Student rally against Iron Arrow Honor Society in petition against cultural appropriation

Indigenous Heritage Society stands in protest of Iron Arrow on Nov. 3. Photo credit: Kyra Juliana Espinoza Arroyo

A petition circulating Instagram the week before Thanksgiving caught the attention of UM students and stirred up discussions surrounding cultural appropriation. The title is “A Call to Change the Practices of the Iron Arrow Society.”

With just under 1,000 signatures, the petition has called to attention ongoing controversy surrounding the Iron Arrow Honor Society, the highest honor attainable at UM.

The petition, created by UM alumnus and Seminole tribe member Krystle Young, accuses Iron Arrow of demonstrating exclusionary and anti-Indigenous practices and denying the inclusion of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

“We, Indigenous peoples of Florida, demand that the University of Miami rectify the wrong of upholding and supporting the Iron Arrow Honor Society, a group claiming to protect, improve, and uphold the general welfare of the University,” the petition said. “The presence and actions of Iron Arrow affect not only life on campus but extend throughout Florida in everything the society does.”

The Iron Arrow Honor Society was founded in 1926 in part by UM’s first president Bowman Foster Ashe, the first registered student, Francis S. Houghtaling and Chief Tony Tommie, a member of the Everglades Seminoles, which is now split between the Seminole tribe and the Miccosukee tribe.

Iron Arrow faculty advisor Adrian Nuñez further elaborated on the purpose of the society and its attributes, noting its historical significance and ties to university tradition.

“The strength of Iron Arrow is through our individual members who give their time, talent and treasure back to the university,” Nuñez said. “When we talk about what Iron Arrow is charged to do, it is to protect the history and traditions of the university. We see ourselves as the living history of the university through our members over the years.”

As the organization nears its centennial anniversary of its establishment, the honor society is working to maintain its ties with the Miccosukee and consult on cultural practices.

“They’re the ones that we consult with on our practices and the cultural gifts that they gave us at the inception of the organization, and who we work with on collaborative initiatives,” Nuñez said. “The Miccosukee tribe are the ones that audit our practices and our tribal liaison is the Chief of Staff for the Miccosukee. We work closely with their business council, which essentially is the tribal government for the Miccosukee tribe.”

Despite these maintained connections with the Miccosukee tribe over the years, some members of the student body have called out inaccuracies on the part of Iron Arrow’s tapping ceremonies and other cultural practices.

Recent protests by the UM Indigenous Heritage Community, a non-official organization at UM, took place during Iron Arrow’s tapping ceremony, which took place on Nov. 3. During the protests, students held signs reading phrases like “Our tradition is not ur costume” and “Big nope to racial trope” while offering outreach to students looking to support Indigenous groups at UM.

These protests marked the beginning of Native American Heritage Month, a commemorative month dedicated to celebrating Indigenous people and providing a platform for Indigenous people to share and recognize their traditions, music and other cultural practices.

“We’re asking for proper representation of Indigenous people on campus and more space for Indigenous people to amplify what happens in our communities and amplify issues that are important for the values of this university that stresses so much about diversity and inclusion,” said junior ecosystem science and policy major Keyra Juliana Espinoza Arroyo, a member of the Kañari Nation from the South Andes of Ecuador.

Many of the signs displayed during the protest showing the phrase “Time’s up on your dress-up” also allude to recent discussions about Halloween costumes displaying cultural stereotypes.

“People think that they can dress up and cosplay as Indian, when it’s actually cultural appropriation. It’s racist and a racial trope. Why is race seen as a costume? Why is culture seen as a costume? Why is our existence seen as something that can’t be taken seriously?” Arroyo said.

Many of the posters displayed during the protests reference the use of Indigenous-made patchwork jackets by the members of the Iron Arrow Honor Society. The jackets are crafted and sold by the Miccosukee tribe on their reservation, which is located just off of Tamiami trail.

“It’s not only a high honor for our organization to be able to wear their clothing, but they’re proud to see that their artwork and their clothing is being worn,” Nuñez said. “We encourage the entire university community to go out to the Miccosukee reservation; people are welcome to go buy those jackets, and other artwork, beads and baskets that they sell on their tribal land.”

This is not the first time that the integrity of Iron Arrow has been called into question.

Following a series of criticisms regarding the key traditions of Iron Arrow, especially those included in the tapping ceremony, the honor society issued a “Memorandum of Understanding”. The Memorandum acknowledges the sovereignty of the Miccosukee tribe and UM’s commitment to honor the traditions and culture of the Miccosukee.

Additionally, after a two year internal review, the honor society announced in August 2020 that it would make some changes regarding the tapping ceremony. This included the discontinuation of student leadership titles of chief, son of chief and medicine man, as well as the folding of the arms. This name change was also re-announced at the beginning of the 2022-2023 academic year. In addition, the tapping ceremony would also limit the use of the ceremonial drum.

However, despite these amendments, some students are calling for the discontinuation of the ceremony practices altogether.

“If they’re so prestigious, why are they mocking cultural values and ceremonies of Indigenous people?” senior psychology major Sophia El-Zahr said. “If they are so prestigious, why don’t they make their own ceremonies instead of stealing some that already belong to a minority that’s been through enough stealing?”

Many students and members of UM’s Indigenous community have spoken up about a lack of commitment to honoring the cultural practices of the Miccosukee and properly recognizing Native American Heritage Month.

“We’re asking for proper representation of Indigenous people on campus and for the university to give more space for actual Indigenous people to amplify issues that are important for the values of this university that stresses so much about diversity and inclusion,” Arroyo said.

Students can find more information about Native American Heritage Month and upcoming events on the UM Native American and Global Indigenous Studies website.