Hurons logo, harassment prompt meeting at EMU

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

U.S. Justice Department officials came to Eastern Michigan University this week to meet with president Susan Martin and a Native American campus group to discuss concerns over the continued use of the school's Hurons logo after students allegedly harassed a Native American elder in April.

Marching band uniforms, shown in 2012 on Phil Chung, have the former Hurons logo to highlight Eastern Michigan history.

At the meeting Tuesday, Martin refused to remove the logo after being asked to by the EMU Native American Student Organization, according to Mark Fancher, a staff attorney for racial justice for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. Fancher attended the meeting at the request of the student group.

Martin returned the Hurons logo, which depicts a Native American face with paint and feathers, to the EMU Marching Band uniform in 2012 to promote what she calls the university's history and pride. It is hidden under a front flap.

"She takes the position the logo was retired. Its presence under the flap does not equate its return," Fancher said. "Martin says it's a part of the university's history. My response to that is yes — it's a disgraceful part of the history. It is causing harm to the students. It needs to go."

Laura Sagolla, a tribal liaison for the Department of Justice, attended Tuesday's meeting, said Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit.

Sagolla was there "to listen and ask questions about ways in which the university might respond" to concerns raised by EMU's NASO and the local tribal community about the handling of a recent incident of racial harassment of a Native American community member by EMU students, Balaya said.

Geoff Larcom, an EMU spokesman, said the Hurons logo was used by the university for 62 years until 1991, the year Eastern became one of the first universities in the nation to change its logo and mascot to avoid using Native American names and images.

"The decision was based on the EMU campus community's and the Michigan Civil Rights Commission's concerns about the negative stereotypes reinforced by such logos and representations, and in the spirit of multicultural awareness," Larcom said.

Eastern became the "Hurons" in 1929 and the "Eagles" in 1991. The current marching band uniforms include two historic logos: the "Normalites," from when EMU was known as Michigan State Normal School, and the "Hurons," to represent both prior eras of the band's history. The logos are under an inside flap of the jacket that is not visible during performances or public appearances, Larcom said.

NASO students say the presence of the Hurons logo has been responsible for a number of hostile acts and expressions toward Native American students and others in the community, including the alleged attack on Native American elder Nathaniel Phillips.

Phillips told investigators that on April 11, EMU students at an off-campus party were dressed in red face-paint and feathers. When Phillips told the students their dress was offensive, they threw a full beer can at him and told him to "go back to the reservation," according to NASO members.

Patches of former mascots, the Hurons and the Normalites, are embroidered on uniforms.

Michelle Lietz, vice president of NASO, attended the meeting with two other student members. She said Martin was dismissive of their concerns over the logo and doesn't understand it is demeaning and dehumanizing to Native Americans.

"When people see us as characters and mascots, they don't see us as people. It completely erases our existence and our history," Lietz, 26, said.

Around campus, Lietz said Native American students have had hostile encounters with students over symbols of their heritage, including offensive bumper stickers and a "war whoop" re-enactment.

Worse, Lietz says, is that Martin does not seem to understand her direct role in creating a hostile environment for students at EMU by bringing back the Hurons logo.

"It's just very disappointing to me she can have students in front of her who are telling her they are living in this hostile environment and she is not willing to understand what she has done to make this happen. She had a personal role in creating this environment," Lietz said.

Larcom said several members of EMU's leadership, including Provost Kim Schatzel and officials from the university's public safety department, have met with NASO members since the April 11 incident.

EMU issued a news release on April 17 saying it investigated the incident and met with students who were concerned about it, saying the school "takes these matters very seriously and remains strongly committed to maintaining a respectful and inclusive and safe environment."

Larcom said the university will continue to actively engage the NASO students.

"The university takes their concerns very seriously, and looks forward to continue working with those students and other student groups in maintaining and improving Eastern as a diverse and welcoming campus," Larcom said.

Having the Department of Justice and the ACLU at the meeting was encouraging, Lietz said.

"It was validating for me. It made me feel better to know other people are paying attention who have power in these sorts of situations," she said.

Martin, EMU's first female president, is stepping down in July after eight years.

Her term has been marked by enrollment gains, a successful fundraising campaign and several building projects. But there was some controversy in 2012, when the regents sent Martin a letter and told her that she must address her alcohol consumption in public or risk termination.

Fancher said he urged Martin to use this week's discussion as a teaching moment.

"She could very easily make clear this is objectionable, have campus discussions. The university could lead the way to move this to a different level. To let it sit and fester — it creates more controversy," Fancher said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com