Michigan Student Coalition Takes Over Student Union
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Officials here at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor reputedly pride themselves with having a campus that has a zero-tolerance for anything that interferes with human and civil rights.
Yet, an eight-student takeover last month of the student union’s “tower” has severely shaken that image.
The action — initiated by the university’s Students of Color Coalition — is part of a lingering 30-year dispute involving the “Michigamua,” a secret society housed on the seventh floor of the tower. The students took over the “wigwam” room of the Michigamua because as a Color Coalition spokesman puts it: “It makes a mockery of Native American culture.”
The Michigamua is a secret society founded in 1902, whose members include former President Gerald Ford. Members have traditionally parodied American Indian rituals as part of initiation. Approximately 30 years ago, American Indian students demanded that the university put a halt to Michigamua’s rituals.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights supported those demands and the secret society publicly complied. But Catherine Davids, the Michigan representative of the National Coalition Against Racism in Media and Sports — a local civil rights group — says that no one ever checked to make sure they kept their treaty.
“They didn’t even bother. They just took their rituals from public view and put them behind closed doors hoping to forever seal their secret society’s bigoted practices,” she says.
In 1989, the university and the secret society signed an agreement, which read: “Michigamua does hereby eliminate all reference to Native American culture and pseudo-culture and extensions and parodies thereof, with the one exception being the name, Michigamua, for now and forever.”
As part of the takeover, Color Coalition members are giving students and community members a tour of the wigwam room. It houses old photographs and objects used for the society’s rituals, which include a totem pole and other items coalition members refer to as “Red Sambos.”
Davids, who took the tour, describes it as “worse than disgusting. Everything in the room is a bastardized insulting devotion to American Indian culture and tradition.”
Joe Reilly, a spokesman for the student coalition, says the students will continue their takeover until their demands are met, which include:
nRecognition of the legal and moral responsibility of the University of Michigan to sever all affiliation with and subsidy of the secret society Michigamua;
nThat university support of the Michigamua — along with a few other associations housed in the tower — through exclusive provision of space in the Michigan Union be eliminated immediately, and that the space be transformed and made available to all students as a cultural study lounge;
nThat possession of all images, objects and representations of American Indian culture and psuedo-culture found within the seventh floor of the Michigan Union be transferred to the University of Michigan Native American community for proper repatriation.
Reilly notes that the students did not receive an official response until the ninth day of their occupation. The response, he says — which was that if the students left the “wigwam,” the space would be off limits — is unsatisfactory.
“It still leaves room for the university to take the room back,” he says.
For his part Dr. Lee Bollinger, the university’s president, has stated that Michigamua has volunteered to give up all sacred objects, thus there are but two issues remaining to be resolved.
“We will not recognize or derecognize student organizations based upon their viewpoints,” Bollinger told the Michigan Daily newspaper. “It is our belief as an academic institution that student organizations should not turn on offensive viewpoints of student organizations — it is a principle of the U.S. Constitution.”
Both sides have indicated they are willing to dialogue to end the dispute.
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