The University of Minnesota should take action to atone for nearly two centuries of abuses that continue to harm Indigenous people, researchers argue in a new report released this week.
The report from the TRUTH Project is thought to be the first to examine the university's history primarily from the perspectives of Indigenous people, whose ancestors lived on the land seized to build the U.
The 554-page document aims to reframe how Minnesotans view the university, describing it not as a land-grant institution, but as a "land grab" system that profited by trying to erase Indigenous people. The impacts of those actions are still felt today, researchers say, noting that Indigenous Minnesotans continue to face housing insecurity, poverty and educational barriers at a disproportionate rate.
"This is history that has been intentionally left out of the history books," said Audrianna Goodwin, one of about 45 people on a team that included researchers from tribes and the university.
The report calls on the university to give land back to tribal nations and set aside space on each campus for Indigenous people to gather, pray and learn. Among other things, it calls for the university to give reparations, hire more Indigenous people for staff and leadership roles and boost support for Indigenous students.
In a statement, the university stopped shy of saying whether it would implement changes outlined in the document. It thanked the people who worked on the report for "the truth-telling that will benefit us all going forward."
"In recent years, the university has committed to acknowledging the past and doing the necessary work to begin rebuilding and strengthening relationships with tribal nations and Native people," the university said, adding that guidance in the report will be invaluable in future discussions.
TRUTH is short for Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing. The project can be traced to 2020, when the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council issued two executive orders, one calling on the university to return Indigenous human remains and another calling on it to fulfill its obligations to the 11 tribal nations within Minnesota's borders.
The report, funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, contacted each of the tribes and examined materials found in university and government archives.
It outlines actions taken by the university's founding regents, focusing most heavily on Henry Hastings Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, who served as Minnesota's earliest governors. Both played crucial roles in crafting treaties or legislation that stripped tribes of their lands, handed the sites to the university, and at times crafted deals in ways that benefited their businesses, according to the report.
"They invented the game, the rules and then even when they were winning, they still cheated," the researchers wrote. "Studying the lives and activities of the founding Board of Regents shows how insidious and violent the founding of the University was."
The report says abuses continued long after the ink dried on those treaties. Among other things, it recounts how the government ran a boarding school on the land where the university's Morris campus is now located. The program separated Dakota children from their parents, subjecting them to abuse and forcing them to assimilate to Western culture, the report says.
The document reiterates concerns with a research project in the 1950s and 1960s that subjected some children of the Red Lake Nation to experimental kidney biopsies because university researchers and the U.S. military sought to learn more about a nephritis outbreak.
It also outlines concerns with some university research projects, singling out a wild rice research program that some Indigenous people argue presents a threat to their own, natural harvest efforts.
The report argues some university actions may be irreconcilable but that it still must take action towards healing. It calls on officials to develop a long-term plan to develop a better relationship with Indigenous people and cautions that work could take generations.
"It's been seven generations since these land grabs," said An Garagiola, a researcher who worked on the report. "It's going to take at least that long to set things right."