Since its founding as a land-grant university in 1870, Ohio State has resided on Shawnee, Lenape, Miami, Wyandotte, Delaware, Potawatomi, Peoria, Ojibwe, Seneca and Cherokee peoples’ land.
Over those 150 years, the university has never provided a statement recognizing such land belongs to Indigenous people of the area.
This is known as a land acknowledgment, and according to Newark Earthworks Center — an Ohio State organization that focuses on research and projects surrounding Indigenous people — it’s meant to be provocative and counter historical narratives about the colonization and settling of North America.
John N. Low — an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Newark, the director of the center and an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians — said when it comes to land acknowledgments, there are two parts to the equation, and the university currently has neither.
“The first half is we acknowledge that we’re on the lands taken from other people and then identify the people,” Low said. “A good land acknowledgment has the second half of the equation, which is that we’re on the land stolen from other people, plus therefore what? What should we do about that other than saying that’s past history?”
The Native American and Indigenous Peoples Cohort at Ohio State echoed the sentiment and said in a statement that acknowledgments must be “purposeful” and have an action attached.
“[They] must be followed by sincere and informed actions of reconciliation,” the statement continued. “But no action can be considered sincere or informed without Indigenous voices being at the forefront.”
Indigenous staff and students alike have shared feelings of erasure and invisibility on campus. According to the OSEM — Ohio State’s Fifteenth Day Enrollment Report — there are 44 students across all Ohio State campuses who identify as Indigenous for the autumn 2023 semester.
The cohort said it calls upon Ohio State, “its non-Native students, staff, and faculty, to oppose the continued acts of genocide against Native peoples which contribute to our erasure.”
“This requires action beyond land [acknowledgments],” the statement continued.
Low said as a land-grant university, Ohio State has a responsibility for recruitment and retention of Indigenous students. Land-grant universities were first established under the Morrill Act of 1862 , where lands were taken from Indigenous tribes across the United States and granted to academic institutions, such as Ohio State.
“Land-grant universities are based upon the endowments funded from land taken either pennies on the dollar or outright stolen from Indian people across the country,” Low said. “And so, what’s the consequences of that? Well, maybe we should have free tuition for Native students. How about we do extension services with both the tribal nations and the tribal colleges?”
Low said simply putting acknowledgments in syllabi and email signatures is not enough because it does not include action.
“We need it at a university-wide level and we need that second half of that conclusion. Therefore, what is the university willing to commit to support its acknowledgment?” Low said. “This was somebody else’s land taken and that we are benefiting from.”
Chris Booker, a university spokesperson, said in a statement Ohio State’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has never been stronger than it is today.
“Ohio State offers programs specifically for Native American members of our community, courses in American Indian Studies , and the university operates the Newark Earthworks Center ,” Booker continued. “The university does not currently have a land [acknowledgment].”
Despite the lack of a university-wide statement, specific departments within Ohio State do have their own land acknowledgment statements, including the Department of English and Comparative Studies, according to Low.
The Indigenous cohort said in a statement any land acknowledgment or reconciliation happening on the university level that does not center Indigenous students is not enough.
“This requires relinquishing determination of Native futures to the Native people themselves. Supporting Indigenous voices and community is only possible when Indigenous autonomy is respected,” it said. “Any attempts at University reconciliation that do not prioritize the self-determination of NAIPC students, Indigenous staff, and Indigenous faculty, will not truly be supportive of the Indigenous student body, and therefore will not be supported by NAIPC students.”
Before former university President Kristina Johnson’s departure in May, Low said they were working with her to create a university-wide proposal and acknowledgment. After her resignation, these talks were halted due to the transition of Walter “Ted” Carter Jr., who will join the university after leaving the University of Nebraska system in January 2024.
Low said he hopes the new university president will continue these plans.
“I would hope that our new president [will] be sensitive and supportive of this issue,” Low said. “I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but maybe that needs to be said — to give a push that there is no reason why things can’t change for the better.”This story was updated at 10:34 a.m. on Wednesday for a more accurate description of the Morrill Act of 1862.