A number of paved walkways stretch across the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Durham campus. They are unnamed and unidentifiable to emergency responders. The Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective’s (INHCC) ongoing project endeavors to change that by naming the trails, walkways, bridges, stairs, and other campus landscape and infrastructure with Abenaki names.
Paul Pouliot, Council Chief and Speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook/Abenaki, and his wife Denise, the tribe’s female speaker, are founding members of INHCC. Their ancestors were the original inhabitants of the land UNH now sits on.
One paved path that begins at Dimond Library and slopes down to a ravine will be called “Toboggan Trail,” Pouliot said.
The trails project is one-way UNH hopes to promote inclusion as it grapples with its legacy as a school located on Indigenous land and as a land-grant university that benefited from the exploitation of native peoples across the country.
The land grant university system began with the federal Morrill Land-Grants Act of 1862. The act granted public domain land to states in order to fund universities to make agricultural and mechanical education more accessible. Eastern states (like New Hampshire) that had no land in the public domain received vouchers—known as scrip—for lands out west.
However, these “public domain lands” were Indigenous territory that had been obtained through lopsided treaties or outright seizures. The act would redistribute 10.7 million acres of land from more than 250 tribal nations for the benefit of 52 colleges.
Established in 1866, the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts received 150,000 acres of seized indigenous land from 31 different tribes. According to an in-depth investigation in High Country News, the farthest UNH parcel was located in modern-day Coos County, Oregon, an almost 6-hour plane ride away from Durham. And a three-month stagecoach journey at the time of the act.
The scrip was sold for $80,000 (an estimated $1,431,767 today) and invested in New Hampshire state bonds at 6%, for a $4,800 annual payment ($85,906 today). The trustees bemoaned the disappointingly small sum, according to the 1867 trustee financial reports. Yet, the endowment was already 11x greater than what the U.S. paid for the land. It was common for Indigenous peoples, both in private and treaty agreements, to be underpaid for their land – if they were paid at all.
Seven years later in 1874, the trustees marveled as UNH’s property value was already triple the original $80,000. During this time, UNH was part of Dartmouth until the campus moved to Durham to take advantage of the land bequeathed by Benjamin Thompson’s will in 1893.
Nevertheless, UNH, and later the University System of New Hampshire (USNH), continued to receive an annual $4,800 payment from the land grant until at least the 1970s, according to university financial records. The fund had raised the university system over half a million dollars or estimated over $2 million today.
In 2021, INHCC members have recognized UNH’s efforts to become more inclusive to the Indigenous community. In addition to the UNH Trails Project, INHCC is partnering with Anthony Davis, dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA), to create an Indigenous forage garden around the Spaulding Life Sciences Building.
The garden will function as a “hands-on living cultural museum” for traditional Abenaki food sources that will allow people to learn and collect different species of plants.
INHCC members also highlighted the establishment of a Native American and Indigenous Studies minor in 2019. The minor proposal cited UNH’s responsibility to combat the “extinction [of indigenous heritage] from public school and university curricula” as an institution located on indigenous lands. The minor offers undergraduates an education on the history, lands, artistic expression, and political status, etc. of indigenous peoples worldwide.
But, the INHCC still thinks UNH’s biggest challenge is attracting and supporting Indigenous students.
“Our undergraduate Indigenous students have no fellowships or scholarships offered by UNH,” said Svetlana Peshkova, co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Minor at UNH and one of the founders of INHCC. “Unless they are card-carrying members of their tribes and their tribes offer them fellowships and scholarships, they get no support.”
As of the fall 2020 semester, UNH has 14 enrolled students who identify as American Indian or Native Alaskan, according to the university’s student diversity data. This number has steadily decreased over the past decade from a high of 46 in 2012.
“If Indigenous people want to be educated, they should be able to be educated without incurring $100,000 in debt to do that,” said Kathleen Blake, INHCC member and descendant of the Wendat, Algonquin and Miꞌkmaq tribes of New England and Canada. “Then they go back to the reservation, and make things better for their people,”
A spiritual leader in her tribe, Blake attends the annual “Gathering of Healers” on the Navajo reservation, where she has seen the poverty of reservations firsthand. Forty percent of families on the Navajo reservation are below the poverty line, according to the tribe’s website. Blake also works with native students at Dartmouth, where she says many students can’t afford to go home over breaks.
“It doesn’t serve people who want to squash the Indigenous to get them educated because an educated person can make changes,” she said. “They don’t want to see a bunch of educated indigenous people becoming lawyers or doctors or scientists, so UNH should do something to offer an education to Indigenous kids.”
However, an Indigenous scholarship does raise the issue of how to prove students who are not part of a federally recognized tribe are Indigenous. The U.S. currently recognizes 574 tribes with over 200 unrecognized or pending approval. New Hampshire has no federally recognized tribes, or process to obtain state recognition.
Denise Pouliot suggested that students whose tribes are on the pending list could also be included. “We know how expensive and how tedious that process is, and I don’t want to penalize anybody just because of financial destitution,” she said.
The proposal for Native American and Indigenous studies minor included a provision for scholarships, stating that the minor will “help fundraising efforts to provide more scholarships to Native American students thus strengthening and expanding diversity of [the] student body.” Undergraduate Indigenous UNH students can apply for national scholarships and fellowships, but there are no programs directly offered by UNH.
Yet, there is no plan for UNH to implement this plan as public state institutions in New Hampshire cannot offer student scholarships based on protected identities.
“Any scholarship that excludes another group from receiving it based on race/ethnicity is discriminatory, and thus illegal. As such, a scholarship for Indigenous people would not pass legal muster,” said Nadine Petty, UNH Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Community, Equity and Diversity
Peshkova believes this could be solved with a donor’s set scholarship or tuition waiver. The University of Maine, a land-grant university, has an Indigenous tuition waiver program.
Despite the lack of scholarships, Petty maintains the inclusion of Indigenous people in UNH’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. “We are working to build a more inclusive space where everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or identities are supported and can thrive. Education and acknowledgment is a start,” she said.
An official land, water and life acknowledgment for the Pennacook, Abenaki, and Wabanaki peoples was added to the programs at UNH’s 2021 commencement ceremony. The statement was organized by the INHCC, Office of Community, Equity and Diversity, and COLSA Dean Anthony Davis. The statement was not read at graduation but they hope that it becomes a standard introduction during events. There are also plans to have the acknowledgment stenciled on the wall outside of Davis’s office in Rudman Hall.
“It’s an important thing to realize the responsibility that we all have to acknowledge the history of the land and to talk meaningfully about how did we get here. Not in an accusatory way but an honest way. An honest reflection of the past, allows us to have honest dialogue about the future,” said Davis. “The university saw an opportunity to do the right thing and that’s a really good sign of the type of leaders that we have in the institution.”
However, acknowledgment isn’t the end as the INHCC emphasized UNH backing up the message through action. This includes supporting the minor, hiring and retaining Indigenous faculty members, and supporting research by students and faculty of indigenous heritage, etc.
“I cannot speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples. But one should ask Indigenous peoples if a token recognition by a colonizer is simply a symbolic gesture or a meaningful step toward restorative justice. If indeed it the latter, it has to translate into actions,” said Peshkova.
UNH could not be reached for further comment in time for publication.