Indigenous students at the University of Michigan are demanding greater representation and expanded support on campus — rights they have been promised since the formation of the school, which was built on land ceded by Anishinaabek tribes.
Members of the Native American Student Association and La Casa, a Latinx student organization on campus, joined forces to pen the United Statement. The demands were released to the public and sent to Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, on Oct. 12, which is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The demands are meant to center Indigenous knowledge, according to LSA senior Samara Jackson Tobey, one of the primary authors of the statement.
“(Our demands intend) to perpetuate a sense of Indigenous education that actually reflects … cultural systems and Indigenous ways of knowing,” Tobey said.
Some of the demands include designating Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a University holiday and incorporating Indigenous knowledge and resources into courses outside of classes that meet the race and ethnicity requirement. They are also seeking to devote resources towards Indigenous physical and mental health on campus and in inner city and reservation communities, and mandate campuswide training on local Indigenous history, especially in relation to the University.
The University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion commissioned a task force with NASA in 2018 to identify how the University could better support Indigenous students. However, according to LSA sophomore John-Solomon Milner, students were frustrated with a lack of follow-through from the University, leading them to create the United Statement.
“What had happened after that is the task force concluded, we wrote up all our demands and the University didn’t do anything with them,” Milner said. “And this is a thing that has happened over and over and over and over again, throughout the University’s history, especially surrounding Indigenous peoples’ rights (and) Indigenous peoples’ activism.”
Ultimately, Tobey said, the goal is to eliminate barriers and carve out space for Indigenous students to learn and exist as themselves within a historically Westernized institution. Central to that effort is the decolonization of pedagogy, which includes changing the content and methods of teaching to uplift Indigenous historical narratives and perspectives, such as through hands-on approaches rather than hierarchical classroom styles.
“That’s just the whole point of all of this: It’s that we should not be encouraging students of any sort to disassociate in order to be successful,” Tobey said.
A reckoning with the University’s history
The students behind the United Statement emphasize the need for greater enrollment of Indigenous students, calling on the administration to “enhance recruitment and retention of students and their Indigenous ontologies.” They want the University to finally honor promises to educate Indigenous children made more than 200 years ago.
The University was built on land that the Anishinaabek — which includes the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa) and Bodewadmi (Potawatomi) — ceded in 1817 via the Treaty of Fort Meigs.
Article 16 of the treaty specified that the University should be used to educate the children of these tribes in exchange. But records indicate that few to none Anishinaabek were enrolled until 130 years after the formation of the University.
Even today, students like Milner are one of 36 undergraduates enrolled this semester who identify as Native American, according to data from the Office of the Registrar.
In an email to The Daily, the Office of the Registrar said there is a total of 599 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at the University for the Fall 2020 term who identify as Native American: 81 with the single ethnic category of Native American, 353 who are categorized as having two or more ethnic groups and 165 who are categorized as Hispanic.
Heather Bruegl is a historian and citizen of the Oneida Nation who has given talks at multiple events on campus associated with Native American Heritage Month in recent years. Though she was not involved in the student-led statement, she emphasized the importance of recruiting more Indigenous students if the University wants to truly honor the treaty and the commitments made to the The Three Fires People of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi.
“For a university that was founded on land that was ceded by the Three Fires Council, with the add-on that it was going to provide education to Native students there, I think it’s important that they work on recruitment because the first 130 years of the University of Michigan, there weren’t any Native students at all,” Bruegl said. “And I think that says a lot.”
Sellers commissioned the Native American Student Task Committee in March 2018 to make recommendations on how to support Indigenous students’ academic, financial and sociocultural success, according to Dilip Das, associate vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs. The committee, composed of University students and faculty as well as Indigenous community members, finalized their recommendations in an October 2018 report shared with The Michigan Daily.
Key recommendations from the report include developing an orientation program specifically for incoming Indigenous students and opening a Fort Meigs Treaty Center on campus to raise awareness of Indigenous history and to support Indigenous students.
Das said the October 2018 report is a “living document” and that efforts to implement the committee’s recommendations are ongoing. He said the University is currently working on a territorial acknowledgement statement to institutionalize a reminder that the University was built on Anishinaabek land.
Das said he appreciates efforts from students, such as the United Statement, that push administrators to prioritize this work.
“We’re all actually very happy and thankful to students when they engage the administration around these issues, because that helps advance the cause … and the recommendations,” Das said.
Das said simultaneous efforts are taking place across campus to address some of the demands. They include partnering with the national organization College Horizons, a college admissions workshop for Indigenous students; hiring a specific LSA recruiter for the Upper Peninsula, where many of Michigan’s tribal sovereign nations reside; and participation in the conferences meant to further Indigenous student interests.
“Part of the work that needs to be done centrally is to collect all of these individualized efforts across campus and raise the profile of and increase the collaboration of these so that a larger number of people are aware of this, and that Indigenous students around the country are aware of this as well and can say, ‘Wow, look, Michigan cares about us,’” Das said.
Barbra Meek, director of the Native American Studies program at the University, was not involved in the statement but said it addressed an important need for the University to better publicize efforts on campus surrounding Indigenous heritage, especially heading into November, which is Native American Heritage Month.
She said events celebrating Native American Heritage Month are not being put on the campus community’s radar.
“You don’t see any of this being really covered or publicized or talked about at all of the levels of the University,” Meek said. “ … They don’t highlight Native American Heritage Month, and they’re not highlighting Indigenous Peoples’ Day. … It’s an interesting kind of oversight, and I think the statement addresses some of those oversights very directly.”
A coalition-building statement
The students behind the United Statement emphasized that the statement has been a collaboration between NASA and La Casa since its inception.
LSA junior Rebeca Yanes, external director of La Casa, said the collaboration is helping those involved reflect on how to decolonize the Latinx community.
“It’s a long time coming that we start uplifting and recognizing the inherent Indigeneity within the Latinx community, even if people aren’t aware, or completely aware, of where their Indigenous roots lie,” Yanes said.
Tobey said that her ancestral and ethnic belonging to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe motivated her involvement with the statement.
Tobey added that she also drew inspiration from her cousin’s experience at the University. Tobey said her cousin, who identifies as Pacific Islander, had to navigate others not understanding how being Pacific Islander is different from being Asian American.
The data from the Office of the Registrar shows low enrollment for Hawaiian students — 14 total. Six Native American students and two Hawaiian students joined this year’s freshman class, according to the report.
“When (my cousin) was present in Asian-Pacific spaces … it really did some personal emotional damage,” Tobey said. “ … People didn’t know that being Maori was different than being some person a part of the Asian American diaspora, because most of us don’t know all the countries within the Asian American diaspora. So it was like a way to erase somebody’s self-knowing and create like that imposter effect (which is) really dangerous.”
This ignorance wasn’t intentional disrespect, Tobey said. Rather, people in the University community lacked the understanding of Moana Nui backgrounds and cultures — something she hopes will change in response to demands in the United Statement concerning advancing awareness of global Indigenous communities.
In addition to building coalitions across students of different Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds, the United Statement also draws inspiration from and intersects with the struggles of other marginalized groups on campus. For example, Bruegl emphasized the connection between Indigenous peoples’ struggle and that of Black Americans.
“We see a lot of groups, especially in the Indigenous community, joining forces with Black Lives Matter, because we understand,” Bruegl said. “I mean, our histories were intertwined from the inception of the United States. So I think any coalition together is super important, particularly amongst communities of color.”
Tobey said the response to the United Statement has been encouraging so far. It has led to meetings with several administrators across campus, from the Office of DEI to leaders of the Residential College. Furthermore, the petition they released in conjunction with the statement, which advocates for decolonizing pedagogy, has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
“This is a small beginning, but knowing that more people will be into decolonization … is really encouraging,” Tobey said.
Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman contributed reporting to this article.
Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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