ASUM faculty adviser Garon Smith suggested naming spirit animals as an icebreaker at an ASUM retreat in 2008, and somehow the activity snowballed. 

“Somehow it has just become the standard question any candidate gets asked when they’re sworn in,” Smith said. “I think if somebody is offended, it’s probably time to drop it.”

That time has come. Last night, the student government passed a resolution which bars the question from being asked at any other meetings this year. 

President Asa Hohman wrote the resolution after he learned the question had offended some students on campus.

Members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society attended the last meeting to explain their request senate for travel money, which the senate approved.

That night, Ruth Ann Hall Swaney and Gerri Mason spoke to the senate during public comment, telling the senators and executives the money would go toward travelling to a conference. Then, they sat down and waited to hear the results.

Several items were on the agenda between public comment and when their request would be considered. One of those items included swearing in a new senator and two guest speakers, which was when the question was first presented.

Business manager Ryan Hazen asked Kirk Hash, the newest senator, what his spirit animal was. Hash didn’t have an answer.

Then, Stephen Thompson, director of campus recreation, who had come to speak about the freshman wilderness experience, told the group his spirit animal was a grey wolf, though nobody had asked.

UM Productions staff spoke next, and the group stood behind the table and listed off their spirit animals, one of which was a Furby.  

After the third person from UM Productions spoke, Mason had enough. She left the meeting and later said the use of the term was an example of institutional racism she’s continually experienced on this campus.

“I dealt with issues of this university having a less than positive feeling about me attending here,” she said. “This to me is like the crowning jewel on the crown of their racist ideals.” 

Mason, who is an Alaska Native, said spirit animals are very personal to her.

“It’s not something I would speak about publicly,” she said, adding the concern doesn’t just affect her.

“There are thousands of American citizens that believe things the way I believe,” she said.

Swaney, of the Hidatsa tribe, was offended because some of the traditions she grew up with involved spirit animals.

“There are specific ceremonies that are still practiced today,” Swaney said, “that I don’t think are anybody else’s business to just trivialize.”

Charlene Bullen, another member of the group, said it's proof people at UM aren’t sensitive enough to Native American issues.

“This campus community is trained to not care about these Native American issues,” she said. Bullen herself isn’t Native, but has adopted Native children.

Swaney reached out to both ASUM leaders and the Kaimin after the meeting, and said she has filed a discrimination grievance with the office of equal opportunity.

For some Native American students, ASUM leaders asking the question isn’t a major issue.

“Personally, I find it kind of silly,” Sen. Kevin Skunkcap said of the ASUM tradition. He added that he knows that more traditional Natives find it offensive, but it’s not personally offensive to him.

Business manager Ryan Hazen said he was surprised that anyone had come forward to say it was offensive because it had been around for so long. He was one of the three no votes on last night’s resolution.

Earlier in the day he said he opposed the reason the resolution came up.

“If we make decisions off of whether a group is going to be offended or not, then we’ll end up making no decisions at all,” he said.  


michael.wright@umontana.edu

@mj_wright1