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UA acknowledges it sits on Native lands. Some say it should use funds to help Native students

In the early 1860s, the Morrill Act allowed states to establish public universities that were funded by the sale or development of federal land grants.

According to the National Archives, more than 10 million acres of this land was taken from Native American tribes.

There are more than 100 so-called land-grant universities that came out of that, including the University of Arizona.

New reporting from the publication Grist looks into how the lands the universities have continue to raise money for them. Tristan Ahtone, editor-at-large at Grist, says it’s built on an investigation done at High Country News a few years back, looking at how land-grant universities got their land in the first place.

Ahtone joined The Show to talk about what he and his colleagues found about the kind of money these lands can bring in for universities, including the University of Arizona.

Full interview

TRISTAN AHTONE: Well, we we we found that lands that provide revenue to land grant universities generated almost $6.7 billion for their institutions between 2018 and 2022. And in the case of University of Arizona, it's more than $7 million a year that these lands are, are sending over to the university. And, and I think it really, and most of that is done through extractive industries like oil and gas, mining, timber and grazing. And I think really speaks to sort of the destructive ways in which the state uses land in order to support these institutions.

MARK BRODIE: Is this land that the universities have say over how they're used, or like in the case of the University of Arizona, is this land that the state Land Department controls?

AHTONE: Well, this is land that state Land Department controls, and the university technically has no say over how that land is used. However, one of the things that we did want to highlight in our reporting is that universities do routinely engage in lobbying and in an attempt to influence everything from budgets to you know, to, to appropriations, Department of Defense spending, etc.

So, while it's fair to say that universities don't have a say over this land, it's also fair to say that universities could have a say over this land.

BRODIE: Interesting. And as you and your colleagues write, there's a certain irony here in the sense that a lot of this land that had been land that belonged to Native American communities. And, you know, some universities, including the UA, acknowledge that their universities are built on, on tribal land. This money is not necessarily helping Native students afford college.

AHTONE: Yeah, at South Dakota State University, is the only university we've seen so far that actually puts money from state trust lands into Native American programming. While other universities do have programs to assist with student tuition or cluster hires or you know, more support for some Native American studies programs. It is very, very rare for these institutions to be using revenue from these lands specifically for Native students.

In the case of University of Arizona, what we found was ironic, I guess is one way to put it, is that the University of Arizona acknowledges that it is on Tohono O'odham land, it was financed by Tohono O'odham land, the resources that go to support it come from previously owned lands by the Tohono O'odham tribe, and Tohono O'odham students basically can't afford to go to school there in some cases. Even with the tuition support programs that the university has put together.

BRODIE: What do the universities say about this? Like, what, what did folks at the UA have to say about, about that situation?

AHTONE: Well, nothing they never returned our request for comment.

BRODIE: What did some of the students have to say? I know you, you profiled one, and I know that you spoke with, with some others. What did the students have to say about the sort of that conundrum of how the land is being used and how the money from that land is being used and how they, at least in, in some cases can't afford to go to these schools?

AHTONE: We profiled a student in the piece named Alina Sierra, who is a Tohono O'odham student. And she was forced to drop out of University of Arizona because she couldn't afford to go there. And one of the things that, that she came back to us and said was that she felt like the university, you know, should be doing more to help Native students like her. And specifically pointing out that they were on her nation's land and those were her nation's resources.

And some of the follow-up reporting we've done has been talking to folks that have been working toward like divesting funds from fossil fuels and whatnot. And most folks have said that they weren't surprised by the university's reliance on these lands and reliance on these industries for revenue. And granted, you know, $7 million a year or something like that isn't a ton of money in the grand scheme of things at the university, but it's enough to be supporting Native students, and which is just the sort of like the easiest thing a university could be doing at this point.

BRODIE: Well, so what would advocates like universities to be doing here? For example, would they prefer that the universities stop extractive industries on this land? Would they say, do they say, "OK, if you're going to do that, fine, but the money should go and help this population of students, should help Native American students." Like what would be the ideal outcome of all of this?

AHTONE: Well, I mean, it varies from state to state. We've heard a lot of different ideas over the years about how universities should deal with sort of their inheritance of, of stolen lands. But, you know, on one end, as I mentioned, the, the easy, one easy thing to do is support Native students who are going to that school. It's, it's not a, it's not a very, very large leap for a university to do it. These aren't large student populations that are going to like tank the university budgets to have their cost of attendance covered.

We've also heard things like returning lands to tribes. Is that there are options on, on the table to do land swaps to return to tribes, return revenue to tribes. You know, that's something that's on the table. And then we've heard of even more complicated ideas about making sure that there's federal legislation that these universities are supporting tribal colleges, that they are investing in communities to make sure that more students can come to those institutions in the future. You know, there's, there, there's a myriad of ideas I think that are out there that range from easy to hard to incredibly complex.

BRODIE: Does it seem as though there's momentum to do any of those things?

AHTONE: Yeah, I mean, I think that there is. We've definitely seen over the years, a large amount of energy put into exploring the history of land grant institutions and their connections to tribal nations that ultimately seeded land and help these universities get off the ground. I think the trick here is whether or not land grant institutions are going to want to be a part of that conversation as a willing participant or if they're gonna be dragged into it sort of by the scruff of their neck.

You know, I mean, land grant universities are a great place for academics and scholars and activists and instructors and all these people, of all these diverse, different backgrounds of knowledge can come together and actually talk about this issue and come up with real plans and movements that, that, that really push this idea forward. Whether or not universities want to put the energy into being the place that fosters those conversations is a different, different conversation.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.