Indigenous Data Sovereignty and the Land Grab Universities Project

Acknowledging the Historical and Ongoing Violence of Settler Colonialism Online and Offline

Fibre optic cable rack with red cables


Historical injustices are not uncommon for Indigenous peoples from the North American region due to the ongoing persistence of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is the process of settler’s taking over Indigenous land, forcing the erasure of Indigenous peoples. This act of erasure is not only established through territory; it also expands into structures beyond that.  The structures that inhibit Indigenous sovereignty include ontological, cosmological and political systems. For example, Indigenous rights to ceremony and dance were banned in the U.S effecting the ontological and cosmological attributes of Indigenous culture. It wasn't until the year of 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act[1] was passed, that these ceremonies were openly re-established among Indigenous peoples.

Historically, Indigenous peoples have been removed from these frameworks and therefore erased from present-day recognition clearly shown in datamining practices with the recent COVID-19 data categorization in the U.S. of labeling Indigenous peoples as “other”[2] or even more recently, in the U.S. elections classifying Indigenous peoples as “something else.”[3] These examples amplify the severe need to acknowledge and highlight how settler colonialism is ongoing as displayed in extractive datamining practices asking for ways in which Indigenous peoples can take agency over their own data and therefore be recognized within larger structures that enable access to resources more generally. However, it is also important to notate historical examples of settler colonialism that continue to bleed into the present outside of online categorization but more deeply tied to extractive practices that started with land. Thereafter, I’d like to specifically focus on the Land Grab Universities project (LGU) produced by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone.

The Land Grab Universities project

The LGU sheds further light on settler colonialism and the resulting historical injustices by unmasking the violence of land-grant universities endowed by Indigenous territory on the North American continent. Furthermore, land-grant universities are a historical marking of settler colonialism, tying land to the institute as these universities were funded with expropriated Indigenous land dated back to late 19th and early 20th centuries using the Morrill Act. The Morrill Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 for the distribution of land for newly built colleges across the U.S. which created Land-grant universities.

Land-grant universities were built not just on Indigenous land, but with Indigenous land. It’s a common misconception that the Morrill Act grants were used only for campuses. In fact, the grants were as big or bigger than major cities, and were often located hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their beneficiaries.”[4]

The LGU project, as provided online, showcases varying digital markers that expose the cruelty of land-grant universities by displaying specific data tied to the number of tribal nations affected (245), how many acres were granted (10.7 million), the number of universities which benefited (52), how many land parcels distributed (79,410) and the amount of money raised (495 million). “Like so many other U.S. land laws, the text of the Morrill Act left out something important: the fact that these grants depended on dispossession” ( The land that was given to the universities was taken from Indigenous peoples.

To take the LGU project a step further beyond recognizing its crucial and laborious task of researching land patent records, congressional documents, historical bulletins, historical maps, archival and print resources at the National Archives, state repositories and special collections at universities and more, it also digitally and manually extracted this data to create the online database located at Not only does the project allow us to read about how settler colonialism was used to feed universities funding, it provides a digital and experiential backdrop to the data provided. As an act of Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS), it emphasizes the significance and necessity of Indigenous agency offline and online. Thereafter, LGU is a powerful example that utilizes the digital platform for the purpose of IDS whilst disclosing the violence of settler colonialism both online and offline.


As the hashtag “land back” has grown in popularity recently on digital platforms such as Instagram or Twitter, it is important to reflect on the processes of settler colonial domination within the U.S. and the possibilities of digital platforms such as LGU. The project enables an epistemological resistance toward settler colonialism and contributes to Indigenous sovereignty. This move of resistance, however, must be articulated with caution due to the embeddedness of colonialism within the digital platform where modes of datamining and surveillance technologies continue to marginalize Indigenous peoples. To counter the tendency of relegating Indigenous peoples to the categorization of “other” or “something else,” Indigenous agency is important when Indigenous data is distributed online in order to combat ongoing forms of settler colonialism. Understanding the settler colonial model offline, both internal and external, helps us combat its online presence.

The settler colonial paradigm begins offline at the forefront of Indigenous land and Indigenous injustice as it aims to dominate and /or eliminate Indigenous peoples. Audra Simpson reminds us, as Indigenous peoples are tied to the desired territories, they must be eliminated; in the settler-colonial model, the settler never leaves.[5] Settler colonialism targets land because land is what is most valuable, contested, and required; its dispossession represents a profound epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence.[6] Two forms of settler colonialism that centralize land are internal and external colonialism. External colonialism deals with the privilege and wealth of the colonizers; internal colonialism is the biopolitical and geopolitical management of people, land, flora and fauna within the domestic borders of the imperial nation.[7] Both forms of colonialism administer and reinforce the concept of land as a resource.

Forms of colonialism are extended online within the technological framework, including digital platforms, social media, datamining practices, and growing surveillance technologies. However, LGU subverts modes of settler colonialism by showcasing colonialism’s historical violence through an innovative and informative online digital platform. The designers display online the offline negligence of settler colonialism regarding how the U.S. funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous lands.[8] An interactive map of North America shows explicit data and details of how Indigenous land was redistributed to universities via the Morrill Act, or acts in lieu thereof.[9] The map makes visual both external colonialism (the universities receiving land grants) and internal colonialism (how Indigenous territory is distributed for the purpose of internal colonialism). By clicking on each state, we see which universities received land-grants from which tribal nations. We learn that over ten million acres of Indigenous land were granted to fifty-two universities as well as other crucial data points regarding settler colonialism. By organizing this data utilizing differing digital markers (graph, table, map), the project contributors create a space for IDS.


IDS refers to the governance of Indigenous data. Indigenous data encompasses data, information, and knowledge about Indigenous individuals, collectives, entities, lifeways, cultures, lands and resources.[10] Too often Indigenous data is mishandled in open data arenas, which remove agency from Indigenous peoples prolonging the destructive effects of settler colonialism. Indigenous nations need data about their citizens, communities, lands, resources, and culture to make informed decisions. Yet few official statistical agencies make any meaningful concession to Indigenous rights in relation to Indigenous data.[11] The need for spaces which support Indigenous agency and governance over Indigenous data is paramount in order to fight modes of settler colonialism within digital spaces. Conceptualizations of open data purely as digital data produce an area ripe for knowledge co-optation and the theft of Indigenous knowledge; for example, in cases where researchers or others who collect Indigenous knowledge about the environment (as opposed to digital data) digitize that knowledge and share it openly without consent from or oversight by Indigenous peoples.[12] LGU strengthens IDS by displaying specific information about land-grant universities and the expropriation of Indigenous land online by way of Indigenous voice.

LGU takes IDS a step further by responding to the institution and reclaiming Indigenous agency which is form of resistance and refusal. The absence of Indigenous peoples within faculty, staff, student populations, and university curriculum remains; LGU resituates Indigenous voice by exposing the violences of settler colonialism within university institutions historically into the present. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have taught us, a form of refusal is to investigate.[13] LGU builds a space for IDS through its investigative properties. By unveiling the violence of land-grant universities and the expansion of settler colonialism, LGU sets to resist settler colonialism from persisting.

Furthermore, Indigenous data challenges universities to re-evaluate the foundations of their success by identifying nearly every acre obtained and sold, every land seizure or treaty made with the land’s Indigenous caretakers, and every dollar endowed with profits from dispossession.[14] By confronting the university with this data, LGU establishes Indigenous presence in addition to contributing to the growing movement of IDS. Not only does the project exhibit success by sharing crucial data regarding land-grant universities and the expropriation of Indigenous land, it promotes Indigenous agency while simultaneously adding to the development of IDS and resists settler colonialism.


Lee, Robert, Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGhee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher, and Taryn Salinas. “Land-Grab Universities, A High Country News Investigation.”, 2020.

Rainie, S.C., Kukutai, T., Walter, M., Figueroa-Rodriguez, O.L., Walker, J., & Axelsson, P. Issues in open data: Indigenous data sovereignty. In T. Davies, S. Walker, M. Rubinstein, & F. Perini (Eds.), The state of an open data: Histories and horizons. 2019, 300 - 319. Cape Town and Ottawa: African Minds and International Development Research Centre.

Roxanne, Tiara. “Data colonialism: Decolonial Gestures of Storytelling.” donaufestival reader, 2020, 153-157.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press. 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang.“Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, 1–40.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. (2014): “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, 223–248.


[2] Nelson, C. (2020, Oct 8). Covid ravages Navajo Nation as Trump makes election play for area. The Guardian. Verfügbar unter: (accessed: 08.10.2020).

[3] (accessed: 12.11.2020).

[4] Robert Lee, et al., and Grab Universities, (accessed: 01.08.2020).

[5] (qtd in) Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

[6] Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. (2012) “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, no.1, p. 5.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rainie, S. C. et al.: Issues in open data. Indigenous data sovereignty. The state of an open data: Histories and horizons, 301.

[11] Ibid., 302.

[12] Ibid., 304.

[13] Tuck, Eve/ Yang, K. Wayne (2014): “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, 223–248.

[14] Robert Lee, et al., and Grab Universities, (accessed: 01.08.2020).