Administrators at the University of Maine in Orono say they’ve begun meeting with indigenous groups and are looking for ways to better support marginalized students after online posts from a Republican student group sparked a backlash on campus.
On Monday, dozens of students and community members joined a rally organized by indigenous students. They were protesting the administration’s initial response to a social media post shared by UMaine College Republicans earlier this month, defending explorer Christopher Columbus and describing indigenous societies he encountered as “brutal” and cannibalistic.
Lokotah Sanborn, a 24-year-old activist and member of the Penobscot Nation, called the messages hateful and offensive and said the administration needs to do more to make indigenous students feel supported on campus.
“We demand action from the school system, student body, student government — real actionable change. Otherwise, what will they have done?” Sanborn says.
The university’s vice president for student life, Robert Dana, says while free speech issues are complicated for public universities, he understands why many students are upset. In a letter earlier this month, he says the post “does not align with our values or the stated values of the university.”
Dana says in recent weeks, the university has reached out to several outside groups, including free speech experts and tribal representatives, to discuss the situation.
“We’ll be doing a great deal of programming on campus. We’ll be engaging students in these discussions. And we’re working with friends in Native American Programs here to talk about, what is the best response? What is the best solution?” Dana says.
John Bear Mitchell, who works in UMaine’s office of Native American Programs, says he and other staff members are discussing how the university can ensure that it listens to students’ concerns and can show support.
“They’re looking for those kinds of, ‘What can we do? Whose voices can we use? And what words do we say?’ Those are the kinds of things that really are missing from what we’ve had in the past,” he says.
Charles Honkonen, the president of the UMaine College Republicans, also showed up to the rally on Monday. He says he feels the group’s message was misconstrued by the rallying students and says he welcomes an open discussion.
“No one has to support our view or their view or whatever. But we just want to have reasonable discourse and express our point of view freely,” he says.
Dana says the university plans to continue to work with other groups around the issue and is encouraging students to speak out against opposing views.
Originally published Oct. 28, 2019 at 4:23 p.m. ET.