Oakland University becomes 1st US campus to return land use to Native American community

Taken land returned to help Natives reclaim their culture

Students and faculty plant pawpaw trees at the heritage site at Oakland University on April, 11 2023. Photo courtesy of Graeme Harper. (Oakland University)

OAKLAND COUNTY, Mich. – The United States’ history of killing Native Americans and taking their land has led to numerous damaging effects that are still felt by Native people today.

While some U.S. colleges and universities have initiatives recognizing this, Michigan’s Oakland University is the only campus in the country to actually return land to the Native community.

Photo courtesy of Oakland University. (Oakland University)

Why return land?

Andrea Knutson, OU associate professor of English and co-chair of the Native American Advisory Committee, says returning land puts OU in a “better treaty relationship with the original stewards of the land.”

The 1807 Treaty of Detroit is an agreement between Michigan and the Anishinaabe people. The treaty says the U.S. must “perpetuate the friendship” and “settle arrangements mutually beneficial to” the Anishinaabe.

However, like with most U.S.-Native treaties, the Anishinaabe were forced to sign the 1807 Treaty of Detroit that made them give up their land for 2 cents per acre -- which is equivalent to 52 cents per acre in 2023. Today the average price of an acre of Michigan farmland is $5,850.

The loss of their land, along with 1950s and 60s Native relocation programs, have contributed to high rates of diabetes, malnourishment, poor access to dental care and more issues Native communities face today, according to OU Assistant Professor of English Megan Peiser, who is affiliated with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Peiser said the health issues stem from relocation programs that moved Native Americans to land with infertile soil, and to cities where they could not grow their own food, leaving them to buy less nutritious options. OU Assistant Professor of Public Health Mozhgon Rajaee said the relocation programs also moved Native families to areas with elevated levels of pollution, causing them to have worse health outcomes than white families today.

“There’s a long history of settlers in this country deciding what’s good for Native people and forcing that upon them,” Peiser said. “That’s not sovereignty. That’s not equal rights. So, listening to Indigenous folks [is important], and what Indigenous folks want is land back.”

Another reason OU is return land is to combat Native American boarding schools’ legacy of cultural genocide.

Over the course of a century, Native children were taken by U.S. government agents and sent to schools hundreds of miles away from their families. At these schools, they experienced physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse and torture, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Children sometimes stayed in these boarding schools for four or more years.

“These were schools meant to, in overtly violent ways, assimilate them to a white society,” Knutson said. “These were processes that made children ashamed of their Native languages, ashamed of their Native ways. They were meant to feel inferior.”

Assimilation was the goal of a founder of Native American boarding schools, General Richard Henry Pratt, whose assimilation philosophy was “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Several such schools operated in Michigan. At one school in Mount Pleasant, students were reportedly “disinfected” by having alcohol, kerosene or pesticides poured over them. Their belongings -- including family photos, medicine pouches, and items of cultural significance -- were taken and never returned. Faculty also gave students English names to replace their given names.

A total of 227 students died at that school.

Another school in Harbor Springs boarded students until 1983.

Giving land back to Native communities not only returns some of what was lost, but Peiser says it also allows Native people to reclaim their culture to practice cultural and spiritual customs that are often not allowed.

OU declares land a heritage site

OU is the only campus in the United States to return taken land to the Native community. Knutson says the project was successful because of advocacy, and because the right people were involved at the right time.

Knutson and Peiser met with Amy Banes-Berceli, associate provost for operations with OU’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion office, who asked them how the university could put action behind its Native land acknowledgment. Peiser told Banes-Berceli that if the university was serious about upholding the acknowledgment, they could designate land for Native use.

Banes-Berceli says she contacted offices across campus and “worked with facilities and the DEI council to identify a space that could be used for that purpose.”

However, legally, the land could not be involved in any of OU’s development plans.

“The campus is always thinking about what land it can develop and what it wants to renovate,” Knutson said. “And so [the land was] not anywhere on those development maps.”

However, if the land is still listed as belonging to OU, the university could repeat history by redeveloping the land in the future -- so, the land was instead declared a heritage site. Peiser says this means OU can never make decisions about the land again, and OU has “given over that power to the Indigenous community.”

Heritage site benefits

A problem with measuring success, Peiser says, is that metrics of counting are about power, while Indigenous communities place value on keeping balance -- such as balanced and healthy relationships between humans, animals, plants, and the planet.

A community meeting was held last summer to assess the land and decide how it could be used. The community agreed that a pawpaw orchard would be a great addition, and they “raised the money through fundraising and bought several pawpaw trees,” Peiser said.

Students and faculty plant pawpaw trees at the heritage site at Oakland University on April, 11 2023. Photo courtesy of Graeme Harper. (Oakland University)

Knutson says they also planted over 30 cedar trees, won a grant to plant a wildflower welcome garden, and budgeted to make a fire pit for cooking and ceremonial purposes. The community also hopes to do more with the land to give the Native community access to perform cultural customs that were historically taken away.

“And then, we keep in touch with them every time we make progress on something on the land that was their idea; we have an event and have them [come] out,” Peiser said.

The plans underway and under discussion are helping the community get closer to achieving balance and reaching their goals, according to Peiser.

Cedar trees grow on the heritage site at Oakland University in Oakland County, Michigan on Friday, April 14, 2023. (Joseph Goral/WDIV)

Heritage site challenges

While the land offers the community a place to perform activities they could not otherwise, Peiser says more could be done -- including getting Native students free tuition to OU, as was promised in the 1855 Treaty of Detroit, and hiring more Native faculty.

“For your Native faculty, you need to hire somebody native to that place, which means your application pool will not come from all over the country,” Peiser said. “It will come from your backyard. And you need to be willing to hire knowledge keepers that won’t have Ph.D.s because we learn our Indigenous practices from our communities, not from colonialist institutions.”

Peiser also says universities -- including OU -- are institutions that have colonialist biases. Campus DEI offices should be checking systems on campuses to make sure no one is being excluded, she says.

“We’ve met with [OU’s DEI office] several times to write the Land Acknowledgment Statement, and that proved to not be very useful or fruitful,” Peiser said. “In general, we haven’t engaged with them much since. They have occasionally co-sponsored an event, but they’ve never reached out to us. They’ve never allocated any budget regularly to support the NAAC [Native American Advisory Committee] or any of the work that the NAAC does, or any Indigenous initiative on campus.”

Peiser also says the community does not want to spend time trying to get the DEI office involved when they could use that time to work on the land.

OU’s Banes-Berceli says when organizations work on these types of initiatives, some people can feel progress is not happening fast enough.

“Some of what we’re doing is a little slower because we’re the first ones to do it,” Banes-Berceli said. “If nobody else has done it before, then it takes a little longer to do it because there’s no blueprint on how to do this. We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Peiser says another issue is that she was “told by the DEI office in 2019 that Indigenous issues were not a priority.”

OU’s Chief Diversity Officer Glenn McIntosh says he has “zero tolerance for divisiveness,” and that he “absolutely” wants anyone who had an experience like Peiser’s to tell him.

“My personal reputation is about unification,” McIntosh said. “That’s how I operate. I would hope, as we move forward, that we’re certainly part of the team effort and certainly never want to be a barrier ... just the idea of ‘you have to come with a spirit of unification to get things done.’”