Disrespecting a spiritual leader crosses a line

Disrespecting a spiritual leader crosses a line

Ho-Chunk elder Gerald Cleveland Sr. brought some of the sacred items he uses in prayer to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus when he led a ceremony for student survivors of sexual assault.

He describes the March 7 gathering outside of Dejope residence hall as solemn. Cleveland says he lit a fire, then asked the women—all of them Native American—to voluntarily step up to the fireplace and express what was on their minds. He wanted to hear their words so that he, and the people who came to support them, would know how to talk to the Creator on the young women’s behalf. Before long, he says, someone in the residence hall started yelling mock war whoops from an open window. The disruption broke the concentration of many of those who had gathered there.

 “People up there were heckling us,” Cleveland said last week. “It was just too much. They shouldn’t be doing that at a sacred ceremony.”

Cleveland, a member of the tribe’s Bear Clan, is part of my extended family—one of my uncles on my late mother’s side. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the respectful manner in which he conducted the service. I’ve seen him in these kinds of roles many times. What I can’t imagine is why someone would deliberately insult an elder of my uncle’s stature and mimic stereotypical behavior, the kind perpetuated by rowdy sports fans who believe it’s not racist to use native people as mascots.

Students harassing each other is bad enough. When they disrespect a spiritual leader, that’s treading into deeper territory of racial insensitivity.

It’s also troublesome that this is just one of a recent string of racially charged incidents on the UW–Madison campus.

In January, a student’s residence hall door was covered with images of swastikas and Adolph Hitler. A few weeks ago, racially inflammatory graffiti—a stick figure of a hangman on a tree with a racial slur written by it—was found in a restroom at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery. Days after that, a student spat on a group of African American students in Sellery residence hall.

Lori Berquam, vice provost and dean of students at UW–Madison, says the university takes these incidents seriously and “the fact that they’re happening is concerning.”

Berquam says the university recognizes that students need to feel safe and confident that they are part of an inclusive environment. In listening to students of color and others from diverse backgrounds at UW–Madison, she says, “they have felt our campus has been less than welcoming to them.”

She says there’s been an increase in reported incidents of bias on campus, but she adds that the rise could be the result of the university’s streamlined process of reporting acts of hate and bias. Anyone who witnesses such acts has the option to complete a report at go.wisc.edu/reporthateandbias. The university also has a team that monitors incidents of hate and bias on campus.

Berquam said the university has work to do, but she says, “I think our transparency certainly demonstrates our interest in the commitment to making it a better campus for everyone.”

In an open letter posted on her blog on March 15, UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the behaviors displayed in these recent cases “are completely unacceptable.”

She announced some “expanded or accelerated initiatives” to address the issue. They include a pilot program of “cultural competency and community building activities” geared toward new students starting in the fall; accelerating the hiring of additional student support counseling services; and a university-wide informational session on the process for reporting incidents and student conduct.

Blank says in her blog post that students who engage in hate or bias acts that violate the school’s codes of conduct will be disciplined. “When we learn of these incidents, we investigate, take disciplinary action against those students who have engaged in inappropriate conduct and provide support for the victims,” she wrote.

Berquam acknowledged that the university has tried to identify those who were involved in the incident at Dejope hall, but in an interview on Friday she says she couldn’t talk about any specifics of that case.

For Cleveland, the behavior he witnessed at the ceremony was not in keeping with the experiences he has had over the years at the UW System’s flagship campus.

“I didn’t think we had that kind of problem nowadays,” he says. “I thought it was kind of all in the past. I didn’t know it was getting worse—not to this extent.”

He says the acts of a few insensitive people affected the well being of the young women who were hoping to gain some comfort and spiritual strength to help them move forward.

“When they started hollering, people stopped stepping forward,” Cleveland says. Some of the attendees were visibly shaken, he says, and he saw one of them crying.

He says he kept his mind focused on the purpose of the gathering and gave everyone in attendance the opportunity to speak. “They felt good about it,” he says.

Cleveland says he doesn’t know whether anyone will be disciplined for the disruption. “It’s up to the school,” he says.

The university’s upcoming pilot project should include cultural sensitivity training specifically on Native American customs, traditions and values. My uncle would be an ideal person to lead it.