Dr Robert Lee

Dr Robert Lee, University lecturer in American History, has been awarded a George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious in journalism, for his investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous land.

We combined historical research and investigative reporting in a way one rarely sees

Robert Lee

Last year, Dr Lee and co-winner Tristan Ahtone – then Indigenous Affairs editor for High Country News, now editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer – published a hard-hitting report revealing how 52 American universities built their fortunes using 11 million acres of Native American land, signed over amid violence, corruption and coercion.

Through exhaustive research over several years, the Land-Grab Universities project located 80,000 parcels of land scattered across 24 states, identified their Indigenous owners, and traced every dollar endowed with profits from dispossession in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The investigation reconstructed a land area about the size of Denmark that was taken through over 160 land cessions. The dispossessed included the Dakota, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ojibwe among nearly 250 other tribes, bands and communities. Read more about Dr Lee’s research here

On 6 April 2020, High Country News launched an interactive website enabling the public to explore the fully mapped data for themselves and published an open-source data set Lee assembled for future researchers and journalists to build upon.

Since then, a number of the universities at the heart of the story have responded by launching initiatives, changing their land acknowledgment practices and using the report, website, and data set in their teaching. 

Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) has formed a committee to “present information and opinion about the implications of Indigenous dispossession for the university and its responsibility to address that history”. The committee aims to “determine the Indigenous communities affected by Cornell’s land-grab and consult with them about possible remedies.” 

A team at Ohio State University, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, has announced that it is working to “open a path toward both a reckoning of this inglorious history within our university community, as well as the conversations necessary with the affected tribes to determine an appropriate path forward." In doing so, they intend to “develop an initial understanding of what specific reparative actions would most benefit the Native American communities impacted by this land dispossession, particularly with respect to food security and sovereignty, and the process by which it could be jointly designed.”

Washington State University has changed its land acknowledgment to incorporate the data.

Dr Lee hopes that land-grant universities will start redirecting income still being derived from the sale of Indigenous land to support Native American students, and that unsold land will eventually be returned.

Dr Lee said: "I was grateful to hear we had received the Polk Award. Since its publication, ‘Land-Grab Universities’ has sparked public conversations about the debts universities owe to Indigenous nations. This recognition will extend its reach. 

“The Polk also has a track record of amplifying innovative forms of journalism. In this case, we combined historical research and investigative reporting in a way one rarely sees practiced. The project was risky in that regard. Hopefully, this award will encourage more collaborations between historians and journalists."

Tristan Ahtone said: "I'm absolutely delighted that 'Land-Grab Universities' has been honored with this award, and hopefully will inspire even more reporters and researchers to dig into the data. It's absolutely critical that more newsrooms dedicate resources to investigative reporting in Indigenous communities, and I hope this project helps to reveal the breadth, and impact, possible when supporting teams focused on Indigenous affairs reporting."

The George Polk awards are conferred annually to honour special achievement in journalism. Winners are chosen from newspapers, magazines, television, radio and online news organizations. Judges place a premium on investigative work that is original, requires digging and resourcefulness, and brings results.

The awards were established in 1949 in memory of CBS correspondent George Polk, who was killed while covering the Greek Civil War. They are conferred annually by New York's Long Island University. Dr Lee and his colleagues at High Country News won the award for Education Reporting.

Read more on the impact of the Land-Grab Universities here.


This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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