The Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously on Nov. 16 to designate the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day. A couple of days later, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners followed suit at the request of commissioner Yousef Rabhi. The new holiday, meant to replace Columbus Day, was the result of collaboration between Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) and various local indigenous groups and their allies. The decree is obviously a welcome change, as Columbus Day has been a topic of controversy, and shows much-warranted consideration of native communities here in the Ann Arbor area. However, the county’s recognition of the holiday is somewhat diminished by the University’s questionable history with its Native American constituents. Now that progress is the law of the land, the University should follow suit by recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day and set the tone for a new era of alliance with those community members who deserve our respect.
The University was founded (both in its original location in Detroit and its current location in Ann Arbor) on what was once Native American land with the permission of the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs. But in the years following its conception, the school has done little to honor this grant.
Additionally, students showed their prejudiced attitudes toward Native Americans in tasteless club traditions like those of the Order of Angell — a University organization (which changed its name from the pseudo-tribal “Michigamua” in 2006) with a long, murky past rooted in blatant insensitivity. In its heyday, the formerly secret society initiated its members with public rituals involving sacred Native American regalia and religious items, such as peace pipes, drums and totems. Acts such as these were called out as unacceptable by not only the indigenous community in Ann Arbor, but also various organizations on campus. Having undergone so much intense scrutiny, the Order fully ceased these despicable activities by 1989.
Further, University possession of Native American artifacts has also been a point of contention in the past. In March 2008, members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe requested rights to what Museum of Anthropological Archaeology officials deemed “unidentifiable” artifacts, but because ownership of ambiguously cultured objects was not ruled illegal by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, their efforts were futile. It was not until two years later in 2010 that the federal court became involved and demanded the University return the remains to their rightful place.
With these instances in mind, the University should take full advantage of this opportunity to make amends with its neighbors. A good start would be to eradicate the recognition of Columbus Day from University calendars and planners; an even better effort would be to recognize local tribes like those of the Three Fires — Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami — by hosting a day or more of events in collaboration with them.
The University of California, Berkeley, for example, holds a day-long festival that features an exhibition and gourd dancing, as well as an “Indian market” with handmade products from local tribes. Simply bringing in native speakers to share their experiences with the student body would also be a step in the right direction.
The Native American community in Ann Arbor is essential to the history of both the city and the University. Recognition of their influence is commendable, but deliberate effort by the University to acknowledge and appreciate them is warranted if we are to celebrate this new holiday with integrity. Given our disreputable history, it is the least we can do.