Clad in Native American regalia and covered from head to toe in war paint, the latest “braves” ran around in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library. As hundreds of students looked on, Michigamua initiated its latest class of members as part of its annual rope-in. The year was 1939.
This scene repeated itself for most of the last century. Founded in 1902, Michigamua, one of the University’s self-described senior honor societies, fashioned itself as an imagined all-male Native American tribe. Over time, public outcry put the kibosh on most of Michiagamua’s overtly offensive and discriminatory practices.
In breach of agreements against it, Michigamua continued to misappropriate Native American culture and reinforce painful stereotypes into the 21st century. And it didn’t admit women into its ranks until the University’s Dean of Students forced them to in 1999.
In a move to distance itself from its past, Michigamua changed its name to the Order of Angell in 2007. Today, whether or not its members realize it, the organization faces an existential crisis: Should it still exist?
To answer this question, some background is in order.
The Order of Angell serves as a window into the past, a vestige of student life from more than a century ago. Student societies were all the rage on campus in the first decade of the 20th century. These exclusive organizations brought together like-minded individuals, and, according to Wilfred Shaw, former editor of Michigan Alumnus magazine, membership “reflected not so much scholastic attainment as personal popularity.”
Societies sprung up in departments across the University; these included the Alchemists who studied chemistry and the Druids who studied literature. Two senior societies lasted to the present day: the Order of Angell and the engineering society, Vulcan. Together with a third all-female society, Adara — known as Phoenix today — the three societies occupied floors five through seven of the Michigan Union’s tower until 2000.
Each year, the Order of Angell, the most prominent of the tower societies, invites its incoming “pride” of about two dozen leaders through an application-less process known as “tapping.” The group claims to recruit the most distinguished leaders on campus, provide a forum to discuss campus issues and spur “humble” leadership. In addition, members can benefit from its connection to accomplished alumni who participated in the organization.
Once we scrape away abandoned practices, one strand in particular ties Michigamua of the past to the Order of Angell of the present: self-congratulatory elitism.
When it distanced itself from its racist past, the Order of Angell lost part of its identity. It had for so long mocked Native Americans that in many respects shaped its unique and disturbing place on campus.
And when the University forced the organization to accept women into its ranks, it once more lost its all-male identity. Since Congress passed Title IX into law in 1972, student organizations can neither discriminate against women nor otherwise exclude them. However, Michigamua flouted this law for decades and would likely have remained an all-male group had the University not finally intervened 26 years later.
Having shed much of its racist and discriminatory practices, what purpose does the Order of Angell serve? It allows a select few to meet regularly. And for the rest of campus, it stands as a constant reminder of the practices and attitudes that hurt a minority community and the campus at large. It provides a window to a past to which student organizing shouldn’t return.
However, we can take positive steps forward. First, the Order of Angell should disband and similarly elitist, self-congratulatory group organizations should consider doing the same.
And in their place, we should build spaces for student leaders to meet over a sustained period, establish strong relationships and engage in dialogue about pressing campus issues. We can develop a program that strives towards similar goals as the present day Order of Angell without the baggage of the past. Moreover, this endeavor would provide an inclusive experience for student leaders, one that societies like Order of Angell fail to provide.
Never again, I hope, will students find it acceptable to parade around campus in culturally insensitive ways. Instead, I long for a future where student leaders cast aside culturally destructive groups and connect through inclusive forums.
Kevin Mersol-Barg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.