A voice for the voiceless

A voice for the voiceless

TJ Kimball

It’s no secret that the history of Native Americans is one that is brimming with injustices on behalf of white settlers. One of the indirect wrongdoings is the loss of historical documentation of the natives – an issue that an upcoming Grand Valley State University-related project looks to resolve.                                                                                           

“Over the mid part of the 20th century there were a whole range of federal and state policies to take Native Americans off of reservations and bring them to boarding schools and cities,” said Melaine Shell-Weiss.

Shell-Weiss is the director of the Kutsche Office of Local History, a part of the Brookes College of Interdisciplinary Studies. Her latest project, “Defend Our History, Unlock Your Spirit,” seeks to share an untold story about Native Americans in West Michigan and beyond.

“This forced relocation of Native American populations constitutes one of the largest non-consenting migrations in history,” Shell-Weiss said. “The fact that it goes untold is a terrible loss. It’s a major hole both in our history and in our experience as citizens of West Michigan.”

The project, now in the initial planning phase of development, is intended to extend over the next five years. It seeks to spread awareness of Native American histories both within and outside the native community, inviting members from both sides to engage in a culturally enriching dialogue.

Their first event will be held at the Potawatami Northern Health Center on Nov. 13. Members of the native communities in West Michigan will be invited to share their stories and show their own cultural artifacts. Its intention is to begin conversation that’ll hopefully last for decades.

That’ll be followed by another event on Nov. 19 on GVSU’s Allendale Campus in the multipurpose room. The event will serve as an opportunity to reach out to the university community and discuss the first leg of the cross-cultural experience that was initiated in the prior week.

“We want to see a fuller inclusion of Native American histories across our curriculum,” Shell-Weiss said. “This is important for GVSU and we have special resources here. We are the only state university in Michigan that has a university Native American advisory board. GVSU faculty, staff, students and members of the community are on that board, and that gives us an incredible sense of guidance.”

The project has outlined three major goals. The first of which is to create a list of 50-60 influential Native Americans throughout the West Michigan area to interview. The hope is that, through oral expression, we might discover new truths about our shared history.

The second goal is to collect resources that already exist. Shell-Weiss’s office is working with archival resources both within and outside GVSU to collect whatever information is available about these peoples’ unheard story.

The third and final goal is to reach out the GVSU community. The Kutsche Office hopes to broaden students’ understanding and foster their engagement in what is an unmistakably important part of their past.

“What we’re doing provides validation to the young people we work with,” Shell-Weiss explained. “It gives them a sense that their stories are important.”

The project is the result of a multi-faceted collaboration between several branches of the university’s administration. The Kutsche Office, the GVSU Native American Advisory Board, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Grand Valley Special Collections and Archive have all teamed up to turn this shared education into a reality.

Such a wide alliance could prove to be a testament to the community’s commitment to diversity, and it’s certainly a message of inclusion that many students will carry with them over the next several years.

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