Columbus Day, a holiday previously commemorated across the United States that is now partially replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day, marks for many on the University of Michigan’s campus and across the country a time to consider historical and current treatment of Native American communities.
Earlier on Monday, students hung a banner in the Diag which read “Stolen Land Stolen Lives F*** Columbus Day,” before it was taken down by University staff in the afternoon. On last year’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Law School student John Petoskey organized a protest to recognize illegal land removal at the University Biological Station, and later submitted an inquiry to the University to investigate the history of the ownership of the land. The University is still in the process of addressing the complaint.
A dual-degree student in the School of Environment and Sustainability, Petoskey said he noticed an absence of anything recognizing the removal of Native Americans when he first visited the biostation.
“Growing up on my tribe’s reservation in Peshawbestown I had always heard stories of the event that came to be called ‘the Burt Lake Burnout,’” Petoskey wrote in an email to The Daily. “The burnout was the illegal removal of the Burt Lake band from their treaty-guaranteed territory by lumber interests. The village was located on what is called “colonial point” not too far from the biostation. I found it disturbing that such a horrific event had taken place so close, but there was little to no recognition of it. I sought to change that.”
Petoskey said the President’s Advisory Committee on University History made a recommendation to work with local indigenous communities to reach an agreeable form of commemoration of the removal, and that he is “confident that the university has listened.”
As November approaches, planning for Native American Heritage Month is in full swing at the University. During this time, campus community is faced with reminders of its debt to the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes who all participated in the Treaty of Fort Meigs in 1817. The treaty signed between the tribes and the U.S. allowed for the foundation of the University on native land with the agreement that the European settlers would provide higher education for native youth as well.
Despite this agreement, none of the tribes who signed directly experienced the benefits of the land grant, as records show that none attended the University for the next 130 years. The original land was sold and became part of the University’s endowment when the institution relocated to Ann Arbor from Detroit.
The University’s latest enrollment reports show 85 Native American students attend the University, making up about .1 percent of the student body at large.
Today, a stone plaque, dedicated in November 2002, stands on the ground of Ingalls Mall commemorating the land grant.
Now, more than 200 years after the treaty was signed, the Native American community says they are suffering, both at the University and nationally. American Indian/Alaskan Native students held the lowest high school graduation rate compared to other subgroups and in 2016 had a rate of suicide of 13.37 per 100,000 people — the highest of any minority group. As a group, Native Americans maintain some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse.
In September, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Cape Cod faced a grim turn of events when the Trump administration reversed a 2015 decision which entrusted more than 300 acres of land as a reservation for the Massachusetts tribe.
LSA sophomore Samara Jackson Tobey, external activist chair for the Native American Student Association, belongs to the Wampanoag Tribe. She’s focused efforts on helping to recruit and retain Native American students at the University— efforts she hopes will improve social conditions for Native Americans around the country.
“It’s important to understand that when a Native student comes to a campus like this, responsibilities become a burden,” Jackson-Tobey said. “There are so little of us that we have to represent ourselves tenfold, and we find ourselves in this position where our work, our perspective and our voice is needed. And yes it becomes demanding, but if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
Currently, the University offers a Native American Studies minor, but Jackson-Tobey emphasized the need for further maturation of the department, especially in terms of a language requirement.
“Native American Studies is a history,” Jackson-Tobey said. “This is your connection back to who was originally here. You don’t have to be blood-indigenous to realize that there is a history still here, and somehow its small role in the American Culture Department seems to make it a joke. For example, why is a language in the American Culture Department and not a language, or even in the Native American Studies Department, which we should have?”
Jackson-Tobey teamed up with the office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the Residential College to host events throughout November for Native American Heritage Month. She’s also helping to set the stage for this year’s Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, which will take place in the spring.
Jackson-Tobey emphasized the importance of respecting tradition and finding harmony between University students and the Three Fires tribes in Michigan, who participated in the initial land grant. The University has a particularly contentious relationship with tribes in Michigan. In addition to a lack of recruitment of Native American students, there was the 1902 creation of the racist honor society Michigamua, which appropriated sacred native traditions and objects while University officials participated. The name was changed as recently as 2007 to The Order of Angell, and has since claimed to cease reference to pseudo-native culture.
“This year, our team’s biggest goal is to bring our communities back together— meaning Michigan and our tribal communities— and asking for forgiveness from our tribal communities, because Michigan has wronged them in many ways,” she said. “One of our biggest symbols this year is a strawberry, which signifies forgiveness and friendship.”
Joel Begay, who graduated from the University in 2018 with a master’s degree in Public Health, is Navajo and moved to Michigan to pursue molecular epidemiology after studying at Colorado College in an effort to relate his education back to Native American community health. He now works with the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center as an epidemiology officer and explained how the region has suffered from the lack of a large urban institute for epidemiologists.
“When we talk about health disparities for Native Americans in the United States, we see that Natives are disproportionately affected in many ways,” Begay said. “But just within Indian country of the Great Lakes region, the communities in this area are even more affected in comparison to other regions. There is a huge need that I had an opportunity to improve American Indian health.”
When coming to the University, Begay was struck by the school spirit, which he still holds close to his heart. However, he also found his identity deeply underrepresented and faced barriers to receiving faculty and institutional support to study Native American health.
“As a Native student, I wanted to not only have a research mentor to help me pursue my dreams of conducting Native health research, but I wanted them to be Native too,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t find that, at least not until Jan. 2017, I met radiologist Dr. Roubidoux at Michigan Medicine. And we’ve been best friends since. Michigan is a leading research institution, which I appreciate, and that’s how I know I picked the right school. But it seems like everybody is doing the same work. Diversity is more than just a student body or faculty. It’s a matter of the things that they’re doing, funding sources.”
In regard to initiatives within the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, Begay emphasized the need for both academic research reflecting DEI concerns, especially in comparison to peer institutions, as well as faculty involvement.
“I think if we actually want to make DEI our utmost priority, then we need to have faculty participation,” he said. “When I go into a DEI event, I see a bunch of graduate students, a bunch of undergrad students, but where is the faculty? Where is the staff? Why aren’t they participating in these conversations? I think if Michigan really wanted to take DEI seriously, then faculty members, regardless of whether or not it’s in their job description, should go to DEI events. The majority of the student body is committed.”
Begay hopes the University will eventually create a physical space for Native American students to conduct cultural practices such as baking fry bread and smudging –– a ceremony involving the burning of sacred herbs –– as well as discussing topics personal to them. Additionally, he hopes for a center for Native American health to provide opportunities for students and create an expanding effect for diversity of research and faculty.
“I would love for Michigan to have a center for Native American health, as an opportunity and place for interdisciplinary studies that will incorporate public health, medical and social work researchers and provide a space for faculty to gather and generate hypothesis-driven, yet culturally sensitive, research questions,” he said. “And then work with tribal communities, which would not only increase the diversity of Michigan research, but it would increase the diversity of faculty, and it would provide more internship opportunities for students, native or not.”
Rackham Assistant Dean Ethriam Brammer, DEI implementation lead, holds this issue personally as a former first-generation student of Mexican indigenous background. He said many Native American and minority students, in general, don’t have the resources to take advantage of educational opportunities.
”Genius and talent exist in all these communities, they’re just not fostered or provided the same resources to flourish in the same way,” Brammer said. “If we’re really intentional about serving all students at every point of this educational pipeline, then by the time they get to graduate school they should be well represented, right? The problem is that with certain communities that are under-resourced and under-served, the attrition happens throughout that pipeline at a very dramatic rate. To reverse it, you have to trace it back to the whole pre-K to Ph.D. pipeline.”
Brammer said the University is especially accountable for acknowledging its roots and pursuing educational initiatives.
“One thing the University can do better is tell the story of the founding of the University, and the role that the Native communities played in that founding,” he said. “The Fort Meigs treaty was intentionally a partnership to educate Native children along with European settlers. It’s better (to tell) that story, but also recognizing a certain responsibility to continuing to work with those communities to make sure the education needs of their young people can be met.”
While these goals are put on hold, students such as Jackson-Tobey are burdened with individually representing an extremely heterogeneous community.
“When I say I’m Mashpee Wampanoag, nine times out of 10, people are asking what that is,” Jackson-Tobey said. “Seldom do I meet someone who’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from Cape Cod.’ And because I’m brown, people question whether or not I’m really native. When our students are given the opportunity to learn their own culture and their own language, they are learning everything that they need to know to be the best them that they can be, and then they get to higher education and they’re told, ‘That doesn’t fit here.’ That gets you (the) American Culture minor, which truthfully is not dependable.”
Jackson-Tobey said to preserve the future of Native Americans, educational support is more crucial than it ever has been.
“The knowledge Native communities cultivate can and should be developed,” she said. “Because that knowledge is dying out, and if the University doesn’t take heed of that, we’re going to lose more than just a community, we’re going to lose a whole history. And it starts with acknowledging our students. We need to make sure that Native students know they’re not alienated. No matter how different you are, you belong here. Because there’s a place for you, a place for your knowledge in this community, and we are not meant to stay in the corners of reservations. You belong here.”