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Students Object to Indian Rituals

February 14, 2000

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) _ Eight minority students have seized the office of a distinguished University of Michigan organization for more than a week to protest the group’s alleged use of Indian symbols in its rituals.

The protesters say the 99-year-old Michigamua student society, which counts former President Gerald Ford as an alumnus, has not honored a 1989 promise to drop Indian-style rituals.

The protesters want the university to evict the group from its seventh-floor office in the Michigan Union.

``Our voices have been continually ignored,″ said Joe Reilly, 21, one of 213 American Indian students on the 36,600-student campus. ``We had no alternative to accepting the continued degradation of our people but to stand up for ourselves.″

Michigamua, which counts six women and eight minorities among its 24 current members, claims it rejects the old practices.

But the protesters don’t believe it and say they have evidence such as Indian pipes, drums and headdresses found in Michigamua’s office and a recent photo showing a member holding a peace pipe in one hand and a glass of beer in the other.

The sit-in began Feb. 6, after the protesters got a key to the Michigamua office from a sympathetic member, said one of the students involved, Diego Bernal, 23. Since then, as many as 100 supporters have slept outside the office door. Others have brought in food or offered to do laundry for the protesters.

``People see this fight as symbolic of the racism on campus,″ said Jessica Curtin, a 25-year-old graduate student and Michigan Student Assembly member. ``There’s been a steady decline in minority enrollment.″

Enrollment of blacks, Hispanics and Indians at Michigan has fallen from 14 percent in 1995 to 13 percent in 1999. A rising number of Asian-American students has kept total minority enrollment steady at 25 percent.

Two lawsuits by opponents of Michigan’s use of affirmative action in admissions could further reduce the number of minorities on campus.

Administrators and campus police have taken a hands-off approach toward the sit-in. Royster Harper, interim vice president for student affairs, said she urged the protesters on Monday morning to talk with university officials and members of Michigamua.

``The university has a rich tradition of protesting in this manner,″ Harper said. ``We have pretty much allowed this kind of expression.″

Michigamua (pronounced mi-chi-GAW-muh) was founded in 1901, its name taken from the Ojibway words for ``great water.″ It annually invites a small number of campus leaders _ all male until this year _ to join.

From the beginning, each got a ``tribal″ name upon initiation. Ford, a football standout and 1935 graduate, was dubbed ``Flipp ’Um Back″ Ford.

Ford ``always have ‘um time to powwow with Old Braves,″ said the caption for a picture of the former U.S. president at a 1978 reunion. ``He speak ’um wise words to the Tribe of ’78.″

Ford, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was out of his office Monday and could not be reached for comment, said his scheduler, Judi Risk.

Other Michigamua rituals included wearing loincloths, body painting and holding ceremonies around a totem pole. In response to growing criticism, the group promised in 1989 to abandon such practices.

The current members reject the past practices and are ``trying to alleviate the pain″ they have caused Indians, said spokesman Nick Delgado, a 21-year-old political science and sociology major from Chicago.

Michigamua’s rituals were overhauled in 1990 to comply with the agreement, Delgado said.

``It’s important that we go through this healing process, especially with the Native American community,″ he said. ``It’s important that we build bridges.″

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