Communication sophomore Aileen McGraw believes that talking is nice, but it won’t change the world. She wants action.
One of the founding members of the Native American Indigenous Student Association, McGraw’s call for action helped give rise to one of the newest—and most proactive—student groups on campus. NAISA has taken its place amongst other organizations dedicated to multicultural interests at Northwestern, McGraw says the inspiration for this group came from a visiting professor and member of the Potawatomi tribe, John Low (who now teaches at Big Ten rival Ohio State), who encouraged his students to “create the space” for indigenous students at Northwestern.
“For me, I couldn’t imagine Northwestern without having a Chabad and a place that reminds me of home,” says NAISA co-president Adam Mendel, drawing parallels to his involvement in the Jewish organizations on campus. “We want this to be the place for Native American students,” the Weinberg senior says.
In just a year, NAISA has already grabbed students’ attention. The group played an active role in the “Dress for Respect” movement this past Halloween, encouraging students to be more racially sensitive when choosing their costumes. NAISA sent volunteers to the local Native American Museum and brought in professors knowledgeable about Native American studies.
But of all NAISA’s initiatives, the recent John Evans petition was particularly influential.
Evans, Northwestern’s founder and governor of the Colorado Territory, allegedly ordered the massacre of more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans in 1864—most of whom were women and children—in what came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre. The petition asks the University to formally recognize Evans’ role in the Massacre and also to take strides to make Northwestern more inclusive for Native Americans.
“I think it’s something we all can learn from,” Mendel says. “It’s hard for the university to grow without addressing its past.” If the motions the petition sets forth are passed, it will be a tremendous accomplishment for NAISA and Northwestern’s Native American population.
On Feb. 14, Provost Daniel Linzer announced the creation of the John Evans Study Committee. The committee, which will be chaired by professor of English and American Studies Carl Smith and comprises seven humanities professors, will work on unearthing Evans’ dark past until June, when a follow-up committee will determine how to act on it.
Even if NAISA can’t erase the past, it’s definitely getting the word out. Several campus publications have covered this new organization and the topic it’s tackling—making it, in McGraw’s words, “a ‘we’ issue, not just a ‘them’ issue.” NAISA is also completely student run; faculty adviser Doug Medin says his role is minimal and that “NAISA has been driven by the undergrads associated with it.”
Northwestern prides itself on being a home for all its students, regardless of their ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds. Since Chicago (a word from the Miami-Illinois tribe’s language) is home to a large Native American population, it makes sense for the school to strive to include them.
“I do think there is a common vision for making Northwestern a more Native-friendly environment,” Medin says. For now, the moral of NAISA’s success story is clear: Change happens when Northwestern students take action.