Michelle Lietz, Vice President of the Native American Student Organization at Eastern Michigan University, shares a statement about last week’s racist party, which made national news.
Good Afternoon, everyone. I want to personally thank you all for coming out and supporting us in light of recent events, and a special thanks to the American Indian Movement for being here, as well as Idle No More for their presence, and their letter of support. We are all aware of the incident on April 11th, where as many as 20 Eastern students were dressed in red face costumes, with their faces and bodies painted and wearing fake headdresses, portraying the mainstream stereotype of American Indians, at an off campus party. During this party, one of our own community members, a Native elder, was verbally and physically assaulted.
We want to thank both the campus police department and the University administration for acknowledging this assault, and for investigating it.
However, we do not feel that the inciting behavior is being addressed as well as it should be. In regards to the statement sent out addressing this party, we feel that the careful word choice and lack of detail had the effect of minimizing the situation as a whole. We, the Native American Student Organization, feel that the racist attitudes and behaviors that led to this assault are a much bigger problem than this University would like to admit. These actions not only affect the community of Native Americans on Campus, but the entire Native community in Ypsilanti, and the State of Michigan as a whole. Acts of violence against the Native community stem from the long-reaching consequences of attitudes propagated by colonialism, which makes these acts of violence a problem not just for Native communities, but for all marginalized communities.
To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “There is power in numbers and there is power in unity.” We are all here today in unity as human beings to address violence and racism against the American Indian people on and off campus. Like many incidents regarding the unjust actions against American Indians, it is swept under the rug by those in power. Native voices are silenced to prevent these issues from reaching the public eye but we as Natives, and we as human beings will not accept this silence. It is unacceptable to wait for us, our relatives, our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers to become another statistic before change is allowed to take place.
These students involved, who decided that our culture was a costume they could put on for a few hours and take off again when it suited them, claimed they were hurons, and they were honoring our people. We know, and have said to this University administration specifically, that any images of Native peoples used as sports icons, logos, or mascots is dehumanizing, and fosters a hostile environment for the Native community, both on and off campus. We have said that these images encourage stereotypes, and demean a living culture. These images, used by non-Natives, serve to perpetuate the colonial myth of the extinction of Native people, and the right of the colonizer to write over our histories and our voices. And we have seen once again how quickly violence is used against our community when we speak against this kind of cultural appropriation.
In 2012, this administration chose to bring back the Huron logo on the band uniforms. Since then, the Native students on campus have had to bear witness to the increase of this image around campus, filtering in to sweatshirts, t-shirts, and other such accessories. A letter and petition was sent to the University Administration as soon as this change became public knowledge. This letter states, in regards to bringing back this logo, “This decision, however, will only create more division, and it reflects a marked disrespect for the Native American community and a violation of Native American students’ Civil Rights. Further, this decision was made without consulting members of the Native American Student Organization or faculty members who teach in these disciplines. Native American mascots and logos objectify Native peoples and create layers of misinformation and stereotypes, and they also teach non-Native students that such behavior is sanctioned by those in authority“ (end quote). This sanctioning of such racist behavior is what incites the kinds of violent acts we continuously see enacted towards members of the Native community. Many students and faculty signed this letter in support, and yet nothing was done. We understand that change takes time, and we have never tried to sit idly by waiting for change to come. We have always taken steps to educate and inform during each opportunity presented to us, both in classrooms and out, on campus and off. Our small numbers have never stopped us from attempting to reach as many ears and hearts as possible. But moments such as this, when we see such blatant disrespect for our people and culture, are disheartening to say the least. That these acts occur at all is disturbing in our modern age, but even more disturbing is the disregard and privilege displayed by these students.
The Wednesday after this party, Dr. McGowan, a Mississippi Choctaw professor of Anthropology here at Eastern, spoke to each of her classes here on campus about racism, disrespect for women, and the culture of erasure and silencing we continually speak against. After this, she received an anonymous email under the name “John Smith” from a student, claiming that no harm was intended and that our community was overreacting. This email alone demonstrates to us that these students involved do not understand what it is they have done, and they certainly have yet to see the kinds of consequences deserved for what we consider to be a hate crime.
As we stated back in 2013, we have seen many times over that there is a direct correlation between the Native mascots (including the huron logo), misrepresentation, and violence against Native Americans. While our organization has had turbulent relations with Huron alumni in the past, the reappearance of this logo has encouraged an entirely new generation of students who seem to see it as their right to appropriate our images and our cultures.
It is not up to the dominant group to tell us what honors us, and what does not—we are well aware of what an honor is or isn’t, and we as the ones experiencing the effects of this dehumanization, are telling you that this is not an honor.
Eastern Michigan is our home too, and we deserve to feel safe on this campus.
We are fighting for our right to exist as human beings, and not as costumes or mascots. We are fighting for our own voices, and our right to represent ourselves as living, breathing, and existing. These people who cling so hard to their racism and stereotypes—what exactly are they fighting for?
It’s been over 20 years since the huron logo was originally changed to the eagles. These students who claimed to be hurons at this party—they likely weren’t even born when this University’s president promised that the huron logo would never return to this campus.
We expect more from this University. We expect action. We expect a commitment to progress, and human rights, and we expect that this evidence of pervasive racism and dehumanization be met with a renewed commitment to honor the promises of respect that the Native community received over twenty years ago. The huron logo or any likeness needs to be removed entirely from the University. This is not a request. We do request a public apology be given from the students involved in the party on April 11th. Further, we would like to see additional funds allocated to the Center for Multicultural Affairs for the express purpose of educational programs controlled by the minority students on campus. It is time we are allowed to speak for ourselves, and control our own images and representation, and given a greater platform to educate our fellow students so that ignorance is no longer allowed to be an excuse.
This press conference has been our opportunity to speak out. Now it is the University’s decision to either take action, or continue to support a legacy of perpetuating racism.
Thank you, everyone, for being here and for listening. We appreciate you all, and we greatly appreciate the overwhelming support we have gotten from so many of our community, peers, coworkers, faculty, and personnel on campus. We may be few, but we are surrounded by love and support, and together, our voices will echo.
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