Opinion | UI fails to fulfill sustainability promises | Part II

By Safia Khan, Columnist

Long before there was the University of Illinois, a large and diverse population of Native Americans inhabited the land that is now the University. 

The University of Illinois acknowledges often that it is a “land-grant institution” and that it sits on the lands of the “Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Chickasaw Nations.” However, it falls short of educating its students about what a land-grant institution actually is, thus diluting its meaning with its frequent repetition. 

A land-grant institution is a college or university that was given federal land as a result of the Morrill Act of 1862 and 1890. The Morrill Act granted eligible states 30,000 acres of land to establish institutes of higher education that focus on agriculture, science and engineering. This act established the land-grant university system we know today — but as a result, acres of land were taken from Native tribes, often through violence

While acknowledging that the University now sits on the lands that once belonged to Natives is a step towards increasing Native visibility, it falls short when those in charge disrespect Native practices and beliefs.

Historically, Native tribes and nations have been known for their sustainable lifestyles, rooted in the belief that the environment must be respected and preserved in order to maintain the interdependence of all living things. According to many Native traditions, humans should strive to not over-consume natural resources to limit the damage to the environment to protect future generations. They were the first environmentalists and protected the Earth for over a millennium.

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While the University’s frequent acknowledgment of the Native origins of the land aims for an open conversation, it directly violates what it stands for with its empty sustainability promises. 

Since 2020, the University has listed divestment from fossil fuels as a “key objective” but fails to follow through, as they still have over $230 million invested in fossil fuels. It fails to realize that its investment in oil companies and other unrenewable energy sources hurts the Native populations they claim to acknowledge and respect. 

The oil and gas industry has exploited Native land for decades, causing irreversible harm to the land and damage to the communities. Native communities bear the brunt of the negative effects caused by the oil and gas development industry since they have a lack of access to health facilities, clean drinking water, consistent housing and waste disposal, among other risk factors.

Additionally, unsustainable energy companies often construct oil pipelines on Native reservations as they usually have abundant levels of oil and natural gas. After all, who could forget the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline controversy? This is a classic example of Native land exploitation and environmental violence against a vulnerable population. 

Oil pipelines and investment in them cause damage to Native food sources as their leakages kill wildlife and pollute the “air, water, soil and climate.”

The University has created a paradigm of empty promises and continuous investment in unsustainable practices but refuses to acknowledge this disrespect toward its Native American population, considering it is on their land.


Safia is a freshman in LAS.

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