In spring of 2008, an anonymous tipster notified media representatives of alleged complaints of discrimination within the American Indian Student Association (AISA). Debate between sources continues to take place with respect to the starting point and subject matter of the conflict. The anonymous whistleblower agreed to a personal interview and submitted a timeline report of the conflicts, as well as e-mail correspondence.
All sources agree that on the base level, a conflict regarding the separation of identity between AISA Drum Circle and the AISA organization itself is what fueled discontent on both sides. Disagreement remains today between sources as to the validity of the discrimination complaints.
“Right off the bat it was just really strange, really peculiar that there were only two people [that were] a part of this organization,” the whistleblower said.
The two students, registered under the name of the American Indian Student Association with the Office of the Dean of Students, are Tracy Harjo and Jenna Sant.
The whistleblower identifies herself as a member of AISA Drum Circle and believes that members of the drum circle are also members of AISA.
“We had over a dozen meetings with Floyd Lai and Sherwyn Umali. The only offer on the table was that we should start our own organization. That’s what Tracy and Jenna have been pressing since we joined the organization,” the whistleblower said.
Sherwyn Umali, an assistant director for the Cross-Cultural Center (CCC) at UC Irvine, was unavailable for comment. However, Floyd Lai, who is also an assistant director for the CCC at UCI, stated that the report from the whistleblower contained inconsistencies.
“There were only two in-person meetings with the office of the Dean of Students,” Lai said. “Once with myself and members of the Drum Circle in the Cross-Cultural Center. The second meeting occurred with Rameen Talesh, Associate Dean of Students. In the subsequent meeting with Dr. Talesh, both parties talked about the most important issues in moving forward and came to certain agreements.”
The whistleblower disagreed with the idea that the conflict was resolved, stating that the level of discrimination continually grew to a threatening level.
“We had an open door policy; we wanted to make AISA a strong organization, but the leadership was just really adamant about only [allowing] Native Americans [to join] … It started escalating to the point where they would leave chalkboard signs saying ‘Natives Only’ across the entire chalkboard,” the whistleblower said.
The source also explained that Elders, who are high-ranking Native Americans that pass down wisdom to younger Native Americans, influenced AISA’s decision as they expressed “grave concern.”
Harjo, who agreed to schedule an interview despite currently studying abroad, denies the discrimination allegations.
“I think it was towards the end of the year when all of this sort of came about, and I really don’t know where it’s coming from. I would never discriminate against anyone. We have been fighting for the past 2000 years. What we’re fighting for is what we’re being accused of,” Harjo said.
Clearly, there was a strong disagreement between the registered AISA members and their Drum Circle counterparts.
“We definitely were really excited that there was another native group on campus, but there was some confusion on Drum Circle’s role on campus. … Drum Circle pretty much did their own thing, while AISA had separate meetings which most of those people did not attend,” Harjo said.
The whistleblower, on the other hand, finds the idea of AISA and AISA Drum Circle being different organizations to be unacceptable and does not believe that Drum Circle members should be treated differently from AISA members. This presents yet another problem in regards to office accessibility.
“We’ve been locked out of the CCC since June 3. The reason that we’re trying to get into our office is because of all of our Native American materials to pray: our drums, our rattles and our sacred feathers. We have receipts and everything; everything is ours. This was all on our own with private donations through ourselves … They just thought we were just performing or singing,” the whistleblower said.
In response to complaints of locked doors in the CCC, Harjo stated that the doors should not have been an issue.
“Anyone who wants to get into the office just has to be let in to the office. A lot of times they would find the office door closed and think that we didn’t want them in there,” Harjo said.
However, Lai confirmed that CCC policy does not allow them to open office doors for students who are not registered members of the appropriate organization.
This confusion, lack of communication and disagreement is what appears to have brought the organizations to a deadlock in negotiations.
The AISA Drum Circle has moved to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.
The two registered members of AISA and the CCC maintain the statement that they consider AISA Drum Circle to be a separate entity from AISA.