It was noon on April 11, and Nathan Phillips was out collecting wood for his sweat lodge. He has one in his backyard next to a fire pit, and at least once a month he’ll have people over to pray. The 60-year-old former Marine and member of the Omaha Tribe said he often roams near his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan scouring for loose branches, cleaning up neighbors’ yards in the process to make a few bucks. Phillips is unemployed, and he’ll sell whatever wood he doesn’t use for the lodge.
But, on that day, his normal stroll went bad within a matter of minutes.
Phillips was passing through an open parking lot when he heard someone shout at him. He turned to look and saw a group of people gathered at a home just on the other side of a four-foot fence; he said the house with pulsating with energy, which isn’t unusual for that area of Ypsilanti with Eastern Michigan University less than a mile away. “Come on over!” a voice yelled. From a distance, Phillips couldn’t see any of the party-goer’s faces or make out what they were wearing. He said all he could detect was the cacophony of noise and a myriad of colors on top of their heads.
Phillips set down his bundle of wood and began to head toward the home. As he got closer, he could see the men were young and white with faces painted red, and some also donned multi-colored faux feathers. It was later reported that many of those in attendance at the party were EMU students.
“The guy who called me over said something ridiculous,” Phillips recalled. “He said, ‘We’re having an impregnation party!’”
Suddenly, about four alleged college students – all male and dressed like plains Indians – approached Phillips and apologized for their inebriated friend. Phillips asked the group what they were doing, what kind of party they were having. According to Phillips, one student responded, “We’re honoring Indians. We’re honoring you.”
A voice from within the crowd then shouted, “Fuck the Eagles! We’re the Hurons.”
Huron vs. Eagles
In 1991, Eastern Michigan University retired its Huron moniker and Native American mascot. The university had used the Indian caricature for 62 years before people in the community, including the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, protested its use, arguing it perpetuated racism against Indians.
Geoff Larcom, executive director of media relations at EMU, told ICTMN in an email that the university was one of the first institutions in the country to change its Native American mascot due to “concerns about the negative stereotypes reinforced by such logos and representations, and in the spirit of multicultural awareness.”
Today, Eastern Michigan University is the Eagles.
Yet, although the Native American Huron mascot has been retired for nearly 25 years – and although the corresponding logo has since been deemed to reinforce negative stereotypes – the caricature still lives on in school-sanctioned band uniforms.
When ICTMN asked Larcom why the retired mascot is still used on official campus uniforms, he wrote that its in homage to an era of the band’s history. He added that the controversial logo is situated “on an inside flap of the jacket that is not publicly visible during performances or public appearances.”
‘Campus Culture Is Not Safe’
When Amber Morseau walked onto the EMU campus four years ago she couldn’t have known that one day she’d quit the university’s color guard in protest of the resurrection of the Huron mascot.
Morseau, who’s Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the president of EMU’s Native American Student Organization (NASO), said it was at band camp during her junior year that the university added the ousted Huron mascot to the uniforms.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The band director said there was absolutely nothing they could do.”
Morseau and other members of NASO later approached university President Susan Martin who admitted to them that she personally authorized the resurrection of the old Indian mascot. Morseau said she told Martin that the mascot creates a hostile environment for the few Native American students there are on campus. She asked Martin if that mattered.
“She avoided the question,” Morseau said.
Now a senior, Morseau said although there are faculty members and staff who support the Native American students on campus and even look out for them, she feels safer when she leaves EMU than she does walking about her peers on campus.
Once in a while, an alumnus who’s aware of her opposition to the Huron mascot will call here a “squaw” among other pejoratives.
“Fucking Indian, redskins, stuff like that,” she said.
“As far as in the classroom? Yes, it’s safe. Campus culture – it’s not safe,” she added. “Five miles away from campus I feel fine, but it’s when [I’m] on campus I feel threatened.”
Vice President of NASO Michelle Lietz agreed with Morseau, saying lately the climate on campus has been increasing hostile toward Native Americans.
“There have been times in the past when we have felt unsafe. Recently, we have definitely felt unsafe,” she told ICTMN. “Mostly what we experience are micro aggressions.”
Lietz, who’s a graduate student of literature and a Yaqui, said NASO’s concerns regarding their physical safety are due largely to the return of the Huron mascot. Their request to see it dropped (a second time) falls on deaf administrative ears.
“[The mascot] fosters a hostile environment for Native people,” Lietz said. “They told us it was just on the band uniforms – that it was uniting EMU’s past with its present.”
Morseau, however, wonders why the university would hide the Indian logo on the inside flap of the jacket if it weren’t concerned it would cause controversy.
“For them to hide it behind a flap, it seems like they’re trying to get away with something,” she said. “Everybody knows that it’s there. You’re hiding it.”
‘Hey, Chief. Want a Beer?’
Nathan Phillips was outnumbered. He stood before a group of unruly white men dressed as faux Indians who claimed they were honoring him and all Native Americans at a party just a short walk from campus. Phillips said he attempted to enlighten the group by telling them what they were doing was racist.
“And as soon as I said ‘racist’ [it was], ‘Fuck you!’ And then they started saying, ‘Go back to the rez!’ ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ ‘We’ve got fucking rights!’”
Phillips, who’s 30-years sober, said a white man at that moment asked him if he wanted a beer.
“Hey, chief. Want a beer?” the man yelled.
Phillips refused. So the man chucked an unopened can of beer at Phillips, striking him the chest.
“It got me pretty good,” he said. “It did have a little sting to it.”
He wanted to throw it right back at the guy, Phillips said, but then he felt as though his departed relatives were telling him not to, so he grabbed the can, popped it open and poured the contents onto the ground. As the beer spouted and splashed onto the earth, an eerie silence hung in the air, Phillips said.
Moments later, a group of the party-goers began charging the fence, according to Phillips, so he grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket and called the police.
“They all blazed. It was like turning on the lights and the roaches scattered as soon as I got the phone in my hand and dialed 9-1-1,” he said.
In hindsight, Phillips said he should’ve just walked by and not responded to the man beckoning him over to the house.
“I was just trying to figure out how I was going to eat that day,” he said. “It was good day to go out looking for things, seeing what’s out there, putting my prayers out there.”
Phillips moved to the area eight years ago after his wife was diagnosed with cancer; she’s currently being treated at the University of Michigan, he said. Meanwhile, he receives Section-8 assistance and lives on $22 a month and tries to supplement that with his wood collection all the while dodging racist encounters about Ypsilanti.
“I’ve been on the north side now two years,” he said. “I was over there – the black side of town – for seven, eight years [with] no problems. But then we moved [to] the north side, the college side of town [where I’ve been] accosted on the streets.”
Phillips’ two kids do not attend public school “because of racism” in the city.
“There’s just people who can’t just let go of being mad at Indians,” Phillips said with a hint of disappointment.
A statement by the university sent to ICTMN said EMU works to foster an “inclusive and safe environment” for everyone on campus.
“Eastern Michigan University takes these matters very seriously and remains strongly committed to maintaining a respectful, inclusive and safe environment, in which acts that seek to inflict physical, psychological or emotional harm on specific demographic groups will not be tolerated,” the statement reads.
But for Moreseau, maintaining a safe environment at EMU begins with the administration hearkening the call of its Native American students and by recognizing that they are consistently discriminated by the pro-Huron mascot advocates on campus.
Until then, Morseau said the Native American students will keep an eye on one another. It’s all they can do.
“There’s safety in numbers,” she said.
So, as the university continues its investigation into the Indian-themed party, Phillips continues looking for wood about Ypsilanti, and the members of NASO just try to make it safely from one class to the next on a campus still clinging to its Native American mascot.