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 Divest, she and her classmates have been pushing 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 investing goals.
“It’s hard to both combat the climate crisis and also fund it,” said Gonsalves-Wetherell. She has met with university officials to ask them what stocks the university has invested in and how much revenue oil and gas investments bring in.
But until now, she had no idea that the university, like more than a dozen other land-grant universities created through the Morrill Act, earned millions more through another route: nearly 700,000 acres of land taken from Indigenous nations that is set aside for oil, gas and mineral leases.
A Grist investigation published earlier this week reported that 14 universities — including the University of Arizona — receive millions in annual income from more than 8 million acres of surface and subsurface land taken from 123 Native nations. Over the past five years, these properties have generated more than $2.2 billion. Nearly a fourth of the trust lands are dedicated to fossil fuels or mineral mining including coal mining. Read more: Investors weigh benefits and costs of requiring companies to disclose climate risks.
University activists who have been lobbying their universities to pull their endowments out of fossil fuels say Grist’s findings are in line with what they’ve come to expect from their schools: a willingness to turn a blind eye to their complicity in climate change and societal injustice.
When Claire Sullivan, a senior at Colorado State University, learned of Grist’s findings, she thought of the land acknowledgement she’s seen on every syllabus and plastered on many walls all over campus.
The two-paragraph statement ends with this note: “Our founding came at a dire cost to Native Nations and peoples whose land this University was built upon. This acknowledgment is the education and inclusion we must practice in recognizing our institutional history, responsibility, and commitment.”
According to Sullivan, CSU says all of its fossil fuel investments are indirect, but it hasn’t made any promises to avoid direct investments or phase out any existing ones, despite the disproportionate harm that climate change is wreaking on Native peoples. Sullivan’s exasperation at the university’s intractable stance is topped only by her awe at what she describes as their hypocrisy.
“It’s just crazy that you could be making this commitment outwardly and just be doing the opposite in practice,” she said.
Divestment has been successful at many universities
Not every divestment campaign has been so frustrating. Many university activists, such as at Harvard and Yale, have seen success. Gracelyn McClure is a senior and environmental sciences major at the University of Minnesota. She was only a sophomore when school officials decided to withdraw its investments from fossil fuels by 2028. It was a huge victory, but McClure said the group’s advocacy work isn’t over.
The group has been meeting with university officials to try to ensure that as contracts for fossil fuel investments expire, the money is being shifted into investments that aren’t similarly harmful. For example, they’ve asked the school not to reinvest in mining that’s opposed by Indigenous peoples.
Even though the initial campaign was successful, the students haven’t yet been able to garner any new promises to avoid nuclear energy or other mining that they fear could harm Native peoples. “They’re not super receptive all the time to our asks,” McClure said of the administration. But she thinks working with Native nations to ensure that reinvestment isn’t negatively affecting their communities isn’t asking for much.
“It’s the least that the university can do, considering how much they profited from Native land, and bodies too,” she said.
A spokesman for the University of Minnesota said the university has been working with tribal nations to address its history of stolen land, including returning about 3,400 acres to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The spokesman also cited the school’s investments in Native student tuition waivers, Indigenous language revitalization and staff training.
He added that the school can’t speak to land managed by the state. The University of Arizona and Colorado State University did not comment on the trust lands revenue.
Divestment and climate action
Many students at universities that have pledged to divest from fossil fuels have been turning their attention to different but related causes, says Alicia Colomer, managing director at Campus Climate Network, which supports student climate activists. She worked on the successful New York University divestment campaign and says some of the newer student demands include asking schools to stop putting fossil fuel executives on their boards and stop accepting research money from oil companies.
To her, learning about the trust lands revenue 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 University of Arizona, hopes to be part of that change. She’s studying natural resources at the university in the hopes that she will be able to work for her tribal nation one day and make a difference. It has felt isolating to be one of the only Native students in her environmental courses.
Now, she’s struck by the juxtaposition between how Indigenous people like her own are disproportionately harmed by climate change and university’s investments in fossil fuels.
“It’s mind-boggling,” she said.