To Nicky Michael, Ph.D., the word “indigenize” has a much more personal meaning than simply returning to one’s ancestral roots.
“It’s the centering of relationships of Indigenous people—their teachings, food sources, governments, spirituality, medicines, and traditions. It's acknowledging that those original ways of being can revitalize the natural harmony that we as humans should and could have again,” explains Michael, a council member of the IU First Nations Leadership Ambassadors Council (FNLAC) and member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma.
Collaborative efforts with the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs (OVPDEMA) are integral to Indiana University's work to support Native American students and faculty. This includes partnering with the First Nations Educational & Cultural Center (FNECC) to develop and sponsor events for Native students on campus, educating students, faculty, and the broader IU Bloomington community about the diversity of Native American cultures, and creating the First Nations Leadership Ambassadors Council.
Launched in 2017, the council provides a way to strengthen the connection to and gain insight from the Native American community. Specifically, the effort creates an ongoing dialogue between IU and individuals representing the Tribes with historical and ongoing ties to present-day Indiana.
Members of the FNLAC include Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe; Glenna Wallace, Chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe; Nicky Michael, Tribal council member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians and executive director of Indigenous Studies and Curriculum at Bacone College; Richie Meyers, Ph.D., Tribal Relations Specialist for Black Hills National Forest under USDA Forestry; Scott Shoemaker, Ph.D., program officer of Native Arts and Cultures for the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies; and Kelli Mosteller, Ph.D., executive director of Harvard University Native American Programs.
As part of its charge, the FNLAC council helps recruit and retain more Native students and faculty, increases scholarship and financial aid opportunities for Native students, and provides services that enable the institution to form better relationships with the Native community.
Listening and Learning From Native Voices
More than programming, a core component of being a diverse and inclusive institution begins by honoring Native space. In IU's case, this entails recognizing Indigenous communities native to Indiana and acknowledging the Myaamiaki, Lënape, Bodwéwadmik, and Saawanwa people as the past, present, and future caretakers of the land on which Indiana University Bloomington is built.
Last year, Chief Ben Barnes from the Shawnee Tribe challenged IU to do more to live up to its legal and ethical commitments and foster a closer partnership with Tribal Nations. Fred H. Cate, vice president for research at IU, explains.
“Barnes and other tribal leaders worked with IU to develop this novel approach, based on the Institutional Review Board oversight required by federal law for research involving living humans. We are all grateful to Chief Barnes and other Tribal leaders for their candor, insight, and partnership.”
In 2021, IU partnered with the Quapaw Nation, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the Shawnee Tribe, and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites to complete the repatriation and reburial of more than 700 individual remains unearthed beginning in the 1930s from the Angel Mounds National Historic Landmark and State Historic Site in Evansville, Indiana.
While IU has been committed to complying fully with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), it recently established a NAGPRA Review Board. It prohibited all research on Native American ancestral remains without the board's consent. The board, which includes Tribal leaders and IU researchers, will help ensure compliance with NAGPRA and the involvement of the Tribes.
Indiana University also announced in 2021 several efforts to strengthen its partnership with Native American Nations. For example, adding three new professional staff positions to the NAGPRA office expedites the documentation of existing ancestral remains held by IU, ensuring they are handled appropriately and respectfully and providing for their repatriation to the relevant Tribe(s).
The Indigenize Indiana campaign is an extension of this work. It is a call to action to remind the non-Native community how they, too, can improve the representation of and support for Native and Indigenous communities at IU Bloomington.
“I hope the campaign opens up an awareness of who we were and still are: caretakers of the land, water, and natural elements. Our perspective is that we belong to the earth, whereas western thinking commodified everything, land, water, and even air,” notes Michael.
As part of this project, a partnership with Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee communities has created "Indigenize Indiana" Tribal t-shirts. Each shirt features the indigenized version of "Indiana University" written in one of the Tribal languages spoken since before the founding of IU.
Nicky Belle, Ph.D., director of the FNECC, explains the concept behind the Indigenize Indiana Tribal T-shirts. "Years ago, while in the campus bookstore, I saw T-shirts with "Indiana University" written in various foreign languages. I thought, 'How cool would it be to create something that featured local languages, the Indigenous languages of Indiana?'"
Belle presented the idea to the First Nations Leadership Ambassadors Council and later shared the concept with members of the respective language and culture departments that had been collaborating with the FNECC on a land acknowledgment package. The idea quickly took off.
“Initially, we wanted to come up with some kind of iconic logo that reflected Indiana being 'Native land,'" Belle says. "Nicky Michael, a member of the First Nations Leadership Ambassadors Council and a council member of the Delaware Tribe in Oklahoma, ultimately suggested Indigenize Indiana.”
Belle explains that the “Indigenize Indiana” concept shifts the focus from the history of local Tribes and recenters discussions on understanding and celebrating an active Native presence.
“It's like a fist in the air—a message that encourages others to do what they can to indigenize this space,” he says.
“The language in the Indigenize Indiana shirts represents how we communicated. Those original ways of thinking and being are stored in the words we spoke to each other. Usually, they are nature-based and relational. So aside from the initial language revitalization efforts to connect to our elders and ancestors, language also encodes thought processes, priorities, and love of a people,” Michael says.
Currently sold at the FNECC, "Indigenize Indiana" t-shirts are $20; all profits will go toward creating educational programming with each of the respective communities' language and culture departments. To date, distribution totals for T-shirts are close to $1,000.
“The best way to learn about the FNECC, to learn about the ways Native community values are expressed at IU, is to be part of what we do,” notes Belle.
“Far too often, our national discussion of Native American heritage has been limited to the past tense,” he says. It's time to broaden these conversations¬—to celebrate modern Indigenous communities and work to understand the issues they face today.”
To learn about the FNECC or purchase a T-shirt, visit firstnations.indiana.edu.