The University of Miami Student Government used the final minutes of the 2022 spring semester to denounce cultural appropriation of Native Americans symbols within the Iron Arrow Honor Society, one of the university’s highest academic honors and an organization with a history of controversy.
In a 28-to-5 vote, with seven abstentions, the Student Senate passed “A Resolution Calling for the Need for an Alternative Organization to Iron Arrow as the ‘Highest Honor’ Achievable at the University of Miami and to Properly Support Indigenous Communities on Campus.” The bill called for the disaffiliation of Iron Arrow Honor Society from the University of Miami and the establishment of a new highest honor.
Additionally, Senate leaders called for several actionable items aimed at providing a voice to native students, including an indigenous student scholarship.
“This is a benevolent action in my opinion and it only serves to improve, not to attack, to push forward with progress,” said Ishaan Chatterjee, a senior class senator majoring in microbiology and immunology, during the Senate meeting.
As stated in the bill, Iron Arrow has a controversial past stemming from a guilty United States Supreme Court verdict over Title IX violations and the appropriation of Native American culture by an organization predominantly composed and founded by non-indigenous members.
Authors of the bill, Juliette Van Heerden and Joe Broehl, made clear that the bill is calling for not just the reformation of Iron Arrow, but total disaffiliation of the organization from UM.
“It is of the opinion of the senators whose names appear on this bill, as well as the Indigenous people consulted, that no amount of internal restructuring or atonement can excuse or overshadow the problematic past or ideologies this very society was founded upon,” said Van Heerden, a senior senator.
Van Heerden and Broehl, a political science major and college of arts and science senator, spent the past semester gathering interviews from various tribes, conducting research and speaking with students before presenting the senate with an eleven page bill.
“The more I saw, the more I was kind of disgusted and just really questionable about their practices,” Van Heerden said. “And so that led me to have conversations among peers, and we can be a voice using our resources and senate for those concerns.”
The bill was met with overwhelming support from a majority of the room, but still faced harsh criticism from a few senate members.
Those opposed to the bill felt Van Heerden and Broehl did not provide enough Indigenous voices and were critical of the dialogue among Iron Arrow Leadership.
“I know this is an Indigenous organization in the way it is structured, but this is a full student body organization. I think this is a bigger issue,” said Carlos Huembes, a commuter student senator studying finance and business law. “Taking this down would be disrespectful to them if we do not at least talk to the entire student body, get the word out, try and make this an actual discussion, not just 50 or so people in a room deciding on a couple of facts.”
Broehl responded to the concerns stating that discussions with Iron Arrow leadership would not push the authors’ agenda of disbanding the honor society forward because the organization has failed to adhere to agreements to modify their behavior in the past. Citing Iron Arrow’s 2020 promise to “no longer continuously bang a ceremonial drum on initiation days” that was violated during the spring 2022 tapping, Broehl explained how Iron Arrow has been ingenuine with listening to student complaints.
Furthermore, Broehl said they had spoken to many students and indigenous community representatives who expressed support for the bill. Broehl read off a series of anonymous statements of gratitude to prove their support.
“Thank you and the rest of the student government for supporting Native and Indigenous students on campus,” Broehl said. “Thank you all, you have clearly worked so hard on this. Had someone done this when I was a student at UM it would have made a world of difference to me.”
A defining moment of the senate discussion came when Keyra Espinoza, a sophomore studying ecosystem science and policy and an afro-indigenous student from Ecuador, described the way Iron Arrow’s marketing masks many of the problems with its practices.
“They are pretty much blinded with trying to reach this high achievement,” Espinoz said, addressing the senators. “I don’t know what they were thinking of creating a high achievement society and using Native American culture, like high achievement in what? High achievement in cultural appropriation and racial trope?”
Espinoza’s words paired with the bill’s rigorous detail were enough to persuade the committee in their favor. With the passage of the bill, a conversation about the ethics of Iron Arrow in higher faculty offices ensued.
“It should have actually happened a long time ago,” Espinoza said. “I was going over the bill and it was 11 pages of actual things that accumulated over the timeline of Iron Arrow’s presence, but I’m very happy that it passed.”
While the bill has been passed by the main student governing body, it has to be approved by several other governing bodies and individuals before being enacted.
The bill will move to the student body president, Jaime Williams, before going to the desk of Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Whitely, where it will then be either passed to faculty senate or signed into action.
Van Heerden says she is concerned the bill won’t be enacted due to the fact that some of the university leaders involved in the process are members of Iron Arrow.
“I know there were Iron Arrow members in the room, including the main faculty member advisor of Iron Arrow,” Van Heerden said. “I hope that this was eye opening for them to see and further prove that what they’re doing is wrong.”
Van Heerden said she fears that opposition to the bill could result in administrators and Iron Arrow leaders looking to reform the honor society instead of meeting the bill’s request to disaffiliate the group from UM.
“I hope they take these conversations to heart into what they decide to do as an organization and don’t continue to think that reform is the way to go, because obviously that’s not what the common sentiment is and that’s not what the bill is calling for,” Van Heerden said.
While not stated in the bill, its two authors recommend a land acknowledgement on the Iron Arrow Mound, where they conduct their ceremonies, dedicated to indigenous students and removal of the Iron Arrow name from the UM campus in spaces such as Shalala Student Center.
“The sooner the university establishes a new one, the sooner we can, as a community, move on from Iron Arrow,” Broehl said. “That’s not to say that Iron Arrow should be completely erased from the university, because the university does need to recognize that this is a wrong that happened and this is something that we will never aspire to do ever again.”
As Van Heerden and Broehl exit office and hand over the responsibility of the Iron Arrow Bill to a younger class of senators, Van Heerden says she is grateful that her work has finally opened a formal dialogue on changes she believes have been a long time coming.
“I think this set the precedent that no conversation is untouchable,” Van Heerden said. “Having this conversation now shows that it’s okay to have this conversation in the future.”