Washington State University earns $15M a year on stolen land

A Grist report reveals that over the past 150 years, WSU has collected at least $1B in profit from land taken from 21 Indigenous nations.

A modern university building on a snowy day.

The Health Sciences building at WSU’s Spokane campus, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Young Kwak for Crosscut)

Part of moving forward, says Dr. Zoe Higheagle Strong, Nez Perce, is telling the whole story.

A significant part of Washington State University’s story is that it was founded with profits from land taken from 21 Indigenous nations, including the Yakama Nation and others. That transfer of wealth, which has amounted to more than $1 billion since the 1880s according to an investigation by Grist, continues today.

WSU is one of the 52 higher-education institutions founded in the 19th century that still benefit from proceeds from land taken by the federal government from Indigenous nations, amounting to billions of dollars a year, according to Grist, which published on Wednesday its deep dive into the publicly available data to locate trust lands associated with 14 of the land-grant universities seeded by the Morrill Act. Other institutions included in Grist’s Land Grab University investigation are the University of Idaho, the University of Arizona and Texas A&M. 

WSU’s land-grant parcels that generate revenue, mainly through logging, are located all throughout Washington, from the Olympic Peninsula to the northeast corner of the state. Much of them are in Central Washington, and were ceded by the Yakama Nation in 1855. (WSU’s main campus in Pullman is also located on what was Nez Perce and Palouse land.)

“Let’s learn about the full story. When we talk about some aspects of the land-grant history, there’s pain,” said Higheagle Strong, Washington State University’s Vice Provost for Native American Relations and Programs. 

As WSU, which has grown to five campuses across the state, continues to receive money from land grants, the institution says it has been building a relationship with Indigenous nations to help serve the nations’ needs, including a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding with Native nations that commits to regular consultation for programs and projects that can directly benefit the tribes. Thirteen Indigenous nations, including the Yakama Nation, have signed on to the agreement. The school also has offered publicly funded scholarships for Native students.

Land grant legacies

The first Morrill Act, enacted during the Civil War, funded agricultural and mechanical colleges across the country with revenue taken from the sale of or profits from federal land. This was called a land grant. More than 10 million acres of that federal land was originally taken by the U.S. government from Indigenous nations, through either treaty or expropriation. The funding generated by land that originated from Native nations amounts today to about $2.2 billion a year to higher education institutions, according to reporting by Grist.

The importance of the loss from these takings is not about revenue.

“We see land as our relatives,” Higheagle Strong said in an interview with Crosscut. “When we talk about loss of land, it’s a deep suffering, it’s a deep loss.” 

“Even though Tribes don’t have that land ownership – that we look at in a Western sense – Tribes still feel a caretaking responsibility, because it’s a relationship,” she said.

Higheagle Strong, who is also WSU’s Tribal Liaison to the president, has given presentations to WSU faculty and staff about the institution and its Morrill Act history. 

Right after Washington became a state in 1889, the state Legislature applied to the federal government for a Morrill Act land grant to open a higher-learning institution in the eastern part of the state. Washington State University opened as Washington Agricultural College in 1892.

Ironically, the Morrill Act was meant to create colleges that would benefit and train common people, not just those with money and connections.

“The intent was with land-grant institutions to provide agricultural, mechanical and applied science education; it was to move away from the social norms of the elitist colleges,” Higheagle Strong said in her presentation about the Morrill Act. “But this idea of ‘democracy colleges’ or the ‘people's colleges’ – that was the intent.”

But the ideals espoused when the colleges were established didn’t always meet reality. “Well, who were the people that were intended as ‘all?’ And maybe, you know, other people weren’t even included as ‘human’ at that point,” Higheagle Strong said. “Who really received the benefits of the land-grant institution? Did all people have equal access?”

The land grants that helped establish WSU originally totaled 190,000 acres. Of that, about 90,000 acres, originating from 21 Indigenous nations, are still today managed by the state of Washington, with the profits from that land earmarked for WSU’s benefit. About 86,000 acres of that are located inside Yakama land cessions, according to Grist’s reporting.

Between 1889 and 2022, timber sales on trust lands brought Washington State University roughly $1 billion, adjusted for inflation, according to Grist. Today that land is managed by the Washington state Department of National Resources, and the State Investment Board manages the money in trust funds that benefit WSU. See Grist for more.

The university says it has received an average of $15 million a year for the past 35 years – or more than half a billion dollars since 1987.

The money, which is distributed by the Legislature, is earmarked to build and finance buildings, including in recent years the building now known as the Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences at its Spokane campus and the PACCAR Environmental Technology Building.

While money from the land grants are not directly benefiting Native programs or students, WSU says it has made efforts to shift its relationships to Indigenous nations in a systemic way. It now consults with Native nations on programs and research that would directly benefit their citizens and members, such as projects on climate change, alternative energy and tribal food sovereignty. The university also has a scholarship program for Native students, to push for greater enrollment and mentoring support, and has supported efforts by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, in the Washington Legislature to expand that funding.

“Puts an emphasis on tangible dollars to individual students,” Higheagle Strong said, which she says could be thought of as a form of reparations from WSU as an institution. 

Read more about this history of land-grant institutions at Grist.

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