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Native SOAR looking toward future after incident with President Robbins

Courtesy VOICE

 Dozens of students and staff gathered along with President Dr. Robert C. Robbins in the Nugent Building on Nov. 5. Robbins apologized fr his insensitive comments about Native American ancestry and students spoke about how the incident affected them.  

Members of Native Students Outreach, Access and Resiliency, or SOAR, said that the group has forgiven President Dr. Robert C. Robbins for insensitive comments he made on Oct. 3 regarding taking DNA tests to check for Native American ancestry.

RELATED: Native American students demand accountability from Robbins after offensive comments

However, just because there is forgiveness does not mean there is no expectation of further action. Instead, SOAR leadership said that Robbins and his administration have promised to take steps to better serve Indigenous students, as well as other marginalized groups on campus.

The Past

On Oct. 3, the Native SOAR class gathered outside of Old Main. The students were writing letters to family members  back home, according to Trinity Norris, one of the students present that day and member of the Tohono O’odham nation. 

The group was unexpectedly joined by Robbins. According to Amanda Cheromiah, the director of SOAR and a member of the Laguna Pueblo nation, the visit was not planned.

A letter released by Voices of Indigenous Concerns in Education, or VOICE — a group made up of students involved in Native SOAR — described what Robbins told the students as a “failed attempt to connect and relate to the group.” According to the letter, he told the group he had taken a DNA test to see if he had Cherokee ancestry. The test came back negative, but Robbins told the students he would take another one and referenced his “very high cheekbones” as evidence he may have Indigenous ancestry, according to the letter.

“It was just a little shocking and kind of disappointing coming from the president. That’s how I felt in the moment,” Norris said. “And then after, I just kind of was still processing it but realized he just said what he said.” 

In the days and weeks after the comments were made, Cheromiah and Felisia Tagaban, a graduate assistant for SOAR, who is Diné and Tlingit, attempted to contact Robbins in order to express to him the negative impact his comments had on the Indigenous community on campus. Tagaban said they did not hear back from his office until Oct. 14 to inform the pair that they could speak to Robbins at his office hours the next day.

According to Tagaban, Robbins initially seemed sincerely eager to apologize to the SOAR students. However, when she and Cheromiah made multiple attempts to schedule a time with the Executive Office of the President for Robbins to apologize in person, there was a “lack of follow through.”

One month after the comments had been made, VOICE released a letter describing the comments and calling for accountability. SOAR also shared the letter on their social media pages.

“The letter was the result, I would say, more of the aftermath, which was a perfect example of the systemic issues that we were trying to point out,” Tagaban said about the experience of Robbins initially showing interest in an apology, but not delivering.

RELATED: Indigicat hosts Spirit Week at start of Native American Heritage Month

The Present

On Nov. 4, the day after the letter was released and publicized, Robbins released a statement to the media regarding the incident.

“I want to extend my sincere apology for my comments made during a SOAR class in early October and their impact,” Robbins said in the statement.

The next day, Robbins apologized in person to the SOAR students, as well as other members of the community in a conversation that took place in the Native American Student Affairs room in the Nugent building. 

Approximately 50 people gathered in the room that day, according to Cheromiah, as Robbins made what she found to be a sincere apology. After the apology, a conversation ensued. 

According to Tagaban, members of Robbins’ staff acknowledged that they had not initially understood the importance of the situation when trying to schedule an apology.

SOAR has forgiven Robbins, Tagaban said. At the Nov. 5 meeting, which Cheromiah described as “a lot like a ceremony,” SOAR gifted Robbins a necklace as a way to  show that the apology was accepted. They also gave him a printed copy of the letter from VOICE.

“And I just kind of folded it to where the solutions were at, and I was like, ‘As you look at this, this is what we are focused on next,’” Cheromiah said.

The Future

Now, SOAR is looking toward the future. According to Tagaban and Cheromiah, Robbins and his team made many informal commitments during the Nov. 5 meeting. 

“There’s always the grace. You forgive and you wait for the change in behavior, attitude, belief, you wait for that,” Tagaban said. “So we’re moving forward. That’s the expectation because, again, that’s the right thing to do.”

Near the top of the list was the desire to institutionalize Native SOAR and make it an official class. This is something the SOAR leadership have been working toward for a long time. Currently the program operates out of the College of Education.

Robbins also said he is committed to developing a better understanding of Indigenous culture and has been communicating with tribal communities, according to Cheromiah. 

Norris said the Oct. 3 incident potentially could have been avoided had Robbins been better educated about Indigenous issues. Norris, Tagaban and Cheromiah all agreed that non-Native allies must be willing to educate themselves in order to actually work with the native community. 

“For me, I think, just learning about the communities first before they take action on anything else,” Norris said of non-Native allies, “because in most cases it doesn’t end well because they’re not educated on who we are.”

Tagaban and Cheromiah also said, beyond personal changes, they are looking for structural changes within the university’s power structure. That includes potentially creating positions within the Senior Leadership Team dedicated to understanding and responding to the needs of diverse, marginalized groups on campus.

RELATED: Students organize event to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Though nothing was formalized in writing, Tagaban said she is hopeful that these commitments will lead to actual change.

“We want the institution to stop espousing values that it’s not living up to,” Tagaban said. “Don’t exploit our connection to this institution by putting up pictures to show diversity and inclusion and care if you’re not going to uphold those words. Otherwise those are empty words. And, unfortunately, as Mandy [Cheromiah] has referenced, we as communities, as nations, are very familiar with empty words and empty promises.”

In regards to the meeting and his future with SOAR, Robbins said in an email, “Meeting went well, apology accepted and looking forward to working together on mutual goals.” 

Follow Vanessa Ontiveros on Twitter

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