from City Council meetings to Jets hockey games, said Louise Waldman of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Just 10 years ago, it was rare to hear such acknowledgments in Winnipeg, she said.

“It would be rare to not have one today,” she said, adding that Canada is trying to grapple with the country’s history that involves the genocide of Indigenous people.

Some have criticized some institutions for drafting empty proclamations instead of taking the time to craft well-researched and thought-out statements.

Land acknowledgments are beginning statements that should prompt direct action, said Katherine Beane, a public historian who works in Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.

“There are benefits in that it allows for an opportunity of self-reflection. It allows for an opportunity to make a commitment,” Beane said.

'Speaking truth'

Though tricky to craft, the statements have been used to show institutions are taking accountability, Beane said. She supports land acknowledgments as long as those who draft them do their homework.

Statements should encourage thought and discussion about not what just happened in the past but the ongoing impacts, said Maureen Fitzhenry of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

“I think both by speaking truth about land rights, land ownership and treaties, and also speaking truth about the past and present in terms of the effects of colonization, we can move toward a better way of living and knowing and being,” Fitzhenry said.

With input from Native American educators and culture experts in North Dakota and Minnesota, UND has been working on its acknowledgment since early fall, spokesman David Dodds said in an email. It’s unclear when a final version will be finalized, but it could be “in the very near future,” he said.

“The statement mentions the importance of good relations with all First Nation communities that call North Dakota home,” Dodds said.

An NDSCS diversity and equity team started working with local tribal representatives on its statement last summer, spokeswoman Janess Sveet wrote in an email. It's unclear when the college plans to share the final version, though it previously said it would do so at graduation before the May ceremony was postponed.

Sveet said the statement will “recognize First Nations cultures whose people were traditional stewards of this land."

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