When LSA sophomore Josie Conti first stepped foot onto the University of Michigan’s campus last fall, she immediately started looking for ways to connect with other Native American students, a group that makes up just 1% of the undergraduate population at the University as of fall 2021. Conti, who identifies as Cherokee, has since found a place in the Native American Student Association (NASA). This past summer, Conti and 14 other U-M students had the opportunity to connect with various Indigenous tribes in northern Michigan on the University’s first ever Native American Student Trip.
The trip, which took place in August, was sponsored by the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) and NASA, who hoped this would be the first of many trips to Indigenous communities. The trip took place Aug. 11 to 14 and allowed the participants to travel to various locations in northern Michigan where they visited native cultural sites, met with tribal elders and attended the 29th annual Odawa Homecoming Pow Wow — an annual celebration organized by the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians that takes place in Harbor Springs.
Conti, the secretary of NASA, took part in planning the trip over the summer. She said her Native American roots stem from Oklahoma and that in Ohio, where she lives now, there is little Native American presence. Conti said the trip helped expose her to the culture of native tribes outside of the Cherokee.
“It was really cool because I’m not associated with a Michigan tribe, so it’s really cool to learn some cultural facts about native tribes that are outside of your own,” Conti said. “It’s different because where I spent the last few years, there is not a very heavy Native American community presence. The Pow Wow we went to was huge, it was a huge community gathering. There was a very large Native presence.”
The students who went on the trip to northern Michigan were all members of NASA, and they were able to participate in community discussions with the tribes they visited. Along the way, the students also had the opportunity to meet with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and the Burt Lake Band.
“NASA is really awesome because I am learning a lot about Native Americans in general,” Conti said. “I don’t (usually) have the ability or the opportunity to sit in and have lunch with 20 or 30 other people who share some of my heritage. It’s amazing.”
Co-chair of NASA Zoi Crampton, Environment & Sustainability and Art & Design senior, said one of the main goals of the trip was to foster connections between U-M students and Indigenous communities. She said NASA membership has been steadily growing over the past couple of years, which hopefully represents an increased interest in Indigenous culture at the University.
“I thought it was important to foster community building,” Crampton said. “We’ve been getting a little bit bigger each year in the past couple of years with NASA. So it’s kind of important to get comfortable with one another and kind of establish those relationships and hope to carry that out through the school year.”
MESA Program Manager Andrea Wilkerson also helped plan and attended the trip. Wilkerson, who identifies as Native American, graduated from the University in 2012 and was a part of NASA when she was an undergraduate. Though she started having conversations about the possibility of a Native American Student Trip in the fall of 2020, the planning process was put on hold during the pandemic. At the beginning of this past summer, NASA and MESA picked up right where they had left off and started coordinating the in-person trip once again.
“(MESA) builds lots of relationships with student organizations like NASA,” Wilkerson said. “Being the (NASA) adviser and being in the (Indigenous) community (means) knowing some different experiences that students would be interested in and working closely with the NASA leadership over the last three years … (until) things became extraordinarily more safe to be able to make that trip out of town.”
Wilkerson said one of her favorite activities on the trip was a visit to the University’s Biological Station and the nearby Burt Lake Band property in Brutus, MI. There, students were able to engage with the Burt Lake Band tribe and visit a garden the tribe refers to as Izhi-Minoging Mashkikiwan, or the “Place Where Medicines Grow Well.” The garden, which includes a variety of symbolic plants used for medical and ceremonial purposes, was designed in part by past U-M students in collaboration with the tribe.
The NASA and U-M alumni networks were pivotal to planning the trip, Wilkerson said. She also coordinated a beading workshop with a U-M and NASA alumna who is a part of the Little Traverse Bay Band tribe.
Another stop on the trip was an event where Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Indigenous person to hold a cabinet position, spoke about the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative (FIBSI). FIBSI is a 2021 initiative led by Haaland to recognize the impact of Indian boarding schools across the nation in the 1800s and 1900s. The boarding schools sought to assimilate Indigenous people, taking children away from their families and requiring them to give up their language and native culture.
It has since been reported that the Federal Indian boarding schools subjected Indigenous children to manual labor and they often had to endure physical and emotional abuse. According to Conti, past boarding school students and their descendants spoke at the event. Hearing about the oppression they experienced firsthand, and the culture and traditions that were lost along the way, was hard to process, Conti said.
“It was hard to hear about stuff like that, but at the same time, you were surrounded by other people who could share that pain and support each other,” Conti said.
Crampton said the event was especially meaningful for her because she personally knew some of the Indigenous speakers.
“I had some family friends that were there speaking and I had family members who had been in the residential school,” Crampton said. “So it was nice having that opportunity to hear other survivors’ stories.”
When reflecting on what the Native American Student Trip accomplished in its first run, Wilkerson said it helped solidify ties between the Indigenous community at the University and the rest of the state. She hopes to strengthen those bonds in the years to come.
“I think (certainly for) Native students but I would say all students, all people in general, it’s so important to remember the land that we’re on,” Wilkerson said. “Feeling the earth, feeling the wind, being present, listening to the water are all things that we could learn from and that I think students definitely, and everyone, can benefit from.”
Daily News Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.