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Robert Lee

Mar 3, 2022

Land-Grab Universities

A Discussion with Robert Lee

New Books Network 2022

John and new Brandeis host Jerome Tharaud (author of Apocalyptic Geographies) learn exactly how the growth of America's public universities relied on shameful seizures of Native American land. Working with Tristan Athone --editor of Grist and a member of the Kiowa Tribe--historian Robert Lee wrote a stunning series of pieces that reveal how many public land-grant universities were fundamentally financed and sustained by a long-lasting settle-colonial "land grab." Their meticulous work paints an unusually detailed picture of how most highly praised institutions of higher education in America (Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley and virtually all of the great Midwestern public universities) were initially launched and sometimes later sustained by a flood of cash deriving directly or indirectly from that stolen and seized land.

Jerome and John discuss with Lee issues that are covered in the initial article in High Country News, a dedicated website with a better version of this fantastic map, a follow-up article tracing land that was never sold, and a scholarly forum that followed from their findings.

The Morrill Act (1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, and that is no coincidence). Its author Justin Morrill, a Vermont Senator, argued the land-grants were a payback for the East's investment in opening the West. The West was "a plundered province" wrote Bernard de Voto (Harpers, August 1934).

Books and Articles Mentioned in the Episode

Walter Benjamin, "Ten Theses on the Philosophy of History": "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

Land Acknowledgements: Washington State Pullman did change its land acknowledgement' to reflect this reality.

"Greater Britain" Land-Grabs has precedents dating back as far perhaps as Trinity College, Dublin in late 1500s. A recent article discusses 19th century examples spread throughout the British Empire. Harvey, Caitlin P. A. "The Wealth of Knowledge: Land-Grab Universities in a British Imperial and Global Context." Native American and Indigenous Studies, vol. 8 no. 1, 2021, p. 97-105. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/784821.

Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America's Universities

Recallable Books

Paul Wallace Gates, The Wisconsin Pinelands of Cornell University (originally c.1934 recently reissued) Bobby finds it brilliant on how Cornell's land speculation operated--yet it has not a single sentence on the original Native American ownership of that land.

Eve Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, (1990) writes about an "epistemology of ignorance"--questions not asked.

Jerome praised Brenda J. Childs's 2014 article, "The Boarding School as Metaphor." He also mentioned N. Scott Momaday's A House Made of Dawn (1968), Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977) and D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded (1936), a brilliant novel by a Montanan writer of the Salish Kootenai nation that will also be the central work for the 2022 Brandeis Novel Symposium.

Willa Cather, The Professor's House (1925).

Upcoming: Rounding out March, a lively conversation with Christina Thompson about Polynesian culture and its edgy 1970's cultural revival in Hawaii. April is fantasy month: we kick it off with Tolkien scholar Anna Vaniskaya and then turn to novelist Madeline Miller, who speaks with RtB about her critically acclaimed bestseller, Circe.

Read the transcript here.

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Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz

Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.

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