Cooke: To the CSU System — what do you have to say?

Cody Cooke

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We all know that Colorado State University is a “land-grant institution.” Just stroll through the Lory Student Center, and you’ll see how proud CSU is of this history.


But using this phrase to simply describe the University’s “mission” while vaguely alluding to “difficult questions” about its history paints over a fundamentally criminal and unjust reality. It allows the CSU System Board of Governors and President Joyce McConnell to evade the Hughes Land Back issue and hide in a bubble of administrative obligations.

As of this writing, neither McConnell nor the Board of Governors have addressed the land back issue in a meaningful way. So here’s a history lesson for them.

Nowhere does the University confront the fact that its entire existence is premised on fraud and illegitimacy. CSU would not exist if Americans had followed their own laws.”

Several Indigenous tribes and communities inhabited this area centuries before white settlers arrived. One route that settlers took into Northern Colorado was the Overland Trail, which “followed preexisting Native American trails throughout most of its length,” according to Colorado Encyclopedia. 

Students might recognize the name. South Overland Trail is a road in west Fort Collins that borders the Hughes Open Space. The implications of this road literally bounding land that Indigenous locals are requesting be returned to them shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

White settlers never had a legitimate claim to this land nor its resources, even by their own legal standards. Richard Williams, a Lakota elder and educator, spoke with The Collegian about the fraudulent 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise that involved the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples on the Front Range: “It was not legal.”

Colorado Encyclopedia dedicates two sentences to the treaty’s history, and the National Park Service’s website spends a whopping four sentences talking about it. The Park Service’s history even acknowledges that miners searching for gold near Pikes Peak had “occupied the legal homeland of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”

Both sources completely brush over crucial details, such as the fact that the treaty’s American negotiators had glaring conflicts of interest and profits to be made from removing the tribes, Williams said.

I’m not claiming that the current Board of Governors or (Joyce) McConnell are criminals. I am calling on them to publicly confront the University’s illegal foundations.”

Williams also noted that the Cheyenne Council of 44, historically one of the tribe’s main governing bodies, was not present at the treaty’s signing and had unanimously voted to not attend because they knew they would be asked to give away their lands.

“The treaty was never valid,” Williams said.

Just one year later, Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862, which is the illegitimate basis on which our college was founded in 1870.


Today, CSU readily acknowledges that its “founding came at a dire cost to Native Nations and peoples,” but nowhere does the University confront the fact that its entire existence is premised on fraud and illegitimacy. CSU would not exist if Americans had followed their own laws.

I’m not claiming that the current Board of Governors or McConnell are criminals. I’m calling on them to publicly confront the University’s illegal foundations. They should pull their heads out of the sand of “fiduciary responsibilityand discuss the Hughes issue under moral, ethical and historical terms.

David Atekpatzin Young, a member of the Genízaro Apache Tribe of Colorado, refutes the CSU System’s economic justification for holding onto Hughes.

“The land was given to them for free,” Young said.

Young explained the unbroken connection between the colonial conquest mindset of centuries past and the capitalist ethos governing power structures today.

“There is no separation between them; they’re the same thing,” Young said.

This explains why the CSU System is unlikely to do anything about Hughes because “they’re not making money from it. The right thing to do doesn’t register with them because the land is stolen to begin with,” Young said.

Williams also described the Board of Governors’ argument as “pale at best.” In reference to land back efforts in general, he said, “If our argument was introduced to an international, independent court, we would win, hands down.”

Young pointed out that “no tribal community lives here” in Fort Collins, which complicates the issue of giving the land back. But he added that owning land under legal titles was never an Indigenous concept and that such titles “create problems.”

But land justice can come in other forms. For example, if Fort Collins purchases the land from CSU, Young said the City could “arrange an agreement of unfettered access for Native communities to hold ceremonies.” Williams noted that Indigenous land managers could be appointed.

While implementing land back measures might be complicated, the justification for doing so is straightforward and compelling. The Board of Governors and McConnell should realize that standing firm on their “fiduciary responsibility” perpetuates the same harm that our Land Acknowledgment supposedly addresses.

All of Colorado is stolen Indigenous land. So to the Board of Governors and McConnell, are you content with just acknowledging the crime that we all stand on, or will you actually do something about it?

Reach Cody Cooke at or on Twitter @CodyCooke17.