Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation
It might be possible to overlook the role that Native Americans have played in the history of the University of Michigan. While most historical markers on campus commemorate significant events, esteemed faculty or notable buildings, one modest plaque celebrates a founding gift of land, from three Native American tribes, granted to U-M in 1817 through the Treaty of Fort Meigs.
Rather than a location for the new school, the original land was sold to provide a significant part of Michigan’s permanent endowment when it moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor. The three donor tribes — Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa) and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi) — never received direct benefit from their gift. Although it was given “believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated,” there is no record of any Native Americans attending the university throughout the next 130 years.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Native American students won some recognition of their status on campus. The Native American Student Association was formed in 1972 to promote awareness of their presence and contributions to the university. In the summer of 1976, the State of Michigan instituted the Indian Tuition Waiver program. The first two faculty members in Native American Studies were hired in 1983. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of students initiated a campaign to erect a memorial to the tribes that provided the land that helped give the university its start.
A permanent plaque was formally dedicated on Nov. 21, 2002, and installed flush to the ground on Ingalls Mall, just south of this installation.
Native American Land Gift of 1817
This plaque commemorates the grant of lands from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi), through the Treaty of Fort Meigs, which states that “believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated , [they] do grant to the rector of the Catholic church of St. Anne of Detroit … and to the corporation of the college at Detroit, for the use of the said college, to be retained or sold, as the said rector and corporation may judge expedient … ” The rector was Gabriel Richard, a founder and first vice president of the corporation of the college, chartered by the territorial legislature as the University of Michigania in 1817. These lands were eventually sold to the benefit of the University of Michigan, which was relocated to Ann Arbor in 1837.
“The University of Michigan’s fate has always been bound to the fates of Native American people. The treaties of 1817 and 1836 connected the university to troubling mythologies about savagery and civilization, and America’s destiny to conquer an unsettled wilderness. This imagined past recognizes a Native presence at the founding of our country and the university, but it also demands a gradual erasure of Native peoples from the history of these spaces. We can approach our future by way of a politics of responsibility that recognizes treaty rights and makes amends for historical injustices.”
Associate Professor of American Culture and History
“As the university approaches the third century, we need to reimagine our past to even entertain possible futures. What were the repercussions of this event? What could have been done differently? How have these past traditions and tensions affected our culture and campus? Would we be standing here today? Would Detroit be a different city today? Considering the significance of this gift, what should and could U-M institutionally and physically (spatially) do?”
Associate Professor of Architecture
Related Bicentennial Events
Exhibition-On-View, “Persistent Pasts: The Bicentennial Campus as Archive”
April 7–28, 2017
Taubman College Gallery (room 2106)
Art & Architecture Building
For more information about the land gift and Native Americans at U-M:
- American Indians at the University of Michigan
- Bentley Historical Library: Native Americans in Michigan Manuscript Collections
- Heritage Project: “The Gift of Vision”
- U-M-Detroit History
- University Record: Plaque honors land gift from three Native American tribes
- University Record: Giving thanks to three tribes