According to this year’s enrollment overview from the University of Michigan’s Office of the Registrar, there are only 80 Native students at the University, making up 0.21 percent of those enrolled as of fall 2016. These students make up 0.17 percent of enrolled undergraduates and 0.32 percent of graduates and professional staff. In contrast, in 2015, Native Americans made up 2 percent of the country’s total population and 0.7 percent of the population in Michigan.
The number of students on campus has dropped from last year, when 92 students with Native heritage were listed as enrolled at the University.
However, students within the Native community said in interviews that issues of representation extend past the number of Native students on campus to visibility on the campus landscape, an issue they’ve confronted by building communities.
One expression of this community occurred the Sunday before Thanksgiving, where more than 40 people came to celebrate their Native identities over Native inspired food as part of November’s Native American Heritage Month. The feast was only one of NASA’s many events organized to commemorate the month-long celebration. In addition to several cultural and educational events, the group capped off the month with a performance by a Native singer and spoken word artist.
“Our numbers for enrollment are very, very low so I think that has a lot to say with the Native community on campus,” said NASA co-chair Kaitlin Gant, an LSA senior. “Since there’s so few of us it sometimes gets really discouraging, especially when we know people who are Native who could be here and they’re not. We would like to do some recruitment, and we’ve tried some of that, but we don’t have the resources to do so.”
Much of the University outreach to Native students is funneled through NASA, which organizes Native cultural programs throughout the year including annual events for the November heritage month and the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in the spring.
In addition to NASA, the umbrella organization for Native members of the University community, there are several other specialized organizations available for Native students, including the American Indian in Science and Engineering Society, the Latin American and Native American Medical Association and the Native American Law Association.
“What we aim to do on campus is to give Native American students a community of support where they can explore their identities and to just give them a sense of Native culture,” Gant said.
While membership varies, Gant said NASA has about 12 core members who help out and attend every meeting and event, though turnout tends to be significantly higher at events, which are open to the public. Still, spreading the word can be difficult given the group’s size.
“It’s so hard when there’s not a lot of Native American students on campus,” Gant said. “So when so many of us are busy it really takes a toll.”
Gant said the University also provides assistance through its support of NASA’s Powwow, with Assistant Vice Provost Dilip Das acting as the group’s point person in helping with funding and administration.
“It’s isolating (being Native on campus), but we do have a strong community,” Rackham student Jeremiah Thompson said. “We come from many different disciplines. We have to seek that out and create that for ourselves and I think the University does support us. I think of course we wouldn’t mind having more support.”
NASA also receives resources from the University’s Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs. However, Jasmine Pawlicki, a University alum and current library assistant, said it is easy for Native American students to sometimes get overlooked because MESA represents a large number of student groups.
“Native American students are a relatively small number on campus,” Pawlicki said. “There’s this issue where the students were asking for a dedicated person to help support them and they’ve been asking for it for 10 years but so far it hasn’t come to fruition.”
While appreciative of the University’s support for NASA and the annual Powwow, Thompson said he does not feel that Native students are well represented in the campus landscape.
“This is my ancestral homeland and I belong here and we’re not really represented on campus,” he said. “ … When you look at the Law School, whose history is represented there? It’s not mine. When you look at the buildings and who they’re named for, it’s not my history, and yet not so long ago this was tribal land. This is where my people are from.”
While acknowledging that the University has become gradually more inclusive in the most recent chapter of its history, Thompson said the campus itself continues to ignore the contributions of women and marginalized groups.
“We don’t have a statue, we don’t have something that says ‘in memoriam’ or ‘in commemoration of the people who gave up this land and gave this land grant institution,’ ” Thompson said. “I would like to see more things that acknowledge that … to be visible and to be part of the structuring. That’s not much to ask I don’t think.”
Though the University’s campus is littered with markers commemorating distinguished scholars, graduated classes and generous donors, one stone plaque on the edge of the Diag is dedicated to the Ojibwa, Odawa and Bodewadmi tribes who granted land to the University in 1817.
Twenty years before Michigan became a state, the United States and several Native American tribes signed the Treaty of Fort Meigs, which agreed that the tribes would cede their land and allow for the foundation of the University. Though the treaty is as old as the University, the plaque was erected to honor the gift in 2002.
Native students statewide also have the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver, which allows students to apply to have their tuition waived for enrollment at a state public college or university. To be eligible for the waiver, which is processed by the Department of Civil Rights, students must be a legal resident of the state for at least 12 consecutive months, certified at least 25-percent Native American and enrolled in a U.S. federally recognized tribe.
The Waiver of Tuition for North American Indians Act was first passed in the Michigan Legislature in 1976 — culminating from early 20th-century laws and agreements that the state would assume responsibility from the federal government for the education of Native students. The tuition waiver gained support in Michigan after a failed 1971 lawsuit claimed the University had violated the Treaty at Fort Meigs by using the land without providing education guarantees to Native students.
The act has been amended several times since it was first passed, mainly to loosen eligibility restrictions and allow universities to be reimbursed by the state for the cost of the waiver.
However, there have also been legislative attempts to dissolve the program. The most recent effort was in 1996, when Gov. John Engler said he would veto the next higher education budget if it included funding for the MITW program. Rallies were held in protest around the state and, though the program was removed from the budget, it was saved when funding was instead reallocated into the base per pupil funding of each university and college.
Thompson, who is an enrolled member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, is a recipient of the tuition waiver and said it’s partly why he goes to the University.
“The tuition waiver program is kind of always under constant threat and I need to utilize it,” he said. “It’s something that is a benefit that may not last forever. I certainly hope it does.”
According to Vicki Levengood, the communications director at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, 1,093 waivers were granted at Michigan’s four-year universities for 2014-2015. As of January 2016, 4 percent of program applications are for enrollment at the University.
“It’s a really hard process to get approved for the tuition waiver,” Gant said.
Though a native of Michigan, Gant said she is not eligible for the waiver because she is a member of the Oneida tribe, which is based out of Canada and not federally recognized by the United States.
As an unrecognized Native student, Engineering junior Gabrielle May doesn’t have access to resources like the MITW program. Though many of her relatives are registered in tribes, she said her parents encountered trouble trying to enroll.
“There’s not really any resources for me,” she said. “I am doing OK otherwise. I think I probably would have done OK or better with the resources but they’re unreliable. Good for some but not for all.”
Higher education assistance programs for Native students are offered in other states as well, with varying access and administration challenges. Though in some states, tuition waivers and scholarships are operated only by individual colleges.
With Heritage Month coming to a close, NASA will soon be turning the bulk of its efforts to planning its biggest cultural event: the annual spring Powwow.
The organization prides itself on hosting the largest student-run Powwow in the country, featuring on average more than 50 Native vendors, feasting, singing and dancing. This will be NASA’s 45th year organizing the two-day event, which sees hundreds of visitors from around the country.
“It’s a huge Powwow,” said Law student Jason Searle, a non-Native student who helped organize last year’s event. “A lot of tribes know about it and they all come to sell food and items as well as perform dances and cultural performances, which were great.”
Held at Skyline High School, the Powwow is painstakingly organized by members of NASA in collaboration with the University’s MESA and Eastern Michigan University’s Native American Student Organization. The event moved from its usual spot at the Crisler Center two years ago, but the organization hopes to eventually bring it back to campus.
“It’s great to be involved in a student organization that’s helping highlight and keep alive these cultural practices, and Powwow being a big one,” Searle said. “… It’s a big endeavor for students to take on but it’s really rewarding.”
Social Work student Shandiin Church said she has been attending powwows since she could walk and that dancing is a tradition in her family.
“Powwows are open to the public. It’s a celebration,” she said. “Some people think it’s a ritual and there’s something spooky about it … but it’s very celebratory. It’s a celebration, it’s a social gathering. It’s nothing tribal specific like just to one tribe. There’s 566 tribes in the United States and this is just something common that we all share.”
Gant said there is a lack of information in history books about Native Americans and encourages non-Native students to ask questions and try to learn more about Native culture.
“Being Native is something a lot of people don’t understand because they haven’t had the chance to learn about it yet,” Gant said. “A lot of people see being Native American as something of the past that doesn’t really exist anymore.”