Not surprisingly Indian college students were
particularly concerned with this issue. Although many students spoke in
favor of free tuition, the most dramatic example of student activism was
a class action lawsuit filed against the University of Michigan. The
lawsuit grew out of observations made by the largely Ann Arbor-based
Great Lakes Indian Youth Alliance. As these students witnessed
commitments made by the University of Michigan to militant African-
American students they began to ask what steps they could take to
advance their own cause.
Paul Johnson, as part of a graduate education
course in Ann Arbor, researched the relationship between the university
and Native Americans. Through this research Johnson came to believe that
the university could be compelled to grant free tuition to Indians
based on language found in article 16 of the Treaty of Fort Meigs (Foot
of the Rapids) signed in 1817. Johnson concluded that the treaty traded
away land for a guarantee of education. Johnson was successful in
creating a consensus among students and Indian leaders throughout the
state in support of a class action lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed in August of 1971.
Ultimately Johnson's lawsuit was unsuccessful.
Undoubtedly influenced by expert witness Helen Hornbeck Tanner, who
argued that the treaty of 1817 created no trust agreement regarding
education, the court ruled that while the 1817 treaty might create a
moral responsibility toward Native Americans, article 16 did not create a
legally enforceable treaty right or trust agreement between the
University of Michigan and the Indians tribes who signed the treaty. The
court found that article 16 represented an exchange of personal gifts,
including land, between Father Gabriel Richard and Indian tribes who
signed the agreement. Although the court recognized that Richard
subsequently cofounded the University of Michigan and sold much of the
land given him through article 16 to support its operation, the court
did not find that this act created a direct link between the University
and the provisions of article 16.