Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
February 26, 2000 - Issue 04

Report from the Tower
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Provided by Joe Reilly

An American Disease

A great frustration has challenged my spirit for the past fifteen days. It is the same frustration that has confronted Native people here for 98 years. Imbedded in disrespect it is combined with ignorance, ambivalence, racism, and elitism and is rooted in the soils of colonialism and conquest. It is fed by centuries of dishonesty and lies, and is strengthened with institutional ties and policies, sprouting ferociously in the landscape of American culture. This frustration transcends the small space in which it has repeatedly surfaced: a rectangular “wigwam” high above the rest of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus.

Prior to our occupation of the Michigan Union tower over two weeks ago, the three floors of meeting space within this public building were only accessible to members of three secret “honorary” societies and to select university administrators. Over two weeks ago seven students and myself gained access to this seventh floor room. Our goal was very clear and simple: to liberate this space that for 70 years has been used exclusively by one of these tower societies, Michigamua, to appropriate Native American culture and disrespect Native American people.

After three decades of attempted dialogue and negotiation with Michigamua and with University administration, the Students of Color Coalition decided it was time to take action. We acted in accordance with our ancestral rights and have remained here on that principle for fifteen days. We have compromised our commitments as students and employees to stand up against this injustice, and have helped the public reflect on this long history of institutionalized racism that is so well-rooted in University tradition.

Creation Story

In 1902 a group of white men at the University of Michigan, 25 of the best “leaders” on campus, formed an organization based on service and pride to the University. This strong sense of honor and prestige was enhanced through the creation of a savage warrior ideal, based on stereotypical and romantic images of American Indian men. The leadership society dubbed itself the “Tribe of Michigamua,” and began a legacy of adopting images, rituals, and artifacts of Native American people into the identity of their organization.

Michigamua gained its exclusive space within the tower of the Michigan Union in the early 1930’s. Before that time the top three floors of the union were used for utility purposes. In 1933 Michigamua alum Fielding Yost invited his “tribal” brothers to use this space indefinitely without rent. A letter from “Great Scalper” Yost, as he was known to fellow members, hangs on the wall of the seventh floor meeting space and describes the original plans for the “wigwam,” an imitation of the traditional Anishnaabeg structure. The letter, dated May 15th, 1933 reads: “And now Michigamua plans its own home, a real wigwam. Up in the tower of the Michigan Union, high above the campus, there is a vacant room. Michigamua has been invited to make use of this space-without cost, without rental, without taxes. All that remains is to convert the rough, unfinished interior into a permanent cost-free Council Wigwam for the Tribes to come.”

Inside the “Wigwam”

Some 70 years later the room still resembles a lodge in its design and structure, an obvious result of the original plans of the Michigamua Wigwam Committee. The interior walls are covered in fake wood paneling and highlighted with a birch bark pattern painted on the surrounding columns. Along the walls hang metal plaques honoring “Great Scalper” Yost and other “Departed Braves.” The wood shingled ceiling curves into a dome shaped mural painted with images of wolves and maize. In the center of the ceiling hangs a stuffed snowy owl with wings spread full in a sad lifeless position.

A large wooden table sits central in the meeting space and displays photographs showing among other rituals, individual members standing on the table beneath the owl while others encircle him chanting pseudo Indian melodies. The room is infested with historical evidence of ninety-eight year old traditions based on the appropriation and desecration of American Indian culture, spirituality and religion.

During our 360 hour occupation of the “wigwam,” we have uncovered a pipe, hides torn from a drum frame, a cradle board, beadwork, fake eagle feather headdresses, numerous imitation tomahawks, and countless other examples of authentic and imitation cultural objects. We have also found photo albums depicting pipe ceremonies and meeting journals outlining the Michigamua tradition of adopting pseudo-Indian names. A photograph dated 1996 shows a Michigamua member holding a pipe in one hand and a glass of beer in the other. A 1997 directory gives examples of Michigamua songs and poems. A “Pride of 2000” journal lists each member’s name as “Fighting Wolves.” The theme song of their organization, published in the 1997 directory, is “Rally Round,” calling forth the brave men of Michigamua to be ready for war:

Rally Round
Michigamua Braves we are
Rally round, ding ding
Michigamua Braves we are
We hunt the bear and the jaguar
Rally round, ding ding

We’re a very powerful clan
Rally round, ding ding
We’re a very powerful clan
Our Wigwams are in Michigan
Rally round, ding ding

Got’um squaw, no papoose
Rally round, ding ding
Got’um squaw, no papoose
Don’t do better, we turn’um loose
Rally round, ding ding

Whoop and raise the great scalp lock
Rally round, ding ding
Whoop and raise the great scalp lock
Rally round, ding ding
Cut’um off with tomahawk
Rally round, ding ding

We are the Braves of Old Michigamua
Just come forth from our Wig-a-wama
Got our war paint on and we don’t give a damma!
With a Ki-Yi-Yi and a war-WHOOP!

Through Our Eyes

From our perspective as Native people and as people of color, the destruction and hostility caused by organizations such as Michigamua are painfully obvious. They remind us of a larger society who accepts the degradation of our cultures in the form of sports mascots and Hollywood portrayals. To University administrators however, our concerns are misunderstood, ignored, and our rights brushed aside.

For as long as Native people have been enrolled at the University of Michigan, our community has opposed the hostile environment created by Michigamua. In 1972 a Native student filed a complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. In 1989 an agreement was signed between Michigamua, a Native student, and a University representative in which Michigamua agreed to eliminate all references to Native American culture, and pseudo-culture from their organization. For the decade following that agreement, our community has attempted to dialogue with the University and Michigamua while being assured that they were abiding by the agreement. It has proven to be one of many broken treaties, insulting our dignity as human beings and displaying a consistent University policy of neglecting its Native students’ cultural and civil rights.

The Students of Color Coalition is not asking much of the University of Michigan, we simply ask for dignity and respect. We have demanded that the University sever all affiliation with and subsidy of Michigamua, primarily by withdrawing the exclusive space provided to their organization. We have called for the space in the tower to become public in the interest of the entire University community.

Free to be Racist

One full week after witnessing firsthand the atrocities and exposed lies within the Michigamua “wigwam,” University President Lee Bollinger came forth with a statement defending their actions under the guise of free speech. A legal expert on the First Amendment, President Bollinger stated: For a University, a fundamental principle is that, with rare exceptions, students, faculty, and staff must not be treated differently because of their beliefs or the expressions of those beliefs. That principle has direct application to this controversy. Some have argued that one of the societies using the Union tower space, Michigamua, should be stripped of its University affiliation and lose its exclusive use of that space because it has a history of practices that demean and degrade Native American culture and spirituality. Under our principles it is clear that student organizations must not be recognized or de- recognized, or suffer any other penalty, because the ideas they espouse or beliefs they adhere to are offensive, or even dangerous, to our community.

According to this philosophy, President Bollinger is ready to defend and support the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis when they come to the University as student organizations. He is also willing, according to his statement, to use public funds to sustain black minstrel shows and mock Christian prayer societies at this public institution. I question whether he would allow for any of these groups to manifest themselves so deeply within the University as he has for Michigamua. We do not feel comfortable leaving the tower without an assurance from the University that these racial injustices will discontinue after we leave. Our interests are for those seven generations that will follow. Will they be forced to endure the same mockery and disrespect as we have? Surely those that have fought before us kept the same teachings close to their hearts. We hope that this wound can be healed and that the health of the larger sickness will improve. We pray that the Creator will guide us in making decisions that will provide a better place for Native people and all people within these walls and throughout Turtle Island.

Exposing the Michigamua

If you are reading this and have not yet contacted the University of Michigan administrators then please do so. These students need your support.
Catherine Davids
Flint, Michigan
[NOTE: see: for "mailto" addresses to file complaints with the university regents, administration and the Michigan Civil Rights Department state of Michigan...Every complaint filed with the Civil Rights Commission also blind copies the university board of regents.]

Let them know you have a complaint and are making it known!

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