The Michiganmau Dispute: Michigamua has troubled past

BY CASEY KASPER
Brittany Marino
Published February 2, 2006

In 1817, the Ojibwe, Potowatomi and Odawa Nations made an agreement to cede 3,840 acres of their lands in exchange for the education of all future generations of their people. This agreement, known as the Treaty of Fort Meigs, became the basis for the foundation of the University. Despite the terms of this agreement, not only have outreach and retention efforts for Native American students been neglected, but an organization openly mocking and bastardizing Native American culture has long been in place.

The name Michigamua originates from the Ojibwe word, michigama meaning land surrounded by water. Additionally, each new member is given a name that is derived from Injun-English, the racist depiction of supposed Native American speech. Examples of such names include "Great Scalper" Yost, "Squaw-Teaser" Schmid and "Wise Chief" Hutchins. These names are derogatory and reflect painful stereotypes of Native American peoples. For example, the word "squaw," which is so abrasive it is not even spoken aloud in many Native communities, refers to female genitalia and is currently displayed on a wall of the Tap Room in the Michigan Union.

Each spring, 25 juniors are "tapped" (or invited) to be part of the pride of the following year. Upon graduation, members become part of Michigamua's "Old Braves Council," a network of Michigamua alumni who have participated in Michigamua pseudo-ceremonies and remain in the organization today. Incentive for attaining membership in the organization lies predominantly in being connected to this large alumni network. Through these connections, Michigamua alums have gone on to positions of great power. The privileges associated with status as a Michigamua member are awarded at the expense of Native peoples.

History proves that the triumph of the dominant culture relies solely upon oppression of other groups. Participation in Michigamua is used as an escape from oppression for those individuals of underrepresented genders, races, orientations and religions that have recently gained entrance. Through this organization, Native American people have become a stepping stone to privilege. By constantly serving as the stepping stone for others on their road to power, our culture is devalued and we are continually marginalized.

Despite its offenses, Michigamua remains permanently entrenched within the University, as most campus buildings are named after former members. Michigamua was granted exclusive access to the tower of the Michigan Union. No such courtesy access was ever granted to other student groups who have contributed to the University, much less to the Native American peoples who were integral in its founding. Michigamua's use of the tower included abuse of sacred Native American religious objects. In 2000, members of the Students of Color Coalition discovered that the tower was structured as a pseudo-wigwam, filled with both authentic and mock objects such as drums, a cradleboard and sacred pipes. SCC members found photographs of the Pride of 1996 abusing these objects seven years after Michigamua's 1989 agreement to end all references to Native American cultures and pseudo-culture.

Michigamua claims it is no longer racist. However, because of its use of the name and its enduring ties to alumni, the practices of the past cannot be dismissed. The presence of this organization on campus and the history of University support terrorizes Native American students today. In order for Michigamua to demonstrate that it has changed, it must eliminate its oppressive name and denounce its destructive past. In addition, Michigamua the current pride and the alumni - must apologize for more than a century of oppressing Native American peoples. Until a clear separation is made between the racist men who enjoyed the dehumanization of Native American peoples and the current class which asserts that the organization has indeed changed, any claims to such change cannot be taken seriously. Attempting to change the organization from within assumes that it can be changed without the approval of the Old Braves Council.

The University must take responsibility for the perpetuation of this racist organization by issuing a formal apology and denouncing its own past involvement. The organization and the University's failure to speak out against the actions of its racist alumni negatively affect the admission and retention of Native American students who were guaranteed the right to an education in 1817. Until these grave injustices are addressed, the existence of this organization continues to threaten the well-being of Native students and all students of color on this campus.

The Native American Student Association stands in solidarity with other organizations that refuse to support this racist organization and its membership. Only once we support each other can true social change prevail.

Casey Kasper is an LSA sophomore and NASA co-chair. Brittany Marino is an LSA junior and NASA co-chair. Priyanka Pathak is an LSA junior. Heather Brink is a student in the School of Public Health. Jordan Miller is a Rackham student and NASA treasurer.