American Indian speaker position concerns student

With American Indian heritage celebrations three weeks away, students and faculty have cried out for a prominent speaker from the cultural group, prompting a negative response from some members of the administration.

American Indian student Darren Thompson, a College of Arts & Sciences junior, first thought last spring about bringing Russell Means, a prominent American Indian activist, to campus as part of the 2005 American Indian week, which will run for two weeks beginning Feb. 21.

However, the Office of Student Development decided on asking American Indian movie producer Chris Eyre after meeting him during winter break, said Natalie Gross, interim assistant dean for multicultural programs. Thompson approached OSD after the meeting, according to Gross. He said he does not think Eyre will provide students with a comprehensive overview of American Indian issues.

The decision was based mostly on the speaker's fee, about $7,500, which is about $2,500 less than Means' fee if he represents himself, Gross said.

The office typically works with student organizations on planning their cultural heritage celebrations, Gross said, but because there was no American Indian student organization to confer with, the OSD did not contact one student. She said the office does not intend to make anyone feel left out.

"We are not trying to oppress or stifle opinion," Gross said.

Thompson met Means in March when he spoke to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign's Board of Trustees about the university's American Indian mascot. Thompson was part of a four-person panel, which included actor Johnny Depp, writer Sherman Alexie and Means, with whom he still communicates.

Thompson said he thought either Alexie or Means — who helped the 1969 American Indian Movement's 19-month takeover of San Francisco's Alcatraz Island — would be good speakers to address American Indian affairs. However, he said when he approached OSD about bringing Means to campus, he was rebuffed.

"I felt that when they were telling me this, there were underlying reasons," Thompson said, implying the ongoing athletic nickname debate or university censorship.

However, Mark McCarthy, dean and assistant vice president of OSD said budget, space and timing restricted the decision — not a desire to avoid a judgment on the Marquette nickname or silence discussion on American Indian issues.

"Our desire is to be able to have activities that enlighten and raise awareness," McCarthy said.

Speaking fees alone can range from about $5,000 to $20,000 without airfare or other expenses, according to McCarthy.

He said the university must abide by strict rules when it accepts money from organizations outside the university and must follow the space reservation process.

McCarthy said the lengthy processes might frustrate some organizers.

"I think we are trying to operate with good will," he said. "I hope we can come together on this."

Thompson, a lecturer on American Indian affairs, worked with other departments and organizations to bring his idea to life, including the Department of Philosophy and Students for an Environmentally Active Campus.

One person who supports Thompson in his efforts is Jodi Melamed, assistant professor of English.

Means' "coming would be an enormous boon to Marquette," she said. "I think he's a really important intellectual."

Another supporter of Thompson's idea, Brent Bray, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences and MUSG senator for the College of Arts & Sciences said the issue affects everyone on campus.

"You have a systematic oppression," Bray said. "If we don't actively pursue it, what are we but puppets of someone's whim?"

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 1 2005.