Three members of this year’s Michigamua class have been ousted from progressive campus groups after their membership in the society was made public last year.
The three members – Business senior Neal Pancholi, RC senior Sam Woll and LSA senior Brian Hull – were forced to quit the student organizations they were involved in.
The society, which for years used Native American artifacts, names and rituals, carries a stigma. Many tapped students turn Michigamua down because of its controversial history.
But the society, which only began admitting women to the class of 2000, has recently tapped an increasingly diverse membership. The society’s newfound diversity is reflected in its members’ races, genders and political viewpoints, current members said.
“Michigamua aspires to be every bit as progressive and innovative as the world-class university it serves,” said member Dennis Lee, an Engineering senior and drum major of the Michigan Marching Band.
When Pancholi’s membership became public last April, the South Asian Awareness Network decided he should no longer be affiliated with the group. Up until then, Pancholi had served as co-chair.
“Officially, I resigned, but it was more like a forced resignation,” Pancholi said.
SAAN refused comment, but according to Pancholi, the group thought it would be hypocritical to have one of its chairs in the divisive society.
In a statement to the Daily, Pancholi wrote he does not think Michigamua and SAAN have irreconcilable differences.
“Our biggest goals, as members of an organization and of our communities, are to introduce ideas to each other, to engage in dialogue, to challenge each other, to question each other, and ultimately, to grow,” Pancholi wrote.
Two campus groups forced out Woll, who describes herself as a social justice activist. When the Coalition to Cut the Contract With Coca-Cola discovered her membership in early December, it barred her from helping with fundraising or networking.
“We came to a consensus that we no longer want her to be involved in the coalition and we do not want anything to do with leaders that view Michigamua as a legitimate organization,” LSA senior Jayanthi Reddy wrote in an internal e-mail to the coalition. “We condemn Michigamua’s racist history and their lack of transparency.”
Both Hull and Woll were asked by Students Supporting Affirmative Action to stop attending its meetings shortly after their membership in Michigamua was made public last December.
Hull is an advocate for the LGBT campus community and last year was secretary of the Michigan Student Assembly.
“Michigamua has a documented history of discrimination, sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation,” SSAA said in a written statement to the Daily. “Michigamua has also been repeatedly deceitful and noncompliant in both inter-community dialogues and official University contracts to cease and desist this behavior. Accepting the organization in any form actively negates a commitment to a safe, respectful campus community and cannot be tolerated, especially by organizations touting themselves as progressive.”
Hull said he joined Michigamua in an effort to bring diversity to an important campus institution.
“The further you get into the institution, the more influence you have,” Hull said in a written response to SSAA dated Dec. 7. “Michigamua is not leaving, so why shouldn’t we get involved . and make this long-standing organization into what it ought to be?”
Woll said her Michigamua membership hasn’t ruined her friendships.
“There are some that may disagree with my decision to join but still support me as a friend and leader on campus,” Woll wrote in a statement to the Daily. “Anyone who knows me and my passionate commitment to working for social justice knows that I would never be a part of organization that would betray these principles.”
But RC senior Clara Hardie, a friend of Woll’s and a member of the Coke Coalition, disagreed.
“She’s alienated herself from her old friends and the social activist community,” Hardie said. “Because she probably foresaw these consequences, I’m angry at her choice. But I still feel bad for her.”
The three students’ names were released by University alum Rob Goodspeed on his blog Goodspeedupdate.com last month.
Goodspeed, who has posted lists of Michigamua members for years, said he continues to expose the society’s members because Michigamua’s century-old relationship with the University makes it a significant piece of campus history.
Based on Michigamua’s history of using Native American culture as its own, many campus groups, notably the Native American Student Association, continue to oppose it.
Hull said he has e-mailed NASA in the interest of dialogue, but NASA hasn’t returned his e-mails.
Brittany Marino, NASA’s external co-chair, said Michigamua’s existence would be more acceptable if it changed its name, which is not from a Native American tribe but was designed to sound like one.
“The way they bastardized, mocked and ridiculed Native American culture is just wrong,” said Casey Kasper, NASA’s internal co-chair.
Marino said the burden lies with Michigamua to make itself acceptable in the eyes of NASA.
“The question is, when are Michigamua (members) going to take responsibility for their history of marginalizing the Native American community? ” she said.
When asked whether the society is willing to consider changing its name, Hull said: “Michigamua is willing to sit down with members of NASA and members of the local Native American community to discuss any and all concerns that they may have with our organization.”
But given the high emotional stakes involved, dialogue may be difficult.
“The thing I hope for most is just for them to not exist anymore,” Kasper said.
Michigamua’s controversial past
Michigamua’s history is full of famous alumni and campus unrest.
The society says its purpose is to bring together campus leaders to provide anonymous service to the University by advocating, volunteering and raising money.
“Michigamua brings corners of the University together through its members’ leadership and allows student leaders to connect on an intense level that is otherwise hard to find on campus,” said Peter Vanderkaay, Michigamua member and Olympic swimming gold medalist.
But because it once used Native American imagery, the organization has been a topic of debate and controversy at the University for years.
The debate came to a head in 2000 when the Students of Color Coalition invaded the society’s space in the Michigan Union’s tower. The SCC hung Native American artifacts they’d found in the tower out of the window to expose Michigamua’s alleged use of them in its ceremonies. Michigamua claims the artifacts were in storage and had been out of use since 1989.
Although Michigamua says it has changed its racist ways, a stigma is still follows it on campus.
Five students presented an exhibit called “Michigamua Exposed” in the Michigan League last month.
The exhibit featured black-and-white photographs of old Michigamua classes clad in body paint and stereotypical Native American costumes as well as the Facebook.com profiles of several current members.
Many feel the sins of Michigamua’s past cannot be repented for.
“In an information age, it is not surprising that there are some students on campus who are angry and afraid of an organization whose progression from its history to its current day has been so hotly contested in the public arena,” said Erin Taylor, Michigamua member and former president of the Pan-Hellenic Council.
Michigamua was created in 1902 with the cooperation of then-University President James Angell as an honor society for outstanding student leaders. The society counts former President Gerald Ford, playwright Arthur Miller and Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler among its long list of influential members.