HAVRE — Mia LameBull sat petrified through her 2 p.m. class at Montana State University Northern, so afraid of what she just heard that she couldn’t focus on anything else.
She’d arrived to class a bit early on April 10 and was settling into her seat as students in front of her talked about an email sent by a professor hours earlier. The email delivered a strong message from a deeply concerned educator, whose student came to him that morning to report racist remarks made by someone departing a Native American studies class.
Now as her afternoon class was about to start, LameBull, who is Native, overheard two white students discussing the issue. One made a comment so hateful it rendered her frozen.
“(The student’s) response was ‘Oh, I don’t know, in my opinion we should just kill them all anyways. I should bring a sign to school that says kill them all.”
LameBull thought about packing up her books and walking out, but she was too scared. She sat through the class, the whole time regretting not saying anything.
“That wasn’t just a dumb comment, that was his opinion. And then he laughed after that. He laughed about that. I’m obviously Native American. That girl that was sitting next to him was obviously Native American. He felt strong enough to say those words in front of the two of us.”
Northern sits about 15 miles north of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, where LameBull grew up, and 45 miles from the Fort Belknap Reservation to the east. Enrollment numbers from the fall show 15 percent of students are Native, the highest percentage in the Montana University System and almost double that of the next-closest school.
Racism is something that’s been on Northern’s campus for decades but is just now being discussed, some students and faculty say. Events this year on campus have been a hammer pounding away at a rusted old lock until it starts to give. But LameBull said the noise is falling on deaf ears of the university’s administration, which only furthers the divide between Natives and whites.
Citing privacy rules, Northern has not said much about the events in April, but the school's university relations director confirmed a student was removed from classes after “a series of statements.” The student was still allowed to access the gym and play on the football team and, upon an invitation from the dean of students, moved into the dean's home.
Several students and faculty who either witnessed the comments being made or had comments reported to them confirmed the nature of the remarks. The first statement by the student overheard after the morning class did not advocate genocide outright, but said if Natives had been wiped out, a class about their history would not be necessary. Then the same student made the remarks heard by LameBull and others in the afternoon class.
In an immediate response to the comments, Dean of Students Steve Wise sent out a vague and confusing email. It mentioned statements made by a student that caused some to fear for their safety. It called the speech “threatening,” but not racist.
To LameBull, the email was dismissive of her concerns about her safety and an environment on campus she says is racist.
“When you think about the statistics of school shootings, they all stem from comments like that. They had said something about that before and they’re always targeting a race, a group of people. And for the school to not take that seriously?”
At the time of an initial report in The Billings Gazette, the school's spokesman Jim Potter called the issue “a nothing thing” and said a campus ban was a “gracious step” from both the student and dean. Potter later apologized, telling the Havre Daily News that "it was my intent not to insinuate that the situation was not significant or serious, only to clarify that the situation was not considered dangerous. It is my hope that everyone can forgive me."
Chancellor Greg Kegel also sent a statement to The Gazette and Havre Daily News saying: "Anytime a student feels threatened, we take these concerns seriously. MSU-Northern does not tolerate hate speech, slurs, bullying or harassment of any kind. We will be reviewing our actions with particular attention to how we communicated."
School response criticized
The lack of initial response by administration is “just another level of indigenous erasure,” said assistant professor of Native American studies Paul McKenzie-Jones. He was the teacher who sent out an email after the student was heard making the first racist remark.
“Taking it down to the core of the subject matter, it’s invoking genocide. That is absolutely unforgivable. And it’s been very minimized to seem like it’s a very inconsequential event.”
McKenzie-Jones emphasized his statements represent only his own opinions and not that of the campus, administration or anyone else affiliated with the school.
In a response emailed to the Lee State Bureau on Friday afternoon, Northern said it has worked hard to develop a campus culture that encourages students to voice their concerns and is “formulating a plan to thoroughly discuss issues of diversity campuswide when students return for fall semester.” A reporter attempted to speak to the chancellor on campus Wednesday but he was in Bozeman.
Since the April event, the statement says, administration has reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, which can provide mediators to help resolve conflicts related to race.
There was also an event in November in which a Native man was arrested for disorderly conduct at a Student Senate meeting. The arrest was made by an undercover police officer, who was there at request of school administration. Many have called the presence of the officer a sign of racism, questioning why the school felt it was necessary.
At the meeting, the Senate voted to not support protests near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Members of the Sweetgrass Society, a campus club to help Native students connect with the school and Havre community, also spoke about their frustrations that a step they had painted on the campus "Hello Walk" that included the message "#NoDAPL" in opposition to the pipeline, was painted over.
The statement emailed Friday from Northern said the chancellor has also reached out to tribal leaders, as well as tribal college presidents, and has plans to visit each tribal community over the coming year. The conversations have been “collegial,” according to the statement.
Faculty also proposed working with Hopa Mountain, a Bozeman nonprofit that works with rural and tribal leaders on education issues. The school is considering a workshop over the summer for faculty and staff, which could expand to student programming in the fall.
The Office of Diversity Awareness and Multicultural programs is also putting an emphasis on civil discourse, planning six events with topics that could include prejudice, macro and micro aggression, stereotyping, bystander intervention and conflict resolution.
The statement pointed to the Little River Institute, which was launched with a $2 million grant from the federal Department of Education last year. The Institute provides access to “pathfinders” who provide tutoring services to all students, with a special emphasis on meeting the needs of Northern’s Native American students.
The chancellor’s office has also reached out to the Sweetgrass Society, which asked that the chancellor work through the ACLU of Montana, which the office has been in communication with.
The school wants to “work with the Sweetgrass Society to thoroughly hear its members’ concerns and proposed solutions. This process is ongoing.”
On Friday, McKenzie-Jones, English Professor John Snider, adjunct professor Yvonne Tiger, Kegel, Wise and College of Education, Arts and Sciences Dean Carol Reifschneider met to discuss the issue.
Snider, who also said his statements reflect his opinions and not the school's, described the meeting as "positive."
While a specific plan was not put forward, he characterized the meeting as a good first step. “It was a productive meeting where points of view were exchanged and strategies were being put forward.”
Snider also said the faculty of the Arts and Science College met Thursday and suggested forming a task force to do an audit of the racial atmosphere on campus, something else he called a positive step.
Still, LameBull said the initial response from the administration further segregated students and that there wasn't a schoolwide dialogue before the end of the spring semester. Graduation was Saturday.
Several white students interviewed were uncomfortable being quoted. They said the university's initial response caused confusion, but also seemed to set the tone that it was not something to worry about going forward.
For LameBull, the issue has consumed her life at the end of the school year when she'd rather have been focusing on finals.
'There's a lot of stereotypes'
Fellow student and Sweetgrass member Amy Murdoch’s skin is light enough that people can’t tell she’s Native, she said, and that can lead to telling interactions. People treat her differently “until I talk, and then they’ll be like ‘Oh, where are you from?’”
When she answers “Fort Belknap,” people tend to walk away and stop engaging with her, she said.
Native students are mostly friends with each other, LameBull said.
“It just feels like nobody would want to sit by me because of who I was. That’s the type of vibe I’ve always had on campus. If I really wanted to I could walk across campus and be invisible.”
She’s been in classrooms that are full except the seats around her. “Or they’ll move after I sit down. It just kills people to sit next to me.”
Female students have told her they assumed she’d act a certain way because she’s Native. “They’re thinking I’m a bad, mean person just because I‘m an Indian woman. I’ve heard that from a couple of different white girls. Like, ‘I always thought that you guys were mean and would beat me up.’ ”
“Stereotypes,” Murdoch sums it up succinctly. “There’s a lot of stereotypes.”
Aaniiih Nakoda College, the tribal college on Fort Belknap, doesn’t discourage students from transferring to Northern, but it doesn’t encourage them, either.
“If they ask us about what we think of the school and how they would fare, we tell them what they might encounter," said Sean Chandler, director of American Indian Studies and professor at the school.
“Over the years we’ve gotten reports back from our students that things were said in various classes that made them feel unwelcome or made them feel inferior.”
Chandler said he hears about racism or racist comments from other schools as well, but it is more common at Northern. “It does seem a little more frequent over there at Northern from what students tell me."
Between 200-300 students attend Aaniiih Nakoda College, which offers associate degrees and vocational training. Students are encouraged to go on and get bachelor's, master's and doctorates elsewhere.
The school has taken measures to accommodate students who don't feel comfortable at Northern, including starting its own nursing program. “A lot of students, they want to stay close to home. But if our students aren’t going to be welcomed there we need to take measures to grow here.”
Chandler also said the college has struggled to build relationships with Northern.
As an example, Chandler described a time where someone from Northern called his college to question if he was qualified to teach a Native American studies course a student was trying to transfer credits for. Chandler holds a Master's degree in Native American Studies and a Ed.D in Educational Leadership and is a part of the Aaniinen Tribe and an enrolled Gros Ventre tribal member.
McKenzie-Jones and Snider both say part of any solution is bringing more Native faculty and staff to Northern. They point to highly qualified resources that are available locally, such as professors like Chandler.
“You have this amazing wealth of knowledge and talent and it’s right here. We need to be tapping into that. That’s one of the ways you start breaking down these stereotypes.”
McKenzie-Jones' own family has dealt with those stereotypes first-hand. When they first moved to town, his wife Yvonne Tiger, who is Native and an adjunct professor, said someone approached her white husband and told him not to go to Walmart on certain days of the month because that’s when Natives go “to spend their government checks.”
"Nothing can change," McKenzie-Jones said, "until those stereotypes are talked about and dispelled."