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We are Anishinaabikwewag, Ojibwe women. We are mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties. We are also graduate students at a land-grant institution that stole so much from Native Americans—from our own and many other Native nations—through ethnic cleansing, land expropriation, resource extraction, cultural theft, grave robbery, and research. And we are Research Assistants on the TRUTH (Towards Recognition & University-Tribal Healing) Project where we seek to change the narrative of what a land-grant university is and what responsibilities this institution has to Indigenous peoples. We struggle to hold the tension that exists within and between these identities. It is from the intersection of these experiences that we speak. 

Past: Seeking TRUTH 

And yet we still find hope even on what seems like the darkest of days. We keep going with the love for the next seven generations in our hearts. 

We began our research in the University Archives at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, a small red brick building built amidst a small field of solar panels, above the Bohemian Flats and behind Mondale Hall. The building may seem unassuming; however, as we quickly learned, most of the library is underground. An infographic posted on a subterranean wall tells the story of how the University gained “over 100,000 square feet of mid-campus real estate” by excavating a cavern in the soft sandstone Earth that exists along the banks of the Hahawakpa, the Dakota name for the river we know as the Mississippi, or Misi-Ziibi in Ojibwe.1

Many of the secrets buried in the archives below the river banks have not seen the light in decades; their stories, yet to be told, are yearning to break free from the confines of the walls around them. As hard as it is to experience the secondary trauma of what our ancestors endured, it is our duty and responsibility to uncover the truth about this institution’s beginning and identify how that intersected with, and sometimes even depended upon, the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples from this land. 

On a bright December day, we descended into the archives for a tour. The cavernous cement walls soared overhead, and row after row of boxes on towering metal shelves drove home the vast amount of knowledge stored in this space. In one of the rows, we sat on the floor and held in our hands field notes written by Horace Newton Winchell, the geologist who carried out the first Geologic and Natural History Survey of Mni Sóta Maḳoce.2 A small metal chest held dozens of leather bound journals, lists of land sections he mapped and surveyed, along with indexes of the resources that once existed here. The immensity of that moment stole our collective breath as we realized the implications of what we were looking at. As Indigenous people, we often wonder what this land looked like before contact. Winchell’s words, his perception of this land, is as close as some of us will get. Our ancestors experienced great grief from witnessing the destruction of the land that we hold so near and dear to our spirits. 

In subsequent trips to the library’s reading room, we sifted through correspondence between the Regents and various industry representatives expressing interest in purchasing lands.3 The Regents would turn back to Winchell’s journals and use his methodical record keeping to match requests for land with particular resources. We sat there, day after day, November through May, reading about how the University of Minnesota took lands from our Nations and turned an immense profit. The founding Regents then bonded their ill-gotten funds to local municipalities, using the profits derived from stolen land to develop the entire state of Minnesota. The theft of this land has, thus, benefited everybody, but us. 

It is so hard to read about these experiences through the founding Regents’ own words. To not scream. To not let the anger prevent us from going forward. To not let the silent tears hit the pages. As archival researchers, we found the emotional toll of bearing witness became one of the most difficult aspects of the TRUTH Project—the way colonial greed chose our lands and displaced our ancestors; the role of the University of Minnesota and its founders played in designing and then implementing the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples to steal this land; the way those patterns are still present in the disparities between white and Indigenous peoples today. 

At times we did not have enough space to hold in all of our feelings: anger, devastation, heartbreak, grief. For instance, it was difficult to contain the outrage we felt upon learning that the first class of the University of Minnesota in 1851 consisted of just 40 students.4 The benefit to those 40 students hardly seems justified given the cost to thousands of Indigenous peoples who paid for that education through the loss of their lives, livelihoods, and land. We look around at the University buildings and structures around us, and realize that this space wasn’t made for people that look like us and think like us. Rather, it was made with the intentional goal of our demise. Although we are breaking down the barriers that were put in front us as Indigenous students, it shouldn’t be like this in 2022. 

Present: Research, Data, and Sovereignty

The University of Minnesota, like other institutions devoted to Western knowledge, is, by design, an extractive enterprise. 

Today the University of Minnesota continues to root itself in the epistemological hierarchy of Western knowledge, especially when it comes to who gets to access, learn, know, write about, and hold knowledge. Throughout the TRUTH Project, while still striving to center Indigenous epistemologies, we have had to code switch, or balance multiple different modes of knowing, to protect ourselves. We have had to be very cognizant of how the academic institution simultaneously covets Indigenous knowledge while undervaluing Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing. 

The knowledge systems that we speak of have been passed down from generation to generation, teaching us the importance of respect, love, and humility. Stories shared only at specific times contain guiding principles that Indigenous peoples are intended to protect. Instead, our knowledge has often been extracted by colonial institutions, protocols have not been honored, and Indigenous peoples have rarely received the recognition we deserve for what we have contributed, and continue to contribute, to society. Working on the TRUTH Project we have learned that the University and its actors have gone to great lengths to acquire Indigenous knowledges. 

Data sovereignty is the right Tribal Nations have to govern the collection, ownership, and application of their own data. It derives from Tribes’ inherent right to govern their peoples, lands, and resources.5

For the TRUTH Project, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) and the Tribal Nations made contracts with the University of Minnesota, specifically, to protect Tribal Nations’ rights to data sovereignty. We were very intentional in the wording of these contracts, wanting to ensure there was nothing in them that would require a Tribal Research Fellow to work with the University, to share data with the University, to attend meetings with the University (or its external partners), or in any other way make known to the University the scope and contents of their research.6 Yet, throughout the entirety of the TRUTH Project, our time and energy was spent asserting the data sovereignty rights of the Tribes, and protecting the Tribal Research Fellows’ knowledge and data from being harvested by the University. On multiple occasions and from multiple directions, we fought to uphold the very contracts—legally binding documents—that stipulated the relationship between MIAC, the Tribes, and the University in the TRUTH Project.

University of Minnesota research policies have often failed to respect Tribal sovereignty or consider data sovereignty. For example, the University has no formal consultation process with Tribal Nations; there is little to no oversight to ensure culturally sensitive protocols are in place and followed; University researchers do not always go to Tribes to get permission to do research and do not work with us to design ways to collect, analyze, access, and store data that honor and uphold data sovereignty; and there is a systematic failure of the University to educate researchers about Indigeneity, settler colonialism, and the history of Tribal-University relations.7

As the region’s preeminent research institution, the University of Minnesota can begin to support Indigenous-led research by publicly advocating for Indigenous peoples and allocating stable and abundant funding for Indigneous research and innovation pathways. Temporal and spatial resources and networks can be reallocated to better support the reclamation and restoration of Indigenous epistemologies, perspectives, and languages revitalization. We must also continue to push to decolonize educational settings by incorporating Indigenous curricula, histories, and worldviews. Additionally, representation matters when addressing systemic issues. Given that it wasn’t until 2020—169 years after the institution first opened—that a Native American held a senior leadership role,8 the University of Minnesota must commit to increasing the number of Indigenous people in staff, faculty, and leadership positions. 

This means that the University would take a completely different approach to research than what we are used to. The institution and its community members would accept that not all knowledge is for them, though they can still facilitate learning for Indigenous folks in other ways. This would also mean the University of Minnesota finally stops trying to expropriate our lands, knowledges, and cultures. 

Future: Planning and Reimagining University-Tribal Relations

On April 29, 2022, more than 100 Indigenous people and allies came together at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for a day-long event on Advocating for Systems Change for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. We found power in organizing this event, seeing the Humphrey School—an institution that trains folks to uphold the very government systems designed to eradicate us—full of Indigenous people, stories, ideas, conversations, laughter, and energy. As we smudged folks outside, a glimpse of this future came into focus: as Audrianna Goodwin said, “this is how spaces like this should look, and feel.” 

In reimagining what campus could look like if Indigeneity were seen, rather than made invisible, we wish to pose these questions to the University of Minnesota community: 

  • What moral obligations does the University of Minnesota have to Indigenous people?
  • How will the University of Minnesota meet these obligations?
  • When will the University of Minnesota use the wealth it continues to generate from the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Indigenous peoples to stop these violations of human rights? 
  • When will the University of Minnesota shift institutional paradigms to uplift Indigenous peoples?
  • When will an entire institution, built on stolen wealth, land dispossession, and genocide, reflect and change deeply enough to truly serve as a site of healing?
  • Can the institution focus on systemic change when what is first needed is a shift in thought?
  • How do we arrive at that point when we’ve yet to come to a place of shared truths?

I was Sent from the Stars

By Audrianna Goodwin

I Was Sent From the Stars. (Poem by Audrianna Goodwin, 2022; Photograph by Nedahness Greene, 2019; Design and layout by Molly Schwartz, 2022)

Listen to your Footsteps Echo

By An Goodwin

 Listen to Your Footsteps Echo. (Poem by An Garagiola, 2022; Photograph by An Garagiola, Rematriation, 2021; Design and layout by Molly Schwartz, 2022)

Citations & Notes

  1. University of Minnesota, “Arched Precast Wall System,” infographic plaque, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota.
  2. Newton Horace Winchell [field notebooks], 1872–1883, Collection no. 981, Box 1 of 3, University Archives, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota,
  3. William Watts Folwell Papers [incoming correspondence: Isaac Atwater, November 11, 1887, August 16, 1890; William R. Marshall, 1870s–1890s; Henry H. Sibley, 1876–1882; Orland C. Merriman, May 25, 1871; Cyrus Northrop, 1890s–1920s; John S. Pillsbury, April 25, 1876], 1856–1929, Collection no. 965, Box 4 of 11, University Archives, Elmer Andersen Library, University of Minnesota,; Danielle Fuecker, Audrianna Goodwin, Henry Paddock, and Madeline Titus, “Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) TRUTH Capstone: Permanent University Fund, Mineral Rights & University Comparison,” (presentation, Towards Recognition and University Tribal Healing (TRUTH) Project Symposium, Minneapolis, May 17, 2022); Regents of the University of Minnesota [meeting minutes], 1860–1889, Board of Regents Volumes I and II, University Archives, Elmer Andersen Library, University of Minnesota; Daniel W. Sprague Papers [The University of Minnesota A History of the University Land Grants, ca. 1908], 1900–1910, Collection no. 785, Box 1 of 1, University Archives, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota,
  4. Regents of the University of Minnesota [meeting minutes]; Regents’ Report 1852 [“The First Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota to the Council and House of Representatives 1852”], 1852, University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, 
  5. Native Nations Institute, “Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Governance,” University of Arizona,
  6. For example, Section 10.2 grants full intellectual property rights to the grantee (MIAC and the Tribal Nations), and Section 2 states that the grantee will make materials available to the joint task force “as appropriate.” These contractual statements protect the data sovereignty rights of the Tribes and protect the Tribal Research Fellows from being forced to disclose their knowledge to the University.
  7. For example, see: Jamie Edwards and Government Affairs (Interns Ben Yawakie, An Garagiola-Bernier, and Laura Paynter), “Mille Lacs MIAC Resolution on the University of Minnesota Tribal Partnership,” email to Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, June 22, 2020,; Fuecker et al., “CURA TRUTH Capstone”; Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), “A Resolution Calling upon the University of Minnesota to Fulfill Its Obligations to the Eleven American Indian Tribal Governments within the State of Minnesota,” Resolution, June 26, 2020,
  8. Natalie Rademacher and Tiffany Bui, “A step to rebuild relationships: U hires director of tribal relations,” The Minnesota Daily, December 12, 2019,


Chi Miigwech to our families and extended communities for holding us along our journeys and our work towards bringing some of the untold stories of ancestors forward. We have heartfelt gratitude for all who have supported the TRUTH Project and provided time, mentoring, and knowledge. Miigwech to Tadd Johnson, Misty Blue, the Tribal Research Fellows, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Minnesota Transform, the faculty task force, the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, and to all others who have contributed to the TRUTH project. Miigwech to Maija Brown and Elizabeth Mejicano for their enduring support during the writing and editing of these articles. This work would not have been what it is without all of the continued support and contributions from those dedicated to this truth telling process. 

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