Graphic by Samantha Nesovanovic
Wunk Sheek members help natives find community, take on previous university role
With so few Native American students on campus, forming connections with other Native students is key for living on a majority white campus. But imagine if being a part of that community is contingent on whether or not student leaders are able to find you.
Wunk Sheek, a Native American community on campus, has had to do just that. In fall 2017, the university eliminated Nichole Boyd’s position as a liaison to the native community. But according to Mary Carr Lee, spokesperson for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, the position is just vacant as the university reevaluates its function and accessibility to Native American students.
“The support mechanism for students of color in general are not applicable to Native students, given how small the community is on campus. We are working on a more tailored approach founded on an intimate understanding of the tribal and culture needs of Native students when they arrive on campus,” Carr Lee said.
Still, student leaders said they have had to go out of their way to recruit other Native American students and let them know about Wunk Sheek. As of fall 2017, Carr Lee said there were 100 UW-Madison students who only identified as American Indian. About 450 students identified as overall American Indian.
Although the organization has grown in size, Collin Ludwig, Wunk Sheek’s co-president of Fiscal Relations and a part of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, said that between recruitment and seeking funding through the Student Services Finance Committee, the work he and other leaders have had to do is stressful.
“It was kind of hard to do it all ourselves this year,” Ludwig said. “This is sort of a transition year.”
Having Roberta Hill as my first professor — she was also Oneida — for me that was like, “Oh my God! My first professor here is Oneida!” It almost gave me this expectation that I was going to be seeing more of my representation here, which I kind of had to learn the hard way wasn’t the case.
Mariah Skenandore, Wunk Sheek’s co-president of External Affairs and a part of the Oneida tribe, interned for Boyd. In that role, Skenandore was heavily involved with powwow planning, something that is useful now that there is no longer a liaison and she is a part of Wunk Sheek leadership.
“Now that [Boyd is] not around, Wunk Sheek kind of carries that weight on our shoulders because everything that people would otherwise go to her for — if they ever needed to talk to a Native person at the university — they are now reaching out to Wunk Sheek because we’re the main Native representation and the main resource for Native folks outside of the UW community,” Skenandore said.
But even before Boyd’s position was eliminated, many Native students didn’t know about the liaison and still had a hard time finding one another. Skenandore said this problem is because the university does a poor job of telling Native American students where to go.
“I hear a lot about the people that are in Wunk Sheek [because] of these random ways that they found us. They just came across something or someone in one of their classes,” Skenandore said. “The university should be doing a better job of putting us in those places of community and allowing us access to those spaces and making sure that marginalized students know that there’s a place for them here, because I don’t think that we know that.”
Still, Boyd was especially helpful for recruitment. Before her position was cut, the majority of Wunk Sheek members — including Ludwig — were referred to the group from the liaison.
For Skenandore, while the liaisons weren’t perfect, it was better than having no one at all.
“There are definitely better things that can be done, but that’s a start,” Skenandore said. “To take steps back from that — I think that speaks to the direction that this country is going in. The climate on this campus is uncomfortable, honestly. I think that it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people because we don’t understand each other, and I think the liaisons were kind of a step to us having a sense of community and having validation from people that look and sound and act like us.”
Without Wunk Sheek, Ludwig said he had a good chance of going all four years at the university without ever running into another Native American student. As the only Native in his entire dorm freshman year, Ludwig said at first he didn’t take much notice of the way the university treats Native students.
“I kind of got whitewashed in that sort of sense,” Ludwig said. “I didn’t really have an option to find other Native students and I obviously didn’t know about Wunk Sheek at that time so I didn’t really see it and a lot of the times when you’re faced with something, you need someone else with you to understand what’s going on.”
The same is true for Skenandore. If not for having Roberta Hill, professor of English and American Indian Studies and a part of the Oneida tribe, as an instructor her first semester on campus, she wouldn’t have found Wunk Sheek.
“Having Roberta Hill as my first professor — she was also Oneida — for me that was like, ‘Oh my God! My first professor here is Oneida!’” Skenandore said. “It almost gave me this expectation that I was going to be seeing more of my representation here, which I kind of had to learn the hard way wasn’t the case.”
Lawrence Andrea contributed to this report.