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Pulitzer Center Update May 26, 2020

'Land-Grab U' Journalists, Historian Explore Data Through Online Workshop

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Niles Canyon Railway, Sunol, California. Image by Kalen Goodluck / High Country News. United States, undated.
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This investigation challenges universities to reexamine their ties to dispossession and will show...

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Journalist Tristan Ahtone speaks during the May 21, 2020, data journalism workshop.
Journalist Tristan Ahtone speaks during the May 21, 2020, data journalism workshop.

Over 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, turning expropriated land from tribal nations into funds for colleges and universities. For two years, a team reconstructed millions of those acres to uncover the land lost, money gained, and other open secrets most U.S. history books fail to acknowledge.

High Country News, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent two years tracking almost 11 million acres of land taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities in order to help fund fledgling land-grant colleges.

For the project "Land-Grab Universities,"  journalist Tristan Ahtone and historian Robert Lee worked with a team including data journalist Geoff McGhee. On Thursday, May 21, 2020, the three came together for an online workshop organized by the Pulitzer Center to dive more deeply into the mechanics of illustrating the complicated history. For more about the project's background, watch the introductory webinar

The following is an edited transcript of the Question & Answer segment of the Thursday, May 21, workshop, moderated by Steve Sapienza, the Center's senior strategist on collaborative news partnerships. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length. 

Editor's note: Also included are several audience questions that were not presented during the workshop due to time constraints, but were answered by Robert Lee after the session via email communication. The post-session answers are indicated by an asterisk*. 

Steve Sapienza: What were some examples of gaps that you had to fill in and where did you find that information?

Robert Lee: We got most of our information from the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) website and once we had incorporated all that, we could compare what we had found to our benchmarks and we could figure out where the gaps were. We could find that whole states were missing, we could find that parts of states were missing. At the Minnesota Historical Society we found the land agent reports where they were sending their lists of parcel selections in and that's how we filled in Minnesota. The New Mexico data wasn't in Washington but we were able to find it in the BLM's state archive in New Mexico. In the Dakotas and in Missouri we found lists of the land that was for sale and we were able to incorporate multiple sources and compare the locations and remove the duplicates so we could figure out how much of our benchmarks for each state we were finding. In the end by using these mixed methods we were able to compile a data set that represents in excess of 99 percent of the Morrill Act lands.

SS: So you've got the data set. Tristan, at what point do you start reporting?

Tristan Ahtone: Well, at the last minute like all good reporters. [Laughs] You know, essentially when we started having a really clear sense of scope. It was easy to start looking for stories and looking for narrative to tie to it. You'll see in the story there's a large section about Minnesota—in the writing process originally that was the lead, because as Bobby and I were looking at the actual data and looking at dates, times, all that kind of thing, we knew that when Minnesota was granted their land that it was only like five weeks after the mass hanging at Mankato where the 38 Dakota men were hung in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Because a lot of my work deals with reporting in Indigenous communities and having to know a lot of that history so that you can do accurate reporting, having that information and knowing that you could marry those two things became very apparent very very quickly. So knowing communities, knowing dates, knowing places is immensely helpful in terms of being able to marry narrative with it. As soon as we had a really broad sense of what was happening on a timeline and geographically, it was easy to sort of zoom in and take a look at particular areas to see what was happening at the time, who was involved, and why these patterns look like they did.

RL: The question from the beginning was 'how do we arrange this project to empower readers, students, laymen who are coming across the story to pursue those types of follow-up projects?' What we didn't know was how all the details were going to look but we knew that the scope of the story was going to be enormous and what it turned out—11 million acres, over 50 universities, 250 indigenous nations—it's an enormously complicated project. We couldn't hope to tell all of that in a single story. We couldn't hope to tell that in the book—we couldn't hope to tell that in multiple books. Think about some of these connections between the universities. Like Penn State: 70 different Indigenous land cessions are connected to even more nations because many of these cessions are signed by multiple nations. It's enormously complicated. So what we wound up pursuing was sort of a multi-scaled academic journalism collaboration, and that's sort of the most curated level. You have the print story that came out—you know, our sort of vision of what we see in the data of how this program works, a sort of overview from 30,000 feet in the air—and then the next level down in curation is the Land-Grab U website which lets people look for stories that they're interested in in the data, to go places that we weren't able to go in the story that we published. And then the final level of granularity that we have is the downloadable data set where you can hold this data for yourself. You can map it for yourself and analyze it in GIS. But I'd also like to emphasize that you can work with this data just using a program like Excel. [In the downloadable data] we have baked in the core GIS analysis that enables you to connect universities to Indigenous nations and Indigenous land cessions.

SS: What were some of the challenges you faced during the data process? 

RL: A lot of tricky issues. One that we haven't talked about is generating the polygons. What you're looking at on the website is in 97 percent of the cases accurate polygons that are accurate to the acre. So you could put them in your GPS and drive to those parcels—this is how Kalen [Goodluck] was able to take photographs of those. The other three percent are to the square mile, so you'd basically be in spitting distance if you were able to put it in, but we had to generate these polygons which took an enormous amount of time. The way that I described the process of collecting the data earlier is what it looked like from the other side of collecting the data. What we had to do was develop the methodology to be able to organize this data set. The Bureau of Land Management's data is tremendous on the one hand, but it's quite frustrating that it doesn't describe what it doesn't have.

So we had to collect some material at the very last minute because the legal arrangement of the Morrill Act is more complicated than it appears on first blush. There's the passage of the Morrill Act, then there are these extending acts, then there's a process of grandfathering in states, and at the very end of this project when we were in the  midst of finishing the story and building the site we were tracking down the final acres that we had missed because they were Agricultural College acres that were brought into New Mexico through a separate act but were considered under the umbrella of the Morrill Act lands. So it was just trying to manage the complexity of pursuing a project that was trying to get an overview of a problem that we couldn't see initially. Like doing a puzzle without the box and not knowing and not even knowing if all the pieces are in the box. 

SS: How do you start a data journalism project?

Geoff McGhee: I think it varies. You know, in investigative journalism the idea is you want to find a body, which is to say you need to have evidence of real harm that you know could have been avoided or where justice needs to be obtained. And that can be in the form of you rifling through a million traffic stops and finding that African Americans and people of color are disproportionately pulled over, especially during daylight because nobody can see inside the car at night. That would be an example where the data is going to drive the story and become your feedstock. In other cases it may be more like there's a phenomenon of people suffering from addiction, to maybe an over-the-counter or prescription drug that's being abused, and in that case it's really going to be more driven by the phenomenon that you know is a problem and you're trying to find evidence to both document the individual cases you're looking at but also to zoom out and see what it is on a regional or national or global scale. So it really depends, sometimes your smoking gun is the data and sometimes it's something that happened that you want to document. I would say in this case it probably started with the data.

SS: Is there a mechanism in the U.S. to deal with land reparations?

TA: No. Globally there have been a number of different options governments have taken to deal with this kind of history, like apologies, Healing Commissions or reconciliation commissions, or reparations in some form. None of those really exist here. The United States has not been particularly good at apologizing to much of anything, especially when it comes to its history with Indigenous people and ongoing policy in Indian country. In short there is nothing there but I do think that because of the nature of this work and the growing nature of reporters actually starting to look at the foundations of this country—everything from the 1619 Project, this, and everything in between—it does start giving some clues as to where citizens could actually go. Bobby and I wrote recently a New York Times op-ed about this, that land-grant universities actually provide a really great place to start thinking about those options. But to be leaders in the areas of justice, by actually sitting down and imagining what that can look like, that's on many levels what universities are for is to incubate that kind of creative thinking and tackling issues and problems. 

In terms of what has this generated, I think we're still in the early phases. We're getting trickles in from professors and students but I think what's interesting is that at each university this is looking a little bit different, from what we can tell. I think that's where the power of journalism can really come in is that because there are so many varying, different viewpoints on how to grapple with this history it's a really unique tableau of different stories that are out there again. Everything from curriculum reform all the way to assistance or funding of positions by Indigenous faculty. The gamut is pretty wide so we haven't seen a one-size-fits-all approach and I think that's a pretty good thing, actually.

SS: What have you heard from states, if anything, related to this project and the data?

RL: Nothing. Not a word from state governments. I will say there's some responses that we've gotten from places like social media—people saying they never heard about this before or they had thought about it before and they're happy to see it being detailed in such an explicit way that makes it more difficult to ignore. The university responses have been mixed, of course. This is a moment with the current pandemic where maybe there's a reluctance to think about anything else, that this is something that can be sort of kicked down the road. We've spoken to some student groups—there's a lot of unofficial talk that sounds promising. A lot of people are thinking about what could be done in relation to this issue or people wanting great additional stories about it, but it's yet to be seen. 

SS: How can someone get more training on using this data?

GM: There's two ways to look at training. [You can] reproduce this database locally on a GIS where you can do queries, but we were hoping that the application would make it possible for people to choose a couple of dimensions and do a certain amount of analysis within the app. in terms of data journalism training, the data journalism handbook is something that came out a number of years ago but now there's a second edition coming out.

RL: One simple lesson would be to take your students textbook and see what it says about the Morrill Act, and then have them go to landgrabu.org and ask them what they're not being told in the textbook. The Morrill Act is not unknown—it has a long tradition of being celebrated for democratizing higher education in the United States and oftentimes it sort of sits in the background of a lot of Americans' consciousness. I had a student [at the University of Wisconsin] recently tell me after this story came out that she now realized why there was a statue of Lincoln on campus. It's part of the mythology of the democratization of education, so there is a story that's well-established and sort of a myth that Americans tell themselves about themselves and you can use the website to challenge and reframe that. I think it was really great to hear from K-12 educators being interested in this because this is stuff that was missed for a lot of people the first time they went through American history education and this is a chance to change that.

SS: Are there parallels to teacher colleges in the U.S.? 

RL: There are. It's not in this story, but there is another story waiting to be told about these teacher colleges. In the nineteenth century they were called normal schools, and they also received land through laws redistributing what is the United States today. Redistributing it through sales, through auctions, through gifts, military bounty warrants, preemption claims, homesteads. For all manners of individuals, speculators, organizations, institutions, states. Think about the size of the continent, think about the variety of the United States—there's pretty much no place where you can't trace back some sort of institutional framework that's benefiting from the conversion of Indigenous homelands into U.S. real estate. 

SS: What are the explanations, historical or otherwise, for an apparent pattern/concentration of stolen lands?*

RL: In effect, this is a snapshot of the U.S. real estate frontier in the post-Civil War era. The Morrill Act scrip could be redeemed anywhere on the surveyed public domain, which meant the redemptions followed broad contemporary patterns in land selection. The crescent shape in the Midwest, as well as the large concentration in the Central Valley of California, reflect the hot land markets at the scrip became available in the 1860s and 1870s.

SS: Can you say more about the Act's focus on colleges of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts?*

RL: There is a tremendous amount written on the passage of the Morrill Act and the ideology of promoting Agricultural and Mechanical colleges. In short, this law could not be passed before southern members of Congress seceded and left the House and Senate. Advancing agricultural and mechanical arts was viewed as important for economic development. For much more, see the project's bibliography, especially the section on "Democracy's Colleges?"

SS: What's your take on certain universities not responding to HCN's request for comment?*

RL: Most universities did not respond, in part perhaps, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. All the responses we received are on the landgrabu.org site, and we'll update them as we receive more.

SS: How many of these land grabs end up as HBCUs?*

RL: Four HBCUs benefited from the Morrill Act of 1862, all as partial beneficiaries of their state's grant: Alcorn State University, Kentucky State University, South Carolina State University, and Virginia State University. There was a second Morrill Act in 1890 that provided university funding and benefited many more HBCUs, though that law did not provide states with land grants and it did not fall within the scope of our investigation.

SS: How did you define your storytelling style, and what were you priorities while deciding on the narrative?*

RL: We aimed to give a much needed overview of the Morrill Act's footprint. Just being able to see that footprint—and know it's being seen for the first time—is powerful. From there, we let the visualization of the data guide us to stories to tell. By mapping the lands that tied universities to Indigenous nations, we were able to pull together stories about the growth of colleges and acts of dispossession that enabled that growth in a way that simply had not been possible before. These histories contrasted the tremendous success of land-grant universities with the incredible hardships of dispossession, and  revealed the often forgotten human costs that launched the land-grant university system. We couldn't possibly tell all those stories, so by making the data available, we empowered other researchers and reporters to expand on the work.

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