Last December, a University of Montana art class arranged to temporarily exhibit a group project in the atrium of the Payne Family Native American Center. Students erected a scale model of Rome, complete with hills, roads and waterways. The display was made of Styrofoam. Each of the art students crafted a replica of one of the city's famed monuments. There were Roman bath houses, aqueducts, the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus.
Within a day, Rome was conquered. An anonymous group of students—supposedly annoyed by the subtle message the display's presence in the Native American Center sent—dotted the tiny city with paper teepees. They set up plastic cowboy and Indian figures. They labeled famous landmarks as "Indian owned tourist destinations" and made sweeping references to the history of European conquest in North America. There were signs declaring "Trail of Tears Golf Course" and "Roman Land For Sale." What began as a simple art exhibit became a statement on the colonization of a people.
That incident was viewed as little more than a thought-provoking cultural mash-up. When a bumper sticker was discovered on a recycling bin in the building this September that read "Save the White Race! Earth's Most Endangered Species," it was more alarming. The sticker included the address of a white supremacist website, one belonging to a group called Montana Creators.
Its discovery sent waves of outrage through the Native community at UM. It was also perplexing: Was it outright racism? A gesture of hate? Who was the intended target? Many observers were clear, at least, that it was a despicable and troubling act.
When the Native American Center first opened, in April 2010, someone threw a rock at the building, breaking a window. In response, then-President George Dennison penned a letter to the campus and the community saying he found such behavior baffling.
"As I recall, the campus experienced something similar with regard to a temporary structure—a sukkah holding great religious significance—erected on the campus by members of the Jewish community," Dennison said at the time. The sukkah had been so badly damaged in 2008 that it had to be taken down in the midst of the Sukkot holiday. Student volunteers opted to sleep in the sukkah the following year to discourage such actions.
Several weeks after the supremacist bumper sticker turned up, a Native American student at UM reported seeing "prairie nigger" scrawled on a dry-erase board in one of the campus dorms. This time the outrage was more muted. Most people in the campus community did not seem to be aware of it, but Native students were. Word travels fast within a campus minority, says Laura John, a former UM doctoral student in psychology and a member of the Blackfeet tribe. Members share thoughts, reactions and experiences. Incidents like the message on the dry-erase board can leave a lasting mark.
Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services at UM, has a theory about the latest racially charged flaps. The Native American population on campus used to reside in a tiny house tucked away on Arthur Avenue. Except for events like American Indian Heritage Day and the annual Kyi-Yo Pow Wow, they weren't a really visible minority on campus. Now, with the ornate Native American Center situated on the Oval, other institutions are looking to the university as an example. Folks from all over the globe are touring the building. UM's Native population can't be ignored any longer, Hunter says.
"Students are feeling a little more empowered to speak out," Hunter says. "It was students who really brought the awareness to the faculty and staff on campus about what was going on [with the bumper sticker]. A long time ago, there wasn't enough unity. There's more of a collective effort now to support one another."
Native students number just over 600 this academic year, making them the largest ethnic minority on the UM campus. Yet they represent little more than 1 percent of the student body. Coming to a mainstream institution so steeped in Western tradition and with such an overwhelmingly white population can be a shock for students who were reared in Native communities, says Ruth Short Bull, an enrolled member on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Short Bull is a single mother of two who is studying for her Ph.D. in the forestry department at UM. A fight for acceptance and understanding is the last thing she thought she'd face when she enrolled, she says. "My mother got her masters degree at least 20 years ago, and she didn't have to deal with any kinds of issues of prejudice or racism during her coursework. I knew going into a graduate program that the coursework would be difficult and that time management would be something I'd have to deal with...But I didn't foresee having to deal with any of this."
'We have always been home.'
The University Center was awash in multiethnic activity Oct. 27, which had been declared the Day of Dialogue. The center's atrium hummed with the sound of African drums as dancers in African regalia moved and chanted. Sessions on inter-generational relationships, "dumb jock" stereotypes and passing for black as a white artist in the hip-hop community filled the day.
One of the session rooms on the third floor began filling up quickly just before 1 p.m. Event staff scurried through the door, shuttling in additional chairs. Several of the panel's featured members showed up, but a Day of Dialogue coordinator quickly announced that the crowd was too big. The panel was moving to the UC Theater down the hall.
The panelists didn't appear to mind. They were here to discuss Indian identity; the bigger the audience, the better.