Samantha Gonsalves-Wetherell, a senior at the University of Arizona, has spent years urging university officials to take climate change seriously. As a leader of UArizona sold, she and her classmates pushed the university toward three goals: to divest from fossil fuels by 2029; commit to no further investments in fossil fuels; and to implement socially responsible investment objectives.
“It is difficult to both combat the climate crisis and also finance it,” said Gonsalves-Wetherell. She met with university officials to ask them what stocks the university invested in and how much revenue oil and gas investments were bringing in.
But until now, she had no idea that the university, like more than a dozen other land-grant universities created by the Morrill Act, earned millions more through a different route: nearly 700,000 acres of land owned by Native Americans. nations were taken that were set aside for oil. , gas and mineral leases.
A Grist investigation published earlier this week reports that 14 universities — including the University of Arizona — receive millions in annual revenue from more than 8 million acres of surface and subsurface land taken from 123 indigenous nations. Over the past five years, these properties have generated more than $2.2 billion. Almost a quarter of the trust lands are devoted to fossil fuel or mineral mining, including coal mining.
University activists who have lobbied their universities to pull their endowments from fossil fuels say Grist’s findings are consistent with what they have come to expect from their schools: a willingness to turn a blind eye to their complicity in climate change and social injustice. .
When Claire Sullivan, a senior at Colorado State University, learned of Grist’s findings, she thought of the country recognition she saw on every syllabus and plastered on many walls all over campus.
The two-paragraph statement ends with this note: “Our founding came at a great cost to Native nations and people on whose land this University was built. This recognition is the education and inclusion we must practice in the recognition of our institutional history, responsibility and commitment.”
According to Sullivan, CSU says all of its fossil fuel investments are indirect, but it has made no promises to avoid direct investments or phase out any existing ones, despite the disproportionate harm climate change is doing to indigenous peoples. Sullivan’s dismay at the university’s stubborn attitude is only masked by her awe at what she describes as their hypocrisy.
“It’s just crazy that you can make this commitment externally and do just the opposite in practice,” she said.
Not every divestment campaign has been so frustrating. Many university activists, like at Harvard and Yale, has seen success. Gracelyn McClure is a senior and environmental sciences major at the University of Minnesota. She was just a sophomore when school officials made the decision divest its investments from fossil fuels by 2028. It was a big win, but McClure said the group’s advocacy work isn’t over.
The group met with university officials to try to ensure that as contracts for fossil fuel investments expire, the money is shifted to investments that are not similarly harmful. For example, they asked the school not to reinvest in mining, which is opposed by indigenous peoples.
Although the initial campaign was successful, the students have yet to gather any new pledges to avoid nuclear energy or other mining that they fear could harm natives. “They’re not super receptive to our requests all the time,” McClure said of the administration. But she thinks it’s not asking much to work with indigenous nations to ensure that reinvestment doesn’t negatively impact their communities.
“It’s the least the university can do, considering how much they’ve benefited from indigenous land, and bodies too,” she said.
A University of Minnesota spokeswoman said the university has worked with tribal lands to address its history of stolen land, including returning about 3,400 acres to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The spokesperson also cited the school’s investments in Indigenous student tuition waivers, Indigenous language revitalization and staff training.
He added that the school cannot speak to land managed by the state. The University of Arizona and Colorado State University did not comment on the income from the trust land.
Many students at universities who have pledged to divest from fossil fuels have turned their attention to different but related causes, says Alicia Colomer, managing director at Campus Climate Network, which supports student climate activists. She worked on New York University’s successful divestment campaign and says some of the new student demands include asking schools to stop putting fossil fuel executives on their boards and to stop accepting research money from oil companies.
For her, learning about the income from the trust land feels like more of the same problem: “shocking, but not shocking.”
She hopes students can sway their institutions to stop practices that are harmful to indigenous lands and people.
Nadira Mitchell, a Navajo student at the University of Arizona, hopes to be a part of that change. She is studying natural resources at university in the hope that one day she will be able to work for her tribal nation and make a difference. It feels separate to be one of the only Native students in her environmental courses.
Now she is struck by the juxtaposition between how indigenous people like her own are disproportionately harmed by climate change and universities’ investments in fossil fuels.
“It’s mind-boggling,” she said.