Confronting Minnesota’s historical wounds

By John Horchner


On a recent walk past the student center at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, I saw a Little Free Library stand emblazoned with the University of Minnesota’s school colors.

Inside the stand was a 1975 volume entitled, “Land-Grant Universities and Their Continuing Challenge.”

Although this book didn’t seem particularly alluring, I took it home with me to read. It turned out to be a sleeper, serving as an invaluable source on Minnesota’s historical trauma.

From the book, I learned that the land-grant system for funding public universities was enacted in 1862 during the Civil War. That war and its need for training military officers may have been the deciding factors that prompted Congress to pass a bill for a state-by-state university land-grant system that was first proposed in 1857.

From other sources, I learned that Minnesota’s then governor Alexander Ramsey was a force in favor of the land-grant university bill.

During his address to the Minnesota Legislature in 1862, Ramsey lamented the pitiful condition the University of Minnesota found itself in — with no students and debts of $92,000. He noted, “It is probable that the authorities at Washington may yet concede the construction we have contended for, of that clause of the enabling act of February 26th, 1857, donating two towns for University purposes. If this hope be realized, and more considerate counsels should in the future govern those having charge of these interests, the University of Minnesota may yet be a richly endowed institution.”

The 120,000 acres of lands that were awarded to University of Minnesota by the Morrill Act of 1862 were turned into $579,430 dollars by the early 20th century, according to a chart in the appendix of the book. Today, after building on this and other funding, the university’s endowment is well over $5 billion, according to a recent report filed by National Association of College and University Business Officers.

However, there’s a problem with this story and no mention of it was made of it in the volume I read.

According to the introduction to the Morrill Act of 1862 on the National Archives website, “Over 10 million acres that was provided by these grants were expropriated from tribal lands of Native communities. Often tribes were effectively forced to sign treaties ceding land because of their living conditions or threat of violence.”

Many universities now offer land acknowledgments, crediting Native American communities for the role they played for their institutions. But how could this have been overlooked before?

It was overlooked because the Native Americans’ view of land was never acknowledged in the first place, according to Martin Case, author of “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property.”

When I spoke to Case by phone, he said that Native nations have “never lost their connection to the land,” despite our English system where “everything is owned by someone.”

He said that Native nations had their own relationships to the land. Our system of property and parcels “seemed like a bad idea” and the Indians were reluctant to relinquish their kinship with the land and sign treaties.

But from the U.S. perspective, there could be no property until there was a treaty that called for Native people to be removed from the land. Once that was done, the U.S. could take title and distribute it to homesteaders, railroads and as I was learning, land-grant universities.

In a report to Congress on the 1851 Sioux (Dakota) Land Cession Treaties, Ramsey who was a commissioner of treaties at the time, wrote:

“It was our constant aim to do what we could to break up the community system among the Indians, and cause them to recognize the individuality of property… ”

We all know the result of one of these treaties — the Dakota uprising that broke out after a treaty negotiated with the help of Henry Sibley, who later became Minnesota’s first governor and a member of the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota. Sibley later was found to enrich traders like himself and annuity payments promised were not honored in 1862, leaving the Dakota people to starve.

Settlers were horrified by the Dakota’s violence and Ramsey, who was then Minnesota’s governor, convened a special session of the legislature to say all treaties with the Dakota were void.

“Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.”

Ramsey put Sibley in charge and this time he returned with his sword instead of his pen.

The Dakota people survived extermination, but 303 of them were sentenced for hanging by a Military Commission established by Sibley.

Upon review, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of 265 of the Dakota and 38 were hung at Mankato, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Later, most of the Dakotas were indeed forced out of the state.

I believe that in order to feel compassion for other people we need to understand historical trauma and the violence perpetrated by our ancestors and the violence they may have seen or been subjected to.

I thought of my great-grandfather who immigrated from Germany to Baltimore in the late 1890s. He had signed a contract that guaranteed his passage to the United States, but he was required to work as a carpenter in the city for about 10 years. Probably living in unhealthy conditions, his wife died of pneumonia and then, when his son, my grandfather, was just six, he was pushing a stroller on a busy city street with his baby sister inside and a freak accident caused her death.

My great-grandfather put the rest of the family in orphanages and left for Texas. Several years later, by twist of fate and fortune, my grandfather and his brother were adopted by a wealthy family in Connecticut and sent to a prestigious boarding school there, Hotchkiss.

However, I wonder if, after his early experiences, whether he felt that he really belonged at that school and whether the feeling of not measuring up was something that could be passed on.

On LinkedIn, I reached out to Dr. Little Hawk-Big Crow from the district of Wakpamni located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She is working to enhance cultural survival and spiritual vitality in her community.

I told her about my interest in land-grant universities and the displacement of Native Americans around the time of the Civil War. We had a long exchange, and she pulled no punches.

At one point I said I was very sorry for the havoc caused by our European settlers.

She answered: “Pila’mi’ya’ye otakuye your heart didn’t mean any harm.”

Starting in 2022, the University of Minnesota announced an expansion of its full tuition waiver program beyond its Morris campus for students coming from one of the state’s 11 federally recognized Tribal Nations; it now includes the Crookston, Duluth, Rochester and Twin Cities campuses. However, isn’t there more the U can do to help us heal these historical wounds? 

John Horchner is a professional writer and lives in St. Anthony Park.

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