Rethinking the Native American Land “Gift” to the University of Michigan

What makes a gift a gift? That’s the question I asked myself when a large, three-sided pop-up plaque caught my eye on the University of Michigan’s central campus last Thursday. The plaque reads “Native American Land Gift of 1817,” and it discusses a land grant by local Native American tribes to the federal government for use as a public university. The recognition of this grant is essential to the telling of the University’s story — it sheds light on a crucial moment in its history that is scarcely mentioned, but sits at the very root of the university’s founding. There’s just one problem: this “gift” wasn’t a gift at all.

The University of Michigan’s “Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation,” a part of the University’s “Stumbling Blocks” Art Exhibition (University of Michigan Bicentennial Office)

The plaque was part of the University of Michigan’s recently featured “Stumbling Blocks,” a temporary art installation in conjunction with the university’s Bicentennial Spring Festival celebration. According to the Bicentennial website, “Stumbling Blocks” is a series of “pop-up art exhibitions asking us to redefine our community, recalibrate our goals and set out new aspirations that are informed by the past.” The series included seven unique art exhibitions which focus on moments when access to the university was denied to several minority groups.

One of these is entitled “Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation,” and is aimed at recognizing land grants given by local Native American tribes. In 1817, a group of Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians ceded a small plot in Detroit to the federal government for use as a public university. However, the history behind that cession suggests that native peoples didn’t give up this land freely.

True, if you read the exhibit plaque and the treaty it references, the text explicitly gives the University of Michigan the right to this land. The plaque references the Treaty of Fort Meigs, an 1817 agreement between the federal government and several native people groups of the Maumee River Valley. In the treaty, a group of natives gave a small plot of land to the United States, “believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated…for the use of the said college, to be retained or sold, as the said rector and corporation may judge expedient …” The university’s plaque celebrates the cooperation between native peoples and its own founders, noting thatthe original land was sold to provide a significant part of Michigan’s permanent endowment when it moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor.”

To their credit, the Bicentennial website does highlight the fact that the gift’s intended purpose was never realized, because “there is no record of any Native Americans attending the university throughout the next 130 years.” It is laudable that the University of Michigan, even in the the midst of a celebration of its accomplishments, is able to grapple with the more shameful moments in its history. At a minimum, the “Stumbling Blocks exhibition starts a conversation about the impact of Native Americans on the institution.

Modern-day Fort Meigs (Photo by John Stanton)

But here’s where the connection gets messy, and where an omission by the University connects to a much longer and bloodier story. The Treaty of Fort Meigs was no standalone agreement — it was part of a larger effort by the federal government to remove Native Americans from the Great Lakes, and to relocate them across the Mississippi River. In the 1830s, this ideology reared its ugly head via Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. These were massive undertakings, and resulted in the eviction and death of thousands of Native Americans in the process.

Even though it took place decades prior to Jackson’s presidency, the treaty that provided the University of Michigan with their initial land plot is a part of this story of Indian Removal. Before it forced Native Americans across the Mississippi using military force, the federal government used economic, social and political pressure to force natives into signing treaties against their own self-interest. Beginning with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the federal government forced Native Americans off of their traditional lands in a series of agreements which were nominally consensual, but were usually signed by natives as a way to escape white threats of violence or economic ruin.

Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States and notorious general. Jackson who removed thousands of Native Americans from their homelands, both by the sword and the pen (White House)

Presenting history in “snippets” such as temporary art exhibits makes it easier to digest and provides a spark for further conversation, but it hardly ever captures vital nuances in historical narratives. Don’t get me wrong, the University’s commitment to talking about native influence on its history is important, and the fact that they chose to discuss it at all is an excellent step in the right direction. But this exhibit should have finished the job and provided more context to the story, by explaining that Native American “gifts” of land in early Michigan were more accurately coercive forfeitures in which natives had little choice.

The University of Michigan was organized on lands that were wrested from Native American control. In order to truly celebrate its “foundations,” this bicentennial commemoration of university history should have abandoned the notion that treaties such as the Treaty of Fort Meigs were gifts in any sense. In the implementation of this treaty, the university not only violated its agreement to admit Native American students, but erected an institution for white education on land that was more or less seized from its rightful native owners.

I’m glad the University is engaging with its past injustices, but it should do so with an eye towards proper crafting of the historical narrative. As Bicentennial Professor Martha Jones pointed out it in a recent interview with the Michigan Daily, “history is often invisible or muted. By creating these installations, the invisible history can become more visible, and become a part of our contemporary memory.” Native American history at Michigan has certainly been muted; this exhibit plays a part in un-muting the native voice in the state.

The University of Michigan has a responsibility to be up front about the less-than-savory circumstances surrounding native interactions with the institution. To the lay observer of this exhibit, the word “gift” implies willing consent. Calling a forcible treaty a “gift” presents Native Americans as co-equal partners, instead of displaying the hardships faced by native groups when white settlers confiscated their homelands. In a time when native land rights are in the forefront of national conversation as a result the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota, the University should be sensitive to its own role in denying those same rights to native groups.

Demonstrators protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in November 2016 (Photo by Cassi Alexandra, NPR)

It’s clear that the exhibition seeks to highlight Native Americans’ impact on the university and the University’s denial of its promise to them. What isn’t clear is whether the University is willing to engage with the full scope of this “gift,” and its place within a larger story of native removal. Even though it does not fit neatly into the University’s objective of focusing on equal access, solely focusing on Native American student admissions, while glossing over Indian Removal, erases the memory of permanent harm inflicted on Native Americans as a result of the Treaty of Fort Meigs and its predecessors.

Before calling this land donation a “gift,” the University should stop to consider its phrasing. Gifts are free — this land came at a price.