Western honors Native American heritage, creates path to deepen connections with tribal communities

Contact: Erin Flynn
Laura Moss holds a knife to cut sweet grass while Dr. Dee Sherwood kneels down beside pots of soil.

Laura Moss, left, a groundskeeper in Landscape Services, has cultivated the Native American Bed outside Floyd Hall. She helped Dr. Dee Sherwood, right, harvest sweet grass and sage for Native American ceremonies.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Sage and sweet grass sway in the breeze under the shadow of the obelisk in front of Floyd Hall on Western Michigan University's Parkview Campus. Two of the four sacred plants on the Indigenous medicine wheel, Dr. Dee Sherwood and student Skyler Wolverton recently visited to harvest some for smudge ceremonies during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations.

"When we all meet, the first thing we do is smudge, and that's when we get our medicine and burn it," says Wolverton, president of the Native American Student Organization (NASO). "We fan it around and it's kind of cleansing … to keep good energy."

"It's a way to start activities, events or conversations in a good way, and it's a moment of pause to cleanse our mind and our hearts and our thoughts and just kind of settle for a moment before we begin interacting. And it's a good way to start those interactions," adds Sherwood, associate professor of social work and director of Western's Native American Affairs Council (NAAC).

Recognizing Western's Main Campus is on the lands of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadmi nations—the tribes that represent the Three Fires Confederacy in Southwest Michigan—the NAAC is working to support, elevate and advocate for Native American perspectives and communities both on and off campus.

In honor of National Native American Heritage Month in November, the council secured a grant from the Native American Heritage Fund to bring Billy Mills, Olympic gold medalist, Ogala Lakota elder, veteran and author, to campus on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Mills was orphaned at age 12 and grew up in poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He attended the Haskell Indian Boarding School in Kansas where he started running to channel his energy into something positive. His determination led him to the 1964 Olympics, where he shocked the world and came from behind to win the gold medal in the 10K race. He is the only American to ever bring home gold in that race, and his upset win has been called one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. Mills went on to help found Running Strong for American Indian Youth, an organization that focuses on empowering Native youth and encouraging them to follow their dreams.

A black and white photo of runner Billy Mills in his Olympic track uniform throwing up his arms in celebration after a race.

Billy Mills celebrates after his historic Olympic win in 1964.

"We wanted to bring a Native American speaker that would be able to address a wide variety of topics but also from a strengths perspective. In conversation, media and scholarship, often the focus is on the damage done to Native communities or trauma from boarding schools. But we wanted to bring someone who would also represent strength and resilience of Native people. And I think Billy does that," Sherwood says.

Levi Rickert, founder and editor of Native News Online, will host "A Conversation with Billy Mills," which is scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Fetzer Center. The event will also include a smudge ceremony, drumming and Native American arts and crafts. Earlier in the day, Native youth groups from three local tribes will tour Western's campus and meet with NASO students. Native youth will also have an opportunity to meet with Billy Mills.

"This is an example of making community connections and capacity-building at WMU through the Native American Affairs Council," says Sherwood. "It's all about creating those connections and increasing understanding and awareness. … Having a University community that is aware and engaged in participating (in Native events) is important."


A new course will launch this summer focused on Indigenous perspectives on environmental protection and climate activism. Sherwood received a Climate Change Teaching Fellowship from Western's Center for Humanities through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop the course. It will explore the impacts of climate change, the principles of environmental justice and the historical and contemporary approaches of Indigenous communities to environmental protection.

Two people stand on a dock in a luch, green vegetative setting.

Sherwood, right, stands with Doug Taylor, tribal historic preservation officer, next to wild river rice beds on the Pine Creek Indian Reservation.

"The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi has agreed to partner and invite WMU students to come visit the Pine Creek Indian Reservation and learn about their environmental protection efforts," says Sherwood. Students will have the ability to visit the tribe's hydroponic greenhouse and community medicine garden; observe wild rice riverbeds and learn about restoration efforts; participate in Indigenous-led discussions about the Seven Grandfather Teachings as they relate to climate change; and attend the tribe's annual powwow, among other service-learning opportunities.

The course continues efforts of the NAAC to expand Native American curriculum and educational opportunities on campus. A tribal governance course led by Sam Morseau, secretary of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and NAAC member, that was piloted in spring 2022 is also being expanded in 2023 to a certificate program.

In addition to curriculum, the council has seen outreach from across the University seeking consultation and ways to engage Indigenous communities. Dr. Britt Hartenberger, faculty specialist of anthropology, reached out to the NAAC to help facilitate the consultation of Native American collections currently housed in Moore Hall with local tribal communities. Dr. Cybelle Shattuck, assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is also working with the NAAC to include Indigenous people of the region in stewardship and environmental protection work at Asylum Lake.

"We're making really good progress and building momentum and engagement, and I think that's evidenced by people within Western understanding that we have this council and then reaching out to us for consultation," Sherwood says. "Our other major priority is empowering our students to have a voice and having Indigenous-led activities and events."

Sherwood is encouraged by the leadership opportunities that have opened up for students within NASO. Wolverton, for example, recently led an Indigenous Peoples Day panel discussion at WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine and was also asked to read a land acknowledgement during the biennial diversity conference at the College of Health and Human Services.

People sit at a long table on a stage in front of a projector screen.

Skyler Wolverton, at the podium, leads an Indigenous Peoples Day panel discussion at WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.

"I used to feel out of place a little bit when it came to Native American things, because when I was growing up I didn't have too much involvement. But NASO has helped me feel more at home, more in place with who I am. And the opportunities that I have to go and do these things are very empowering," Wolverton says.

His connection to his Indigenous roots has also inspired his career plans. A third-year geography major with a concentration in geographic information systems and focus on urban, regional and environmental planning, Wolverton hopes to work for his tribe, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, after graduation.

"As a Native American, our lands have greatly diminished over time," he says. "I'm going into geography … so we can better utilize the land that we do have … and raise that quality of living."

Wolverton also hopes to continue to raise the visibility of Native communities through NASO while he is on campus. He sees Native American Heritage Month as a prime opportunity to start important conversations.

"Of course, we want this to happen every month, that people are reflecting and mindful and listening and learning about Native Americans. But this month, in particular, I think it's important," Sherwood adds. "It's an important time for us to increase awareness and understanding."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.