As part of preparing to give the commencement speech at my alma mater, I talked with a university archivist to better understand various parts of our school’s history.

One specific area of interest was the school’s founding as a land grant university. I had planned to speak with pride that I was the beneficiary of this act of Congress that enabled states to fund public colleges. It was designed to make higher education more accessible to the “common people” and not just the purview of the rich and monied.

Countless millions have benefited from this act.

Yet I had never bothered to learn exactly how “land grants” worked. My assumption was that a certain amount of land within a state was set aside to build state colleges. I could not have been more wrong.

The archivist told me that 30,000 acres of land were granted to each state — but it didn’t come from that state. In fact, most of it was taken from Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico. That land was then “granted” to other states who would sell that land in order to create endowments for their own state colleges and universities.

The original law was passed in 1862. Subsequent acts in 1894 and 1994 also increased investments in historically black colleges and universities and colleges for Native Americans and indigenous peoples.

Here is the full list of land grant colleges and universities.

Until then, I had not considered or imagined that some of my educational gain was the direct result of a loss incurred by Native Americans.

When confronting the stains on our nation’s history, it can often be met with varying degrees of guilt, denial or ambivalence.

None of which are especially helpful.

It is only by being honest with our history (both our nation’s and our own) that we can truly appreciate where we come from. We are grounded by our shared story – even if it is often difficult to confront.

This realization has the potential to draw us closer not tear us apart, if only we allow ourselves to see it.

This sentiment is beautifully captured in this song and video, We Americans, by the Avett Brothers. I encourage you to watch it and then ask yourself how you feel after.

I think it will be a different feeling than you might expect.

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