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Complex Legacy for a Land Grant College

August 12, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on Complex Legacy for a Land Grant College

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided that each state would receive land, the proceeds from the use or sale of which would fund collegiate training in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  In Minnesota, the Morrill Act was perhaps overshadowed by the tragedy of the US-Dakota War, fought in August and September of that year.  The legacies of the war continue to reverberate throughout the state, including on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the state’s land grant university, which is located on land that was fraudulently obtained from people who were later driven away or killed.

One of my colleagues sometimes asks “What does it mean to be a land grant school in a place where the land was obtained by theft, fraud, and violence?  If ‘land grant’ is connected to community engagement, then surely this is a legacy that we must face.”

Indeed it is, and one aspect of that legacy has emerged in the past week. The University of Minnesota has asked the local professional football team, the Minnesota Vikings, to work with the University to ensure that the team name of the Washington NFL team, which is widely considered a racist slur against Indian people, not use that name during the November 2 game between Minnesota and Washington.  The University has asked that “throwback” (historic) jerseys be used, which do not include the name, and that the name not be said over the PA system or on the stadium message boards.

The Vikings are playing home games in the university’s stadium for two years while a new stadium for the professional team is being built.

Local and national newspapers have carried the story of the University’s request.

Coverage of the nickname dispute can be followed on Twitter through the hashtag #Racistslur and in commentaries such as that posted here and here.

The University’s stake in this matter should be obvious: as a school that seeks a climate of respect and opportunity for all of its members, there is simply no place for this slur on its campus.  According to some accounts, over 1,000 of its students are American Indian; there is a highly respected Department of American Indian Studies; the Circle of Indigenous Nations is a campus group focused on raising awareness of the ongoing relations that Dakota people have to this place; there is an emergent dialogue on shared interests between University staff and community members concerning wild rice.  These are just a few of the most readily-accessible ways in which the University and local indigenous communities come together.

Our program has a stake here as well.  All of the above listed groups and programs are part of our effort to connect the campus to people off campus who share our interest in sustainable, inclusive practices toward the Mississippi River.  Some of our deepest community partnerships are with indigenous people.  The use of the racist slur on our campus would be deeply embarrassing and would be a challenge to our continued collaboration.

Honestly, the University should do more than request that the name not appear; it should demand that the Vikings put the strongest possible pressure on the NFL to intervene on this matter.  It should not be enough to say that “we have to abide by the league’s promotion policies;” the NFL should be put in a position where it has to either defend the indefensible or explain why it puts up with this disgrace.   Enough is enough: if a similar derogatory term were used against another racial, ethnic, or cultural group, we would not have a controversy.  The name would simply not be used.

As a student was quoted in the Star Tribune, the University’s stance is welcome, but could be more:  “I’m very grateful that the University of Minnesota has stepped up to say something as well,” he said. “Finally. It’s about time [it] took a stance.”

 

 

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