Michigamua Sued

[7/12/06: Welcome Romenesko readers. Please click here to read all my recent posts about Michigamua, or click here to view a slightly outdated page about the group.]

Ok, people, I’m trying to give the old ‘gamua beat a break, but with big news, I just can’t resist:

Ann Arbor News: Suit claims U-M, secret society violate Native-American rights

(Also on WOODTV, WLNS, Lansing State Journal)

Story archived after the jump.

Suit claims U-M, secret society violate Native-American rights
Saturday, February 11, 2006
News Staff Reporter

A former University of Michigan student has sued the university and Michigamua, a secret honorary society, claiming they have violated the civil rights of Native American students, staff and faculty.

Christopher Bell, an attorney from Ann Arbor, filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and another former student identified only as John Doe.

The suit, filed Mondayin Washtenaw County Circuit Court, alleges that the organization didn’t abide by an agreement signed in 1989 that it wouldn’t demean Native Americans.

Michigamua was founded as a student service society in 1902, using Native American themes. U-M students were selected by the organization. Members sometimes painted themselves red and wore loin cloths and headdresses during their rituals. Former President Gerald Ford, U-M hockey coach Red Berenson and the late broadcaster, Bob Ufer, are among its more well-known alumni.

The organization came under fire in February 2000 when U-M student protesters began a sit-in at the Michigamua room in the tower of the Michigan Union. The protesters said the society’s use of Native American artifacts and rituals were insulting and debased the Native American culture. The protest led to the eventual removal of the organization and its artifacts from the Michigan Union. It now meets off campus.

According to the lawsuit, Michigamua signed an agreement in 1989, after a similar complaint was lodged against the society, to eliminate all references to Native American culture.

Bell contends that Michigamua breached the contract and violated the rights of Native American students, staff and faculty members who did not know the agreement existed until after the tower was occupied in February 2000.

The lawsuit said Bell and Doe were not aware of the earlier agreement. “Doe felt demeaned, insulted, degraded and mocked by the singing and drumming,” the complaint said. “To him, such trivializing of what he considered to be serious activities when carried out by Native Americans, was an insult and a desecration.”

The complaint contends U-M breached the agreement by failing to make sure that Michigamua abided by the agreement.

“The University either knew that Michigamua was continuing to violate the contract or it engaged in deliberate blindness in not inquiring or monitoring Michigamua’s activities.”

The lawsuit asks the court to certify the lawsuit as class-action. It seeks an unspecified amount of damages.

U-M spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the university has no comment on the lawsuit.

Sam Woll, member of Michigamua, Class of 2006, said she hadn’t heard about the suit. “We have not been contacted regarding any lawsuit, nor informed as to the grounds for which any legal action would be justified,” she said in a written statement.

Bell, a Native American who attended the university from 1989 to 2000, did not return several calls asking for comment for this story.

The suit says Doe was an employee of the university from 1989-2000 and is not being named in the suit because he is employed by the university and fears retaliation as a result of the lawsuit.

Liz Cobbs can be reached at 734-994-6810 or lcobbs@annarbornews.com.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Doe very well should be concerned about retaliation. Let us not forget what happened to the Native American coordinator for MESA following the Students of Color Coalition protest. She was fired and criminal charges were filed against her for embezzlement. Even though she was acquitted of all charges, to my knowledge the University has not admitted wrong-doing even though she was clearly retaliated against for exercising not only her first amendment rights, but for supporting the very students whom she was charged with assisting by the University. I am curious to see what the complaint and cause of action look like. And I know plenty of people who would be willing to testify for the plantiff…

  2. oh come on Rob, you gotta keep the beat alive. I love people who have knee jerk reactions to your posts. Not to mention the more bad people mention your name, the more positive progressive karma you accumulate!

  3. Pingback: The Goodspeed Update » Full Text of Doe vs. Michigamua

  4. Dumi, so when “bad” people (I presume non-progressives) say Rob’s name there’s a karma there?

    Am I a “bad” person?

    I’m torn on this lawsuit. On the one hand, U-M’s “blind eye” and general behavior on this issue is both disgusting and hypocritical for a “diversity leader.” On the other hand, “digusting” behavior is often protected by the First Amendment, and this case does present serious issues on that front. The complaint itself appears to miscontextualize the “Agreement” of 1989, at points ellipsing out key parts (I don’t know how key), and Michiguama’s student group status entitles it to “content neutrality” protection under the First Amendment case law. That means U-M has to allow them to exist in some format and even tolerate some conduct.

    The complaint makes this frightening assertion:

    There are regulations that all prospective student groups must abide by before they can be considered an official student group, and to which they must abide in order to maintain that status. Those regulations require that they at all time respect the dignity and diversity of those around them. Healthy debate and disagreement is one thing, but disparaging another group’s culture is not allowed.

    I don’t remember the Constitution syaing that “disparaging another group’s culture” could be prohibited, even though it is a condemnable and morally wrong act, and, I actually don’t know which regulations the University has that actually say “disparaging another culture” is not allowed.

    Are all Polish jokes prohibited (or only if I say them against my own Polish culture, but not if a German makes them)? Can a student be expelled for mentioning the drinking proclivities of my Irish ancestors? At some point we need to learn to let these things go – after we condemn properly them (in this sense, Rob’s previous investigative work deserves kudos). Moral suasion is appropriate, but at some point we have to decide not to try to use government power to beyond its Constitutional limits to crush the speech.

    Where’s the ACLU on this one, taking on the unpopular client.

    On the other hand, I really do want to see the 1989 Agreement before passing judgment on this lawsuit. Depending on the actual agreement, I may have a different opinion of the issues.

  5. Interesting that you haven’t even seen the contract, but you are making legal assertions. First of all, the lawsuit is for breach of contract. Michigamua explicitly contracted to no longer engage in such offensive activities. The University was a party to that agreement. During the 2000 protest it was clear, no matter what alumni try to assert now, that they were in violation of the contract. Specifically, they had nicknames, letters with disparaging references to pseudo-Native culture, pictures, plaques, motifs, and other “decorations” of sorts, including a ceremonial peace pipe that were all derogatory and degrading to Native culture. Furthermore, Michigamua purports to be a student honor society of sorts, elite, exclusive, etc.. If that is the case, why is there a first amendment issue? A true honor society should not feel necessary to offend and alienate a whole culture and group of people based on first amendment considerations. More importantly, the University treats Michigamua as an honor society, and gave them more privileges than an average “student group”.. I know there has been talk of the transcript notation issue recently… So with all that said, if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, it must be a duck.. To simplify that analogy, if Michigamua is an honor society, than the argument about first amendment rights fails, because an honor society does not have an interest in offending ones culture. If it is truly just a student group, then why the special status by administrators, faculty and the University in general? Just some things to think about…

  6. Pingback: The Goodspeed Update » Michigamua’s Broken 1989 Promise

  7. Farah, I never knew that being part of an honor society divested one of their individual rights. Of course, being part of the government might – and the University of Michigan is State government. I totally agree that U-M and its employees have acting in their official capacities don’t have First Amendment rights, and they certainly aren’t off the hook here, especially if they gave Michiguama “honor society” status and special resources (they would be more liable from a contractual and negligence to monitor standpoint).

    Second, even without the agreement, I was able to make some factual observations here, although I don’t think I made “legal assertions” in the sense a lawyer would (I’m entitled to make them in the sense every citizen is entitled). The claims I made were limited to the facts I was aware of. A First Amendment concern derives logically from reading a complaint that interprets a State university’s policy as a bar against offensive speech, and I quote:

    Those regulations require that they at all time respect the dignity and diversity of those around them. Healthy debate and disagreement is one thing, but disparaging another group’s culture is not allowed.

    There is no question to me now seeing the agreement that Michiguama is more than a student group and that it likely violated this language (although the Michiguama factual story about the 2000 discovery suggests that those who broke-in “staged” the materials and that they were actually mothballed, and the opponents claim pictures of a 1996 ceremony were discovered proving it wasn’t mothballed, so this case will have a factual element to it I can’t comment on). I think Michiguama and the University have a serious chance of losing (remember who has the bigger army of lawyers though), although I do believe there is still a Constitutional issue as to whether this is an enforceable contract (the “forever” clause presents a difficulty, and the First Amendment concern is still there but less clear).

    Let me reiterate – I deplore Michiguama and find it to be offensive because of its elitism and non-standardized criteria for entry as much as it is also offensive because of its misuse of Native American culture. It is simply a group that should have no place on campus, at least with any nexus to the U-M administration. Perhaps I should also say I was never part of the group either, just for the record, and would have refused to join had I been offered. But that doesn’t mean I can ignore at least asking what the First Amendment implications of this case are.

  8. Chetly- my equally passionate blogger, I understand what you are saying. But having been involved in this debate for over six years now, I get tired of the first amendment issue being raised when it is not necessarily the issue at hand. Michigamua has never been treated like a “student group” as you have asserted, and they are not even claiming first amendment protection, nor were the ever. What Bollinger did and what others are doing is making it a first amendment issue when it has never been articulated as such by Michigamua. Remember, according to gamua, they are doing nothing offensive, nor have they done anything offensive since the agreement was signed.

    As for whether or not the contract is a contract w/ valuable consideration received or it is an agreement, clearly the parties signing it believed it to be a legal document that was binding on all signers. And the consideration given was allowing Michigamua to keep its name despite how offensive it was to the Native American community in exchange for the promise to cease using other references to Native and pseudo Native culture.

    Finally, as for the claim that the SCC staged the Michigamua wigwam- that is absurd. The wigwam was still a wigwam. That is a reference to Native culture. Their member directory, letters sent from the Alumni council of Michigamua, even their (then) newest class of 2000 members, all incorporated references to Native or pseudo Native culture. I will be posting more evidence of these items on my website time permitting and access permitting.

    Also- I just have a few questions for those who claim the SCC set up Michigamua- for what reason????? Why would we go up against the richest and most powerful alumni networking group on campus for the hell of it? What possible motivation could we have other than trying to stop the further degradation of a people and culture who has been mocked and trivialized for centuries? I can understand why new gamua members may feel unfairly targeted or can’t grasp the whole picture- but is that our fault? Learn your history. Know that your organization goes much deeper than the current class- and know that there are many alumni who could give a damn less whether Native culture is ever given the respect it deserves from their group, even though publicly they purport to be honoring Native Americans with the use of their language and cultural references. As a matter of fact a certain former UM football player who was a “friend of a friend” of sorts used to tell me all the time during and after the occupation that the alumni could give a damn less about the Native American concerns, that Michigamua would never change, and that the concerns of the Native Americans were being laughed at by those who are Michigamua alumni. For those of you who are shaded out about unnamed sources- his name is Chuck Winters.

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