History of Native American political movements, future of activism outlined in lecture

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 8:35pm

Heather Bruegl speaks about Native American policy and activism at a talk titled “A History of Native American Policy and Activism: From A.I.M. to Standing Rock to Present” in the Michigan League Thursday.

Heather Bruegl speaks about Native American policy and activism at a talk titled “A History of Native American Policy and Activism: From A.I.M. to Standing Rock to Present” in the Michigan League Thursday. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

Despite being a member of Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, historian Heather Bruegl had never been particularly passionate about Native American history or culture –– until she went to Wounded Knee, S.D., the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in which 300 Native American men, women and children died at the hands of U.S. cavalry. Bruegl now travels the U.S. delivering talks on Native American history, and on Thursday gave a talk titled “A History of Native American Policy and Activism: From A.I.M. to Standing Rock to Present,” to about 40 people gathered in the Michigan League. The lecture, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Native American Student Association and Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, focused on defining moments in the history of Native American policy and activism.

Engineering senior Gabi May, chair of the Native American Student Association, discussed how the talk aimed to raise awareness of Native American culture among students at the University of Michigan.

“We’re trying to do more publicly engaged events that are focused on educating the U-M students on Native American culture and history since I think it’s something we miss in our curriculum a lot,” she said.  

Bruegl began the talk by explaining key government policies toward Native American tribes. She highlighted how many of these policies, including the Indian Removal Act, the Dawes Act and more, worked against the tribes’ favor, often stripping them of land, rights and representation.

She explained the somewhat demeaning attitude U.S. policies have typically had toward Native American individuals.

“You find through a lot of policies that there is kind of a parental relationship between the United States government and Native populations,” she said. “Every policy, they say, is an act to cut ties and lose custody of us — they don’t want to have to deal with us anymore.”

While the policies often inflicted pain on the Native American community, Bruegl stated they lead to the American Indian Movement, founded in 1968. The organization focuses on representation and action among the Native American community.

She went on to discuss some defining instances of activism from the group, all in an effort to raise awareness of injustices against their community and their generally painful history. While not all of their goals were achieved, they reportedly did succeed in effectively communicating Native American struggles to the larger population.

“We didn’t exactly get what we wanted, but we made sure you knew what was happening in our communities,” she said.

Bruegl discussed A.I.M.’s success in reinvigorating the Native American community as a whole, citing the establishment of tribal colleges, reestablishing traditional cultures, languages and religion, and bringing about federal policy change expanding the rights of Native American citizens.

Bruegl then centered the discussion on present-day controversies faced by Native Americans, citing issues from Standing Rock, a controversy surrounding the establishment of the Dakota Access Pipeline running oil underneath the Missouri River, to the Back 40 Mine, a lesser known issue regarding an open pit sulfite mine which could potentially leak into the mouth of the Menominee River, a sacred place for the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin. She also discussed the threat of privatization of native land by the federal government to easily gain natural resources.

Bruegl implored the audience to increase their awareness of Native American history and culture through studying literature and watching documentaries. May also announced an upcoming powwow celebrating Native American culture, being held March 24 and 25 at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor.

Bruegl ended the discussion by citing a need for more awareness of Native American activism and policy.

“Everybody likes the Native American that talks about peace, love and nature, but nobody likes the one who talks about what really happened which is genocide, rape, and stolen land — nobody talks about that,” she said. “In order to get a full, well-rounded history on this, you have to really look out there.”

After the lecture, LSA senior Queena Zhao agreed on the importance of gaining awareness for diverse identities on campus.

“I’m in an Asian-American interest sorority, and we all want to learn about other people’s cultures,” Zhao said. “We know there are struggles within our own culture and we know there are struggles with other people’s cultures, and throughout history, you find that when people work together, they figure out those struggles better.”