University celebrates history of land gift from Native Americans

November 13, 2002

The University of Michigan will dedicate a new commemorative plaque at noon Nov. 21. The plaque honors the gift of land from three Native American tribes that was earmarked for the nascent University of Michigan. That land was more than just a location for the new school; after the University’s move to Ann Arbor in 1837, sale of the original land gift provided a significant part of the basis for Michigan’s permanent endowment. The history

In 1817 Michigan was still emerging from the chaos of the War of 1812, when it was both a battlefield and an occupied territory, poised on the eve of the great population explosion of the 1830s. Apart from military outposts, Detroit was virtually the only white settlement in the territory, but it already was a substantial community. Native Americans and settlers co-existed in the territory in a complicated relationship that was at once mutually beneficial and exploitative, often confrontational and often intimate—intermarriage may not have been the norm, but it was not uncommon. “There was a lot of cultural cross-fertilization,” said Gregory Dowd, who heads the University’s Native American Studies program. “By this time, life for Native Americans had changed substantially. Most would have been using cooking implements of European origin, for example, and many wealthier families would have been eating from porcelain dishes. Only a minority were Christians, but the people as a whole had had a long exposure to Christianity. On the other side, the Native Americans’ knowledge of local plants and animals, and their well-honed survival skills, were indispensable for the newcomers.” On Aug. 26, 1817, a new institution, named “Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania,” was incorporated under the auspices of Acting Governor William Woodbridge and judges of the territory Augustus B. Woodward and John Griffin. It would not be known as the University of Michigan until 1821. Thomas Jefferson strongly supported the formation of the college (two years before the founding of the University of Virginia), as did prominent local figures including Governor Lewis Cass, the Rev. John Monteith (a Presbyterian minister who would be the first president of the University) and Gabriel Richard (Catholic priest and vice president of the University from 1817 until his death in the cholera epidemic of 1832). Richard had excellent relationships with the leaders of the local Native American tribes, and those relationships soon paid off when the Treaty of Fort Meigs was formulated. The treaty, signed on Sept. 29, 1817, was formed to transfer large tracts of land to the United States in return for various fees or for other parcels of land granted to the tribes or to individuals. Richard played a major role in the negotiations, and Article 16 of the treaty specifically granted about 640 acres of land to Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church and another 640 acres to the “corporation of the college at Detroit”—which was legally the new University of Michigania. The error in the name was finally corrected by President James Monroe in 1824. This gift, which was proposed by Chief Tontagini and supported by the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwa (Chippewa), and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi) tribes, was a considerable one in proportion to the lands the Native Americans retained for their own use. In fact, Michigan’s most distinguished jurist, Justice Thomas Cooley, later said it was actually equal in positive value and prospectively superior to the land gifts of John Harvard and Elihu Yale. But Chief Tontagini and his associates were not to realize any direct benefit from their gift. Although it was given "believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated" [quoting Article 16 of the treaty], and although the fledgling university soon established a primary and secondary school in Detroit, there is no record of any American Indian children actually attending either school. “Actually, that’s not strange,” said U-M historian Dr. Margaret Steneck. “The schools were based on the English/European model, with every child sitting behind a desk learning by rote. It wasn’t a very appropriate method for Native Americans and probably wouldn’t have been successful.” Nor were Native Americans much in evidence at the University throughout the next 130 years. “No one has ever been able to pinpoint exactly when the first Native American student came to the U-M,” Steneck said "We can be pretty sure there were some students through the years, but probably not many, and those who came probably kept a low profile." It wasn’t until the social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s that Native American students, along with others, began to assert their identity and demand some recognition of their status. A lawsuit filed in 1971 asserted that, based on the Treaty of Fort Meigs, the state should be compelled to grant free tuition to American Indians. The courts found that the state was under no such legal obligation, but the case did kindle a sense of moral obligation that led to the passage of Public Act 174, the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver Program, in 1976. The Native American Student Association was formed in 1972 to promote the interests of Native American students and awareness of their presence and contributions to the life of the University. The first two faculty members in Native American Studies were hired in 1983. But still, the presence and contributions of Native Americans on campus were largely invisible. “When I came to Ann Arbor in 1992, I was shocked to find a number of markers around campus recognizing people who had been ‘playing Indian,’ but not a single thing to commemorate Native Americans’ historical contributions to this school—the premier educational institution in the state,” said Ph.D. candidate Andrew Adams III. Together with a number of like-minded students, he initiated a campaign to erect a memorial to the tribes that provided the land to give the University its start. Not only has the group achieved the recognition they sought, but the Native American Studies program has been strengthened dramatically in the last five years. “I’m not implying that the University has done all this only in response to student demands,” Adams said. “But I think that the recognition and the improvements would have come a lot more slowly if we hadn’t decided to be proactive and bring some awareness to them.”