Some Native American students are elated by a recent exhibit that aims to bring awareness to the role Native Americans had in the founding of the University of Michigan but overall there is an underlying concern about the ways the University is representing Native Americans during its bicentennial celebrations.
The “Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation” exhibit, which is one of seven pop-up art installations named “Stumbling Blocks” seeking to bring awareness to some of the difficult moments of the University’s history, has led Native American students to point to some of the issues with representing the Native American identity on campus.
On Ingalls Mall, one of these “Stumbling Block” exhibits, a raised plaque, highlights a sizably smaller, permanent plaque that already exists in the ground nearby to commemorate a gift of land from three Native American tribes to the University in 1817.
For Native American student Kaitlin Gant, an LSA senior, one of her biggest concerns was the lack of dedication given to other equally significant effects Native Americans have had on the history of the University.
“While I think it made a profound impact and drew more attention to the importance of Native American contributions to the campus, a sign is where the attention stopped,” Gant said.
Gant discussed the how the plaque came about as a result of Native American student activism on campus and protests led by Native students in the early 2000s advocating for the removal and University support of a student organization that historically had openly mocked and ridiculed Native American culture. The organization, then called Michigamua, reportedly appropriated Native American culture, going so far as using Native American artifacts and cultural references, such as headdresses and statues, and performing Native American-like rituals.
“There were many protests held by Native students around 10 years ago that led to the land grant plaque and the removal of support for Michigamua,” Gant said.
Michigamua has since been renamed Order of Angell, an organization which focuses on honoring senior leadership at the University.
An exhibit on the history of student protest on campus, which is located on the sidewalks of Angell Hall, highlights the periods of student activism during World War I, the civil rights movement and Vietnam War, but doesn’t discuss Native Americans.
LSA freshman Maitland Bowen, who is of Native American heritage, discussed how the exhibit shows the University has made significant progress over the years, but also pointed to how the University neglects to recognize the profound significance Native Americans have had in the University’s history.
“The fact that this pop-up plaque seems so novel points to a real problem,” Bowen said. “The Native land grant should not be something we remember once every 200 years, it should be something the University consciously acknowledges, respects and appreciates every day.”
She described how, due to the small population of students who identify as Native American — 0.2 percent of enrolled students as of 2015 — the University does not feel a sense of urgency to fully recognize the University’s history with Native Americans.
“The University doesn’t have to answer to a large Native student population because they don’t have a large Native student population,” Bowen said.
Referring to the ways in which the University represents Native American students, Bowen stated that the University still has a long way to go.
“They must make a conscious and consistent effort to acknowledge Native Americans’ roles in the history of the University and to support their roles in its future,” she said.
Philip Deloria, professor of American culture and Native American studies, spoke about the significance of the pop-up art exhibit.
“It’s a great gesture, but it's a gesture that also reveals the invisibility of Indian people kind of in general on campus and in American society as a whole,” Deloria said. “They make up about 1.5 percent of the population, they’re easily ignored and that's been the case on the campus for a while.”