A new University of Minnesota course offered this semester will teach students the practice of Indigenous mapping as a way to explore the University’s relationship to systemic racism and settler colonialism.
“Thinking of a map in a history textbook,” Nora Livesay said, “what you don’t see is the map from the Indigenous peoples’ perspective.” Livesay is the teacher of the new course.
Students will work in small groups to create “story maps” that graphically illustrate data related to Indigenous communities.
“Often when you watch the news of a presidential election, [they] will have maps in the background of the anchors, and they will show states taking on different colors,” Livesay said.
These background maps are an example of a story map, and students in her class will use similar mapping technologies to represent the experiences of Indigenous communities.
“I think there’s a lot of potential here for Indigenous peoples to have a voice and tell stories… What are the stories of Indigenous peoples in relation to the University of Minnesota?” Livesay said.
Indigenous mapping as a tool to tell deeper and untold stories
A story map created by High Country News reveals results that answer Livesay’s question. She called this particular card one of the most wonderful she’s seen recently.
The article, titled “Land-Grab Universities: How the United States grant land-grant Universities with expropriated Indigenous land,” describes the violent history of many universities across the country, including the University of Minnesota.
In 1851, four Dakota bands were forced to relinquish their traditional lands “in response to denial of rations, threat of violence, enforced starvation, game killing, and destruction of agriculture”, according to another High Country News report.
Years later, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted land to new colleges across the country. As a result, the University of Minnesota received 94,631 acres and raised the equivalent of $18.4 million in today’s dollars, according to a story map created by a university group.
Most of the land the University received under the Morrill Act was surrendered by the Dakota bands in 1851. The Dakotas received only a fraction of the land’s value.
Today, centuries after the lands were confiscated, the native peoples of Minnesota suffer from high rates of homelessness and poverty. Compared to non-Indigenous people, Indigenous communities have poorer health outcomes and less access to health care.
Native students experience the lowest high school graduation rate of any racial or ethnic group in Minnesota.
“It can be very difficult to watch some of these stories,” Livesay said.
The Importance of Indigenous Mapping at the University
Fa’aumu Kaimana is a first-year doctoral student in anthropology. She has experience in the practice of aboriginal cartography and assisted Livesay in creating the new course.
“It’s a very existential question,” she said as she reflected on the artwork. “The implications of this… When we release this mapping to the community, it really upends their notions of what the University is.”
She added that University leaders need to ask themselves: “What would it be like for me to be in good relations with the indigenous peoples here? »
A colleague of Kaimana and Livesay, Kevin Murphy, said that universities often have “a tendency to think simply in current terms and not to think broadly, politically, about the meaning of campus and its place in the work that it do”.
Murphy is the faculty coordinator at Minnesota Transform, a higher education initiative that engages in anti-colonial and racial justice work at the University. He was part of the conversation that inspired the Indigenous Mapping course.
He said he, his collaborating students, and people from the university’s Native American studies department hoped the class would explore the university’s “history as a colonial settler institution…what students , Indigenous faculty and staff have made on campus over time, the contributions they have made, their activism.
He added: “I think taking action hinges on some kind of real understanding of the past and the University’s complicity in … systemic racism and colonialism.”
University efforts to support Indigenous causes
Livesay and Murphy said the hiring of Karen Diver signals the University’s increased commitment to Indigenous causes.
In May 2021, Diver became the University’s first Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs. She is a member of the Fond du Lac Band, and was previously appointed by former President Barack Obama to be the President’s Special Assistant for Native American Affairs.
Since Diver’s tenure, the University has launched the Native American Promise Tuition program which provides free and reduced tuition to financially qualified students enrolled with one of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized Native American tribes.
The University called the program “among the nation’s most comprehensive free and discounted tuition programs for Native American students.”
Additionally, the University’s Institute for Advanced Study has partnered with the Indian Council of Minnesota to create a Working Toward Academic-Tribal Recognition and Healing (TRUTH) project.
Through this, Indigenous scholars will be financially supported as they “write what the history of university-tribal relations is, from their own perspective, using their own words and using their own methodologies”.
Chris Pexa is of Bdewákaŋtuŋwaŋ Dakhóta and Polish-Irish ancestry, and he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Native American Studies.
Reflecting on the University’s support of Indigenous causes through efforts such as the TRUTH Project, Pexa said, “The other universities that have benefited from the Morrill Act are not there yet… What the U of M, I think what’s unique about this opportunity is that it’s outward looking… I think it’s a really big step forward, and I’m delighted with it.
He viewed the Native American Promise Tuition Program as a good, if imperfect, step.
“It has some issues, the most glaring being that it re-dedicates state lines as boundaries of historical reparation when in fact the Dakota people have all been exiled with very minor exceptions,” said Exa.
Since the Dakotas were forcibly removed from the state of Minnesota after the American-Dakota War of 1862, many Dakotas have resided outside of Minnesota. Pexa argues that the program’s limitation to Minnesota’s 11 recognized tribes wrongly excludes many Dakota students.
“The most drastic step would be something like what the Morris campus has already done, which is to offer free tuition to any native descendant,” Pexa said.
As for additional steps, Pexa said he would like to see the University revisit the language of its land recognition, create signage and exhibits that show the history of dispossession of this land, and increase funding for the Native American studies department. .
Pexa said he would also like Morrill Hall to be renamed. The name of the campus building is the same as the legislation that expropriated land from Dakota.
Laughing, he added, “change it to Land-Grab Hall.”
Thoughts on the new course
Thom Sandberg, a fourth-year history and urban studies student, is currently taking the new course.
“I think one of the great things about this class is how it’s an awareness class as much as anything else,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg added that he was interested in learning more about land grabbing as the semester progresses.
“I’m really happy that students now have a real opportunity to understand the institution they’re a part of…and to envision a different future for the university,” Murphy said.
The new course will develop and uncover new findings about the University that will help prepare for a more equitable future and consider its past.
“People of color often don’t have the power to tell their story to everyone. Usually they are informed,” Livesay said. “I see that [course] as a means for the perspective of Indigenous peoples to be centred, for their stories to be in a position of power.