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Lawmakers hear bills aimed at preserving Indigenous culture 

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Lawmakers hear bills aimed at preserving Indigenous culture 

Sep 14, 2023 | 5:09 am ET
By Anna Liz Nichols
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Lawmakers hear bills aimed at preserving Indigenous culture 
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Mary Lee, a survivor of an Indian Boarding School finishes speaking to the Michigan House Higher Education Committee on September 3, 2023. (photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

The idea that Indigenous students would be allowed to wear traditional attire to their graduations these days is an emotional image for Mary Lee, a survivor of an Indian boarding school. 

Lee, having survived Holy Childhood school in Harbor Springs, one of the last Indian schools used to assimilate to white culture and prey upon Native children to close in the U.S., told members of the House Higher Education Committee that it’s an honor for children of today to learn about and celebrate their culture, while recognizing what has been lost.

“It’s very hard to open up, being a survivor of a boarding school. … I want to speak up, not only for my kids, but for every Native [person],” Lee said. “I think it would be very good for our kids to carry on what we couldn’t have.”

Two legislative committees took up bills Wednesday aiming to preserve elements of Native American culture in the state. Legislation to ensure Indigenous students’ ability to wear traditional attire to school and at graduation, as well as to designate manoomin (wild rice) as the state’s first official native grain, received testimony from members of Michigan’s Native American community.

Under House Bill 4853, sponsored by state Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills), educational institutions — both private and public, from nursery to post high-school education like universities or vocational schools — would be required to allow individuals to bring traditional objects or regalia to school. 

The bill specifically mentions Indigenous individuals qualify. The legislation would add a prohibition on discriminating against a person from wearing traditional regalia or bringing traditional objects under the state’s Civil Rights Act.

House Bill 4854, sponsored by Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit), similarly would add to the state’s Revised School Code to require schools to allow Indigenous students to wear traditional regalia and bring traditional objects to school and permit both at graduation ceremonies.

Both bills have the same definitions of Indigenous individuals, traditional objects and traditional regalia:

Indigenous individual: “An individual who identifies as an original or first person of a region or country.”

Traditional objects: “Any cultural, religious, or ceremonial items or objects that hold tribal or ancestral meaning, significance, or importance for an individual, including an indigenous individual.”

Traditional regalia: “Any cultural, religious, or ceremonial clothing or wearable items representing an individual’s tribal or ancestral traditions, including the tribal or ancestral traditions of an indigenous individual.”

Steckloff said it was a “heartstring issue” for her as a Jewish woman who has been forced to remove her Star of David necklace at many events, to hear that there is still legal discrimination against students, especially Native American Michiganders, wanting to wear parts of their culture at important moments in their lives.

Having been an athlete in high school in Grosse Pointe in the 1990s where the mascot was a Confederate flag, Nat Spurr of the Anishinaabek Caucus said he understands the importance of symbols and what they mean.

“This bill would make non-Native students more aware of our culture, of our traditions. It would also, I think, make life easier for American Indian students at all levels of school,” Spurr said. “It would make us more visible, it would basically facilitate the relationship between American Indian and non-American Indian students for a more positive, successful learning experience.”

The history of Native children having their culture ripped away from them is not a thing of the past, Indigenous activist and Traverse City area attorney Holly T. Bird said. The last Indian Boarding Schools, which have a dark history of abuse and death, only closed 30 years ago.

“It is very difficult and there’s a lot of fear still based on trauma where schools are not allowing regalia or native children to wear the regalia as part of their graduation,” Bird said. 

 

The traditional cap and gown students wear at graduation is not a Native American idea of an honorable outfit, Bird said. It is purely a Western concept of what that important outfit should look like.

“We’re telling the students that are graduating, ‘Not only do you have to follow our rules within the school system, but you’re not allowed to [dress at graduation] in a way that is honorable for you,” Bird said.

Over in the House Agriculture Committee, Michigan could become the first state to have a designated state native grain, manoomin, according to HB 4852 sponsor Rep. Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor).

Purposeful erasure of Anishinaabe agricultural practices and culture, as well as water pollution, have led to a depletion of manoomin, which is a vital part of ancestral heritage for Native Americans in Michigan, Nichole Keway Biber of the Anishinaabek Caucus said.

“This designation, I think it’s educational … because there’ll be a question: What is manoomin? And they can learn that and they can learn something I think that’s really wonderful for us all,” Biber said. “It’s the story of recovery, not only of our cultural practices, but also of the manoomin herself, who will be there when the waters are correctly cared for.”

To the audible delight of the crowd, Rep. John Roth (R-Traverse City) suggested the committee vote immediately on passage, which they did, with unanimous bipartisan support, bookmarked by applause and cheering from the several Native American people who came to watch the hearing.