Native students, faculty advocate Native American Studies Program at Wayne State


This past December, Native American Student Organization (NASO) gained approval from Wayne State and the fire marshal to smudge indoors in designated rooms in the Student Center after a two-year long struggle.

NASO faculty advisor, Dr. Sandra Gonzales says the ceremonial medical plant burning practice is important for when elders visit campus, during graduation ceremonies and Round Dances with drums.

Gonzales, who is an assistant professor in Bilingual and Bicultural Education at Wayne State says another issue Native Americans and non-native allies are advocating for is the creation of a Native American Studies Program at Wayne State, which has been in the works for several years.

“Detroit has the 10th largest urban Indian community in the nation and we have no Native American Studies Program here at Wayne State,” says Gonzales, who is half-Mexican and half-Native American.

“These are things we are trying to work with the university and we have a lot of support, but it also takes a lot of time. We are growing our group, allies and faculty on campus to see what classes we currently offer and how we can bring that under a seed program for Native American studies to grow from,” she says.

According to Wayne State’s student demographics, there are 71 American Indian/Alaskan native students enrolled. Forbes reported that WSU’s 0.3% demographic of natives are higher than other public colleges native population, such as University of Michigan Dearborn, University of Michigan Ann Arbor and credit students at Henry Ford College.

Gonzales, who speaks Nawat, a native language and whose ancestors come from the Apache tribe, says educational institutions need to acknowledge the erasure of Native American culture, language and history when enacting policies on campus.

“I think there’s so much teaching to do around wanting students to feel welcome or have a sense of belonging. I think a large part of that is the institution of schooling and the violence it  has perpetuated on native people throughout history. So, the very institution represents something that has served to erase native language and culture throughout the Americas,” she says. “That’s a form of violence and a form of genocide. That’s something the institution needs to deal with and come to terms with, and also think about in terms of the policy that it enacts on campus.”

Gonzales says educational institutions teaching Native American history should provide books written from the Native American perspective, because history can be seen from more than one perspective. She says helping to change this pattern can be done by talking to teachers before their history lessons.

“History perpetuates this idea that these lands were discovered and that’s just simply not the truth,” she says. “We’re perpetuating that lie if we do not stop that and acknowledge the people whose lands we are stealing.”

Gonzales says she teaches teacher candidates to “move beyond dualistic thinking,” which she says means “there is one right way and a wrong way.”

“I think it’s important that we start seeing things from multiple perspectives,” she says.


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