KU Student Senate to consider resolution in support of Indigenous students

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The University of Kansas Student Senate on Wednesday will consider a resolution in support of the campus’s Indigenous community, including accountability actions and increased funding.

Just more than a month ago, KU leadership announced it had Indigenous individuals’ remains stored in its museum collections and that it is working toward repatriating the items in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Indigenous students are now working with the Student Senate to finalize a resolution with their needs.

The draft resolution states that KU failed to repatriate “202 Native ancestral remains located in the same building where the Indigenous Studies program offices are held, Lippincott Hall, one South American ancestral remain located in Fraser Hall, and two Native and one Aboriginal ancestral remain located in Spooner Hall.”

Yamina Sfiat, co-chair of the Indigenous Studies Student Association (ISSA), said the group believes that KU is the only institution where Native remains have been held in the same space as the Indigenous Studies Program.

“Administrators are conveniently glossing that point over, and that’s not a small point — that adds to the trauma. It’s egregious,” she said. 

Indigenous student groups at KU, including the ISSA and the First Nations Student Association (FNSA), have taken action. ISSA, a new organization made up of Indigenous Studies Program students who were outraged after learning of the remains, hand-delivered an open letter to the chancellor and provost on Sept. 26. The letter expressed their frustrations and recommended actions they believe the university should take. 

Sfiat and ISSA co-chair Alicia Swimmer said Indigenous students from both FNSA and ISSA have worked with a student senator, Anthony Hudson, who authored a resolution with much of its language taken directly from ISSA’s letter. He then presented it to the Student Senate at an Oct. 6 student assembly meeting, noting that he’d worked with the students to make sure he used the language that they’d like to be heard.

He was met with several questions and some pushback from audience members. Some questioned him as a white person representing Indigenous community members; to one question, he responded, “I feel strongly about this, so I decided to bring it up in partnership with them … I’m a student senator, so I felt like it was my job to bring it up to the general assembly.”

Swimmer said Hudson was working on behalf of the Indigenous community and that attending those meetings is often a struggle anyway for students with night classes.

“We sent him because we didn’t want to go in there, like we’re already going through this trauma, which I don’t think they understand,” said Swimmer, Sicangu/Oglala Lakota enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

A student at the meeting said a recommendation asking the university to finance Native American students being able to receive course credit for learning their languages at other institutions will “set a precedent for all other minority students” to ask for the same. 

Another student asked how Hudson expects “the university, in such a precarious financial situation as it already is, to make these accommodations.”

One student recommended adding an ask to the university that it provide funding for Indigenous students to travel home or to their communities to participate in rituals after being around ancestral remains without their knowledge. That has been added to the most recent draft of the resolution.

Last week, Sfiat, Swimmer and other students attended the Student Senate’s Finance Committee and Social Justice Committee meeting. They said they had to defend Indigenous students’ calls for repatriation of the remains due to repeated concerns about fairness to other students whose ancestral items may be in the university’s possession.

“If it is about ancestor remains then yes, you have every right to demand that from the university to repatriate your ancestors,” Sfiat said. “This isn’t exclusive to Native people. This is a reasonable request for equity.”

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The resolution passed through both committees, with minor amendments added, Swimmer said. Nonetheless, she felt it was a lot of “emotional labor” to have to explain during the meeting why certain language should not be amended.

“We have to spend our time explaining ourselves because apparently nobody knows there’s live Indigenous people out here or something — I don’t know, but it’s exhausting on top of trying to reason with the admin at KU,” Swimmer said.

Swimmer said one item from the group’s Sept. 26 letter to administrators has been implemented: They asked KU to “Immediately put adequate signage up to warn students from entering the buildings in which the remains are held,” as being in the presence of the deceased goes against many Native American or other Indigenous groups’ cultural, spiritual, or religious beliefs.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

ISSA was not notified when the signs were posted, Swimmer said, but students began seeing notices on buildings last week. They also have not yet had the meaningful dialogue with top KU leaders that they requested in their letter, the ISSA chairs said. 

Swimmer and Sfiat also said they were confused to see the most recent update on the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging website because they were not notified of it. It states the university will be creating an “advisory committee with representatives from the Office of Native American Initiatives, Indigenous Studies Program, Native staff and faculty, and appropriate experts.”

“It’s talking about stuff that they didn’t even tell us about, so that’s how they choose to communicate with us is through the website,” Swimmer said.

Though people supporting the resolution have received pushback from some Student Senate members, Sfiat said they are grateful to also have allies within the Student Senate who she said are “working for” Indigenous communities.

The KU Student Senate is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Alderson Auditorium on the fourth floor of Kansas Memorial Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd. 

To read the draft of the resolution to be discussed, visit this link. If passed, the resolution will be presented to university leadership for consideration.

The meeting is open to the public, and Swimmer and Sfiat said they would like all allies to show up in support. Indigenous people planning to attend who have traditional clothing or regalia are encouraged to wear it, according to an event flier.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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