The Native American Student Association, in conjunction with the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, hosted a public forum Wednesday on contemporary issues in the Native American community, both within the context of the University and at large.
About 30 people attended the discussion held in the Munger Graduate Residences, asking questions of the four-person panel. The night’s panel discussion was just one event in a lineup organized for November’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month.
NASA’s co-chair, Isa Gaillard, a Public Policy senior, said the panel aimed to bolster recognition of native students both at the University and at large.
“We’re looking to increase awareness,” he said. “The (University’s) relationship with (Native Americans) has been historically challenged, and a lot of that is linked to enrollment issues as well.”
Much of the conversation focused on obstacles related the Native American community’s access to higher education. Panelist Sandra Momper, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, said a certain stigma still exists surrounding Native American students’ ability to succeed in college.
“I was told, ‘You are not college material,’ ” she said.
Momper also criticized the financial aid afforded native students. Even after making it to a university, many are often dismayed by additional uncovered costs.
“When I first got here, I couldn’t believe the living conditions of some of the NASA students,” she said. “I think the University is awesome, but they say free tuition and it’s not really free. Living expenses are so high.”
This semester, the University enrolled 92 students who identify as Native Americans, the vast majority of which are not federally enrolled in their tribes or involved with the Native American community on campus. Though it’s an increase over previous years, panelists agreed the number was still too low. University President Mark Schlissel’s recent push to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on campus could be doing more to assist Native American students, Gaillard said.
“They say they’re open to hearing ideas from us, but I think they need to realize and accept that we’re also students … they need to create avenues for our voices to be heard,” he said.
Aside from the administration’s relationship to Native American students, panelists spoke at length about proper engagement with the community at large. Because the University is located on land ceded from a number of tribes — the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, Shawnee and Wendat all signed treaties with territorial governors — speakers urged consideration of surrounding native populations.
“It starts with getting to know (them), asking who they are,” said Lynn LaPointe, a Lakota tribe member who works for the Michigan Department of Education. “Whose land is the U of M campus on? Being aware sounds daunting but it’s really not.”
Joseph Gonne, an associate professor of psychology, agreed that cultural sensitivity, especially in light of the historical tension between Native Americans and white America, is key for allies.
“Come ready to contribute, but don’t assume that you know what to contribute,” Gonne said. “Action and understanding are paired together.”
NASA looks forward to broadening the organization’s scope on and off campus. The group played a major role in advising the Ann Arbor City Council on their decision this week to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, and is hosting more cultural events and conversations this month.
MESA Associate Director Linh Nguyen attended the panel, and noted the importance of the University’s facilitation of dialogue on Native American students’ needs.
“As we talk about racial issues on campus, their perspective is nuanced and needs to be incorporated,” Nguyen said. “As someone who’s on staff and working towards diversity and inclusion, experiences like this are reminders to me around the complexity of how we actually address issues like this in terms of the diverse students and staff that we have.”