KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University is located on the traditional lands of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadmi nations, and Broncos will reflect on those Indigenous roots and the rich culture and contributions of Native people during Native American Heritage Month.
"To me, (Native American Heritage Month) means acceptance. There were a lot of hard years for Indigenous people where we were not accepted and we didn't get a voice," says Shabanaa Bush, a first-year aerospace engineering student and president of Western's Native American Student Organization (NASO). "We're recognizing our history and working toward making it right."
NASO is collaborating with a number of campus partners throughout November in order to raise awareness of Native culture and tradition, beginning with a performance by Frank Waln, Sicangu Lakota Indigenous American rapper, songwriter, music producer and activist, on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m. in Room 2452 of Knauss Hall. Western's Native American Affairs Council, the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations and the Office of Diversity Education are other sponsors of the event.
The student organization is also partnering with the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine for a screening of "Warrior Lawyers," a documentary film by Audrey Geyer that touches on legal advocacy for tribal sovereignty, the impacts of historical trauma and systemic social justice issues. A panel discussion moderated by Bush will follow.
"Within Indigenous government, we really focus on peacekeeping, peacemaking, reconciliation and finding positive alternative solutions for those in the criminal justice system or those with pending trials. It's a really great movie," Bush says.
Western's University Libraries has compiled a number of resources related to Native American Heritage month online and has also collaborated with NASO and the Native American Affairs Council to curate a list of books for students interested in learning more about Native and Indigenous culture.
SUPPORTING INDIGENOUS STUDENTS
The American Indian Science and Engineering Society recently ranked Western among the top 200 colleges for Indigenous students based on strong community, Native programs and support.
The University established a Native American Affairs Council in 2021 to honor Western's Indigenous roots and support, elevate and advocate for Native perspectives on campus. Composed of an interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff members and students as well as representatives from local tribes, the council has already made strides toward growing programming on campus. Over the summer, Western students had an opportunity to learn about Indigenous approaches to environmental justice through an immersive experience on the Pine Creek Indian Reservation led by Dr. Dee Sherwood, associate professor of social work and director of the Native American Affairs Council.
"Indigenous communities have been leading environmental protection and climate change awareness and activism here locally in Michigan and also around the world," she said in a previous interview about the experience. "This effort is part of the cultural lifeways and values, and I think it's something students really want to learn about but don't necessarily know how to connect with tribal communities."
Western also established a graduate certificate in tribal governance within the public administration program, and council leaders hope to consult with local tribal leaders to continue to incorporate a broader curriculum across campus that includes Indigenous perspectives.
EXPANDING NATIVE KNOWLEDGE
Support for Native students is a big reason Bush chose to come to Western.
"I knew a lot of people from my (tribal) community who went to Western, and they really felt accepted," she says. "Western really promotes diversity."
Having been involved throughout high school in United National Indian Tribal Youth, a national organization aimed at connecting and empowering Native American youth, Bush started searching for an organization for Indigenous or multicultural students as soon as she arrived at Western for Fall Welcome. She immediately found NASO and immersed herself in the group, becoming president within her first few months at the University.
"I want to help build the RSO and also build my own community as well," she says.
She's now hoping to expand that reach by competing in the Miss Indian World competition during the 40th annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, billed as the largest and most prestigious cultural pageant for young Native women.
"(The winner) goes out around Indian country and promotes her platform of cultural acceptance and cultural knowledge," says Bush. "I have a passion for promoting my own culture and for promoting other people's cultures, so I want to be able to bring that to Western. And if it means getting a world title to help promote that, I'll do it."
"Shabanaa has the enthusiastic support of her family, the WMU Native American Affairs Council and students in NASO as she represents her culture and tribal community in this important competition," says Sherwood, faculty adviser for NASO.
Miss Indian World will be crowned at the gathering on April 27, 2024.
For more WMU News, arts and events, visit WMU News online.