Visibility of Indigenous Students in Michigan State University’s History

Visibility of Indigenous Students in Michigan State University’s History

It has been nearly 167 years since Michigan State University first opened its doors in 1855. Starting with only three buildings, five faculty members, and 63 male students, it has grown to encompass 5,192 acres and has over 50,000 students enrolled, making it the state’s largest public university. This expansion over the last 167 years seems almost exponential and it is important to understand the history of this growth and how its students have been represented, both historically and today.

Michigan State University has done some work towards this, with its Inclusive Heritage Timeline, which highlights the “making of a quality education for all.” In this timeline, Michigan State University specifically calls attention to milestones in inclusivity, including achievements in student enrollment, such as the first women, international, and African American students on campus. While it is important to recognize the achievements of students listed on this timeline, it is also important to recognize how this information is included and what information is not included.

Over the last year and a half, CAP fellows have begun to investigate this (in)visibility and history of diversity and inclusion on Michigan State University’s campus. Our blog on “Being and Belonging at State” looks at the lived experiences of African American students historically on campus, as well as the true experiences of William O. Thompson and Myrtle Craig beyond just their addition as a graduation statistic on the inclusivity timeline. Another blog, “International Students and Institutional Wares,” provides the same historical context for international students on campus in addition to exploring how our artifacts in the CAP collection can help us understand these students beyond just enrollment numbers. These blogs both provide a critical lens for the history of inclusivity on this campus, as well as explore how we at CAP can help unravel this history and better understand lives of all students – not just those in the majority.

In regard to what is not included in the Inclusivity Timeline, you may have noticed that recognition of Indigenous students is notably absent. The creation of the Native American Institute in 1981 is included and hailed for its collaboration “with tribes on research and educational initiatives,” yet there is no mention of the students at the receiving ends of these initiatives. In fact, there seem to be no records available period that mention the original enrollments of Indigenous students or the first Indigenous student graduates. Indeed, an intensive review of student enrollment at Michigan State University (via the Historical Enrollment and Term End Reports), revealed that the first official record of Indigenous students on campus was not until 1988, over 130 years after the university’s opening. While some of this stems from the fact that no ethnicity data was collected from students until 1988 (only their country of birth), it is surprising that there is no mention of these students in any digital or physical archives on campus before that point, including board meeting notes.

Screenshot of Michigan State University’s Timeline featuring section on the Native American Institute.

We know that Indigenous students have had a presence on campus, as courses on Indigenous peoples and cultures have been offered at Michigan State University since the 1960s (Krouse 2001) And that’s not to mention that there are more than 5 million Indigenous people in the United States and almost 100,000 Indigenous people who live in the state of Michigan (Center for Social Solutions 2020, Gupta 2020). Further confirmation of this comes from a single article in an April 1971 issue of the MSU News, one of the very few early records available that directly mention the presence of Indigenous students at Michigan State University. This paper features an interview with John Winchester, the coordinator of American Indian Affairs in the Center for Urban Affairs who specifically mentions low enrollment of Indigenous students at Michigan State University. In later years, as previously mentioned, the Native American Institute was established and was eventually followed by the creation of an undergraduate specialization in American Indian studies in 2001 (Krouse 2001, LeBeau 2002). Despite the creation of these courses, programs, and the undergraduate specialization, little is said about the students themselves. And nothing is said of the first Indigenous students on campus. It seems that this invisibility of Indigenous students ties into a much larger picture of Michigan State University and its position and continuous self-recognition as a pioneer land-grant university.

MSU News articles featuring John Winchester.

Land grant universities were created under the Morrill Act in 1862, an act which allocated 30,000 acres to each congressional representative for the purpose of establishing new agricultural colleges or providing the funds to expand existing ones (Nash 2019). This land was, of course, appropriated land from Indigenous peoples, which dispossessed those Indigenous communities, as well as encouraged more westward expansion, thereby continuing the pattern of disposition. Nash (2019) emphasizes the rhetoric of hailing land-grant universities for their “promotion of higher education and the rise of applied science,” while Indian dispossession is rarely the spotlight of the conversation. This lack of conversation diminishes the sacrifices of Indigenous people that enabled the creation of these universities and is in direct opposition to the goal of true inclusivity.

Screenshot of Indigenous land granted to Michigan State University.

In terms of Michigan State University, any type of google search will likely produce results with some form of recognition as its standing as the first scientific agricultural college in the United States, which laid the ground work for future land-grant institutions under the Morrill Act in 1862. Although already established, Michigan State University still benefited and received land from the federal government in order to grow in size and enrollment. As of today, the Land-Grab University Project notes that Michigan State University has had a 41x return from the money raised from the Indigenous lands it was granted; while the United States paid $599,240 for the land, Michigan State University has raised $24,706,971. This incredible sum of money is one that original owners of the ceded land will never see.

1819 Treaty map featuring land now known as Lansing, Michigan.

And that’s without consideration that the land that Michigan State University was founded on was land already ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. This one treaty totaled over four million acres in land and constituted nearly a third of today’s lower peninsula in Michigan. In fact, some of the only historic records of Indigenous peoples in the Michigan State University archives focus on the encampment along the Red Cedar River during the university’s first several years of operation. Therefore, even 36 years after the treaty, there is still a documented presence of Indigenous peoples in the Lansing region.

Map of Michigan State University (then the Michigan Agricultural College) on its opening date. Image Curtsey of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

While, the Native American Institute and American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at Michigan State University have both published land acknowledgements in order to recognize, respect, and reaffirm the ongoing relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land, Michigan State University has not afforded the same visibility and inclusion to the history of Indigenous students on its campus. Even if we were to skip over on the absence of Indigenous students on the Inclusivity Timeline, enough of a message is presented by the nonexistence of these students in university records as a whole.

CAP prides itself in its efforts to understand the history of Michigan State University, the surrounding area, and its students. But archaeological data is not always available to aid us, as is the case with Indigenous students on campus. And, there is only so much archival research one can do if the records themselves do not exist. Michigan State University does not only have one story and it is important to understand and commemorate the untold stories of this campus.


Center for Social Solutions. 2020. A look back: Indigenous People’s Day. A Look Back (Blog) University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions.–indigenous-people-s-day.html

Gupta, Meghanlata. 2020. Debunking 10 misconceptions about Michigan’s Native Americans. June 24, 2020, Bridge Michigan.

Krouse SA. 2001. Critical mass and other crucial factors in a developing American Indian studies program. American Indian Quarterly 25(2):216-233.

LeBeau PR. 2002. “Realizing the Dreams” in four directions: The American Indian studies program at Michigan State University. Indigenous Nations Studies Journal 3(2):89-98.

Nash MA. 2019. Entangled pasts: Land-grant colleges and American Indian disposition. History of Education Quarterly 59(4):437-467.

2 thoughts on “Visibility of Indigenous Students in Michigan State University’s History”

  • Thank you for this important research! You have a significant typo that appears twice: the Morrill Land-Grant Act was passed in 1862, not 1962.

  • Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for catching this, the error has been fixed. Additionally, thank you for all of your fantastic research and for making it accessible. As you may know, CAP uses your work often and it is quite nice to have you reading and commenting on our work.

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