Education

Native Advocates Say They're Sick of UM Students Playing Indian Dress-Up

Indigenous students at the University of Miami say the Iron Arrow Honor Society and its use of Native American traditions is offensive.
Indigenous students at the University of Miami say the Iron Arrow Honor Society and its use of Native American traditions is offensive. Photo by Keyra Juliana Espinoza Arroyo
The University of Miami's Iron Arrow Honor Society — a group traditionally made up of non-Native students who dress up in tribal clothing and perform Indigenous ceremonies — is facing renewed backlash with a petition calling for it to be discarded in the dustbin of history.

The petition, spearheaded by UM alum and Seminole Tribe member Krystle Young, requests a public apology from the university and demands that the Iron Arrow Honor Society, UM’s highest honor society, either disband or stop using tribal "imagery and practices of cultural patrimony." The petition also calls on the university to make Indigenous studies mandatory to all incoming freshman "to counteract the damage of the university platforming Iron Arrow."

"It is an insult to our people," Young tells New Times. "The only thing that's really okay is wearing our jackets. Pretty much everything else they do is... offensive."

The week-old petition has received more than 960 signatures, many of which are from members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes and other Indigenous groups.

The Iron Arrow Honor Society has long been criticized and accused of cultural appropriation. Early this year, Indigenous students from the university reached out to Illuminative, a Native advocacy and education organization, which brought attention to Iron Arrow's Instagram. The resulting flood of critical comments prompted the honor society to purge its Instagram posts.

The university's first president Bowman Foster Ashe established Iron Arrow on campus in 1926, based on Seminole Tribe traditions, to recognize exceptional male students.

The society was sued in 1976 for violating Title IX by not allowing female members. It began formally admitting female students in the mid-1980s amid pressure from university president Edward T. Foote.

Nowadays, Iron Arrow is a sanctioned clan under the Miccosukee Tribe and calls itself a tribe. The members have held sacred Indigenous ceremonies in which they beat a drum, wear traditional patchwork jackets, and incorporate other aspects of Indigenous culture. The group’s tapping ceremony includes burning a fire in the middle of campus as newly-admitted members receive their tribal jackets.

"As a sovereign nation, the [Miccosukee] Tribe has the inherent authority to recognize whatever group it decides," Iron Arrow's tribal liaison and Miccosukee Tribe member Curtis Osceola tells New Times. "The best and brightest of the University of Miami are inducted into Iron Arrow, and they are very influential and involved people who can get things done."

Keyra Espinoza Arroyo, a student with roots in Ecuador's Kañari Nation, first noticed Iron Arrow in 2021 as it was holding one of the tapping ceremonies. She thought it was an organization for Indigenous students like her, but she quickly realized she was mistaken.

"I was very confused so I asked my friends that are Seminole and Miccosukee if they heard about this, and they gave me a rundown of all of it," says Espinoza Arroyo. "I was like, 'That is so disgusting.' It is like those racist mascots. I felt so uncomfortable, especially with them doing the ceremony, tapping, walking in a line, and drumming. I was just so weirded out."

Espinoza Arroyo fears the honor society makes a mockery of Native people.

"When we actually talk about and vocalize about certain issues in our communities, it is not going to be taken seriously because we are seen as something that can be played on and something that anyone can personify, which is not true," Espinoza Arroyo tells New Times.

Sergio Papa Ruark, an Indigenous graduate student of the Huaylas Quechua Nation, says the honor society has gone on for far too long because there have not been enough Indigenous students at the university to speak up.

"This is Native American Heritage Month and UM is not doing much basically. Meanwhile, they are supporting this organization and giving them recognition," Ruark tells New Times. "Other students are trying to speak up on social media, but they are saying we are instigating or doing this in bad faith. It's disrespectful to Indigenous students."

Osceola has defended Iron Arrow, saying its collaboration with the Miccosukee Tribe "transcends what people see on the mound on tapping day."

"There is a great deal of work between the tribe and the Iron Arrow with regard to improving the health resources available, improving education, providing humanitarian aid, [and] now more professional aid like a talent pool," Osceola adds. "[Iron Arrow] provides a platform and support for the tribe's political and legislative efforts on the state and federal level."

Former Iron Arrow chair Jaret Davis stresses that at its inception, the organization was set up in cooperation with local tribe members.

"Many mistakenly believe a number of students simply came together to form the society, when the reality is our genesis was all done hand in hand with the indigenous peoples of the region back in 1926," Davis tells New Times.

In 2018, the group entered into a memorandum of understanding to reform its practices. After he was appointed as the tribal liaison, Osceola helped conduct an internal review that resulted in changes within the honor society that were announced in 2020.

As part of the August 2020 deal, the honor society promised to eliminate tribal titles for its leaders, the beating of the ceremonial drum in the tapping ceremony, and the use of war paint. The move came in the midst of a nationwide reckoning of complaints about Native cultural appropriation in pop culture. That year, the former Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians decided to rename and remove any affiliations with Native American caricatures.

But as the Miami Hurricane student newspaper reported, the Iron Arrow society was slow to implement the changes they pledged. The student senate accordingly passed a bill in April, pushing for the university to break ties with Iron Arrow and remove it as the highest honor society on campus. That never came fruition as Patricia Whitely, the vice president of student affairs and a member of Iron Arrow, declined to sign the bill.

The titles of chief, son of chief, and medicine man were nonetheless removed in the fall of 2022.

"One thing that gets lost is that Iron Arrow has been changing from within for almost five years," Osceola says. "We are going in the right direction."

Once it came out that the student bill died, Espinoza Arroyo decided to stage a protest the same day Iron Arrow held its fall tapping ceremony in November. She says the protest was approved, but upper university administration made it clear that protesters’ signs could not explicitly reference Iron Arrow. She adds they were "policed" in terms of what they could say and do.

During the protest, she contends Iron Arrow members declined to engage and hear her out about how Indigenous students find the group to be offensive to their culture.

"Iron Arrow likes to say that they're open to dialogue, but when actual Indigenous people are in front of you, you just walk away," Espinoza Arroyo says.

"There's not going to be any progress with these superficial small things, especially like limiting the amount of drummings. How can you measure drumming?" she asks.

While the new petition aims to force Iron Arrow to either disband or stop using Native American symbols, Osceola says the total removal of the honor society is short-sighted. He points to all the good he claims Iron Arrow does in the community, including creating scholarships for Indigenous students.

"There's effort... within the Iron Arrow community and leadership to create Indigenous programming and even within the tribe to advance Indigenous education to help other tribal nations," Osceola says. "All of this is being done through partnership. The people who are trying to dismantle the Iron Arrow — I don't know if they know that or very much care, but I know the work is being done."

UM, Iron Arrow’s faculty advisor, and the group’s chair have not responded to New Times' requests for comment.

Adjunct professor Caroline LaPorte, a UM law school graduate and director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, says she's been speaking out against the honor society for years, but that the university administration has shrugged off her concerns. She says she and fellow protesters have been labeled on campus as prone to “temper tantrums" or "resorting to low-level advocacy."

"Iron Arrow's tropes are inherently problematic and cannot be addressed or resolved or blessed by a [memorandum], as there are other Native and Indigenous people who find this to be incredibly offensive and harmful," says LaPorte, who is a descendant of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. "Iron Arrow's practices and narratives, whether signed off on by a local Tribe or not, perpetuate deeply held pervasive untruths about Native people, further exacerbated by non-Native individuals playing dress-up."

Davis, the former Iron Arrow chair, maintains that the petition against the group is misleading and phrased to incite indignation.

"The petition is a national petition which provides an immensely slanted message to an audience who knows nothing about the organization," Davis says. "Based on the narrative it provides, even I would have signed it."

Davis says Iron Arrow members were advised to steer clear of the recent protest out of respect for the protesters. In 2018, he says, the honor society sponsored a townhall in which critics of the group had a chance to speak out — and he personally enacted changes to Iron Arrow after meeting at length with an opposition leader.

Some Iron Arrow Honor Society members are distancing themselves from the nearly century-old group in the midst of the debate. When New Times reached out on Friday, November 18, to the society's recently listed vice chair, traditionally known as the "medicine man," she declined to speak about the matter and confirmed she is no longer affiliated.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein

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