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UW System receives over $1 million annually from investments on stolen Native land

The UW System receives over $1 million annually from land taken from Wisconsin Native American tribes in the 1800s.

The University of Wisconsin System receives more than $1 million annually from land first taken from Wisconsin Native American tribes in the 1800s. 

The land, some of which is now productive timberland, generated nearly $4 million in total revenue in FY2023 through the Normal School Fund, a pot of money managed by Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The revenue comes from a combination of timber production, land sales and interest on held lands, according to a 2023 BCPL report

Of that total, $1.25 million was distributed to the UW System, and the rest was reinvested into the fund. UW spent approximately $1.1 million of its distribution.

State trust funds such as these are “one of the best-kept public secrets in America,” according to a sweeping report from Grist, a nonprofit climate media organization. Much of the 68,000 acres of held lands in Wisconsin was taken from the Ojibwe tribe and now makes up the Normal School Trust Fund, which has generated about $30 million in principal. 

“The state earns interest and dividends on the land and timber that has been sold, and some of that money is now making its way to the Universities of Wisconsin through the state’s Normal School Fund,” UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas told The Daily Cardinal. 

According to the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL), the fund's origin traces back to 1850, when the federal Swamp Land Act gave swamps to state governments for conversion into farmland. Wisconsin received title to three million acres of land, regardless of whether the swamp land belonged to Native tribes.

Dr. Margaret Huettl, director of Indigenous Studies at UW-Oshkosh, said many of the swamp lands were protected by Indigenous tribes like the Ojibwe for future generations. When the state harvested timber from lands within reservation boundaries, Native people were not paid, even after legal fights for the land’s protection.

“Today’s generation might not be the perpetrators of a historical wrong, but the Swamp Land Act has ongoing impacts,” Huettl said. “Reckoning with these legacies — really reckoning and making efforts to reconcile, not just acknowledge — is something that we can do together.”

Where do the funds go?

Each year under Wis. Stat 36.49, $100,000 of the funds go to underrepresented students enrolled in certificate or bachelor’s programs at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

UW-Stevens Point receives $300,000 for its environmental programs, and $100,000 goes to students enrolled in the sustainable management degree program through the UW-Extension program, according to state law.

The state Legislature added $5,000 merit-based scholarships under a 2017 statute. The scholarships, which are based on standardized college entrance scores and GPA calculations, are drawn from the remaining balance and distributed to students from Wisconsin high schools or homeschooled students. According to a 2023 BCPL report, the fund led to 150 merit scholarships in 2022. 

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Originally slated to end on April 1, 2023, the statute was amended last year to run indefinitely. 

Some critics have questioned the value of standardized testing for state students. Wisconsin holds significant racial disparities in standardized testing scores and the widest opportunity gap between white and Black students of any state, according to Spectrum News. 

Sweeping nationwide impact

The Swamp Land Act isn’t the first act that took away land from Native tribes that now benefit the Universities of Wisconsin. The Morrill Act of 1862 used federally owned land often seized from Indigenous tribes to establish land-grant universities across the U.S., such as UW-Madison. 

The seizure spans across universities nationwide. According to the Grist report, 14 land grant universities receive revenue from state trust lands and the Morrill Act, including the University of Minnesota.

For example, the University of Minnesota generates mineral revenues from land obtained from Indigenous tribes, adding up to $17.2 million in profits between 2018 and 2022, according to an analysis from the MinnPost.

Investigators at Grist discovered governments took 8.2 million acres of land from Indigenous tribes, generating over $2 billion for the recipient schools.

How UW-Madison is responding

While UW-Madison benefits from the Normal School fund and the Morrill Act, Lucas said UW-Madison’s mission is to “make amends for the ways the institution has benefitted from the dispossession of American Indian lands by the federal government.”

Payments from the Normal School Fund to the UW System started in 2009, according to Lucas, and these funds either go towards scholarships for low-income students or are distributed to UW System campuses. 

Lucas said UW-Madison values moving from “ignorance to awareness” about the role of land grants and dispossession in UW-Madison’s history and is doing so through the “Our Shared Future” initiative, The First Nationals Cultural Landscape Tour and Indigenous curriculum about the history of Indigenous land expropriation. 

In December, UW-Madison established a program covering the cost of attendance of an undergraduate degree and full tuition for law or medical degrees for members of federally-recognized Wisconsin Indian tribes.

While Huettl said there has recently been awareness toward understanding how land grants impact Indigenous faculty and students at schools like UW-Madison, she added that Indigenous staff and students are still underrepresented and undersupported at campuses benefitting from the Normal School funds.

That disparity is also represented in employment, she said. 

“Due to cuts and challenges at the state level, there are few if any positions dedicated to our Indigenous students’ success, especially on the former normal school campuses.”

Less than 0.5% of UW System students are Indigenous, and most students leave college without ever learning about Indigenous history, according to Huettl. 

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