One year after derogatory messages about Native Americans were posted on Yale’s campus, the University’s small Native American population continues to dispel misconceptions about its cultural heritage and strengthen solidarity throughout the community.
At one percent of the student population — about 70 undergraduates — Native Americans are the most underrepresented ethnicity at Yale. And while other minority groups are able to regularly enroll in courses concerning their heritage, there are no Native American studies classes being offered this semester. Although Native American students said they feel Yale provides them with a solid support system, past incidents and questions from their peers suggest the Yale community is largely uninformed about Native American culture.
Native American students said they were not surprised by last year’s incident, when chalk messages around campus blazed messages such as, “Savagery: No, Imperialism: Yes, Happy Columbus Day,” and posters on bulletin boards read, “By now squaws and braves know what is wrong from right. World not always fun and games. Religions = group therapy.” Something of this nature, whether intentional or unintentional, has happened every year, said Amanda de Zutter SOM ’06, co-chair of the Native American Yale Alumni Group and member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he is optimistic that the incident will not be repeated this year.
“Although it disturbed greatly the Native American community, it also functioned to bring them closer together,” Salovey said. “They and I had a series of meetings and conversations in the wake of those … and turned a disgusting situation into one that had some positive consequences.”
Some students said on campus support networks, such as the Association of Native Americans at Yale, have helped bring Native American students together by maintaining the morale of students who might otherwise have a difficult time finding people with similar backgrounds at Yale.
Ashley Hemmers ’07, who is the first member of her family to attend college, said she probably would have transferred to a university on the West Coast if she had not become involved with ANAAY. Hemmers said the transition to Yale from her Mojave reservation in California, where only 10 of the 2,000 student-age population went to college, was not easy. Most of the other Native American students went to trade school and there was a 50 percent high school drop out rate, she said.
“A huge part of native culture is establishing a community and having that support system, and so that is what we brought from our various locations here to Yale,” Hemmers said.
Josh Sayler ’07, who is part of the South Dakota Arikara tribe, said the small Native American numbers at Yale have helped ANAAY create a familial atmosphere.
“You hung out with them, tried to pick your classes so that you could be with them, and went to football games together,” Sayler said. “I almost think that in a much larger group where you have 200, 300 members, you kind of lack that kind of atmosphere.”
But some Native American students said they feel their small numbers call excess attention to their cultural differences.
“Just because they haven’t been exposed to it, you kind of feel like you are on display,” said Shani Harmon ’06, a Native American Ethnic Counselor who is part of the Michigan Pamunkey tribe. “The hardest part of being Native American is that because there are so few of you, like any minority on occasion, people expect you to be the voice of your community and your tribe.”
Hemmers said she feels she often has to take on a leadership role in order to clarify general misconceptions about her ethnicity. Because students in the Northeast are distant from the roots of Native American culture, she said, they do not understand what it means to be a Native American today.
“If I’m in history class and we’re talking about Indians, people tend to think there was contact and then there was Thanksgiving and that was it,” she said. “They tend to forget that tribes still exist.”
Alese Harris ’09, who is part of the North Carolina Lumbee tribe, said modern America has created a stereotype of what a Native American should be. But she said she feels there is still an interest in Native American culture at Yale.
“[Students think Native Americans] should have tragic features with a stern nose and solemn composition,” Harris said. “But when people see that you aren’t that way they ask genuine questions, and that’s just one of the best parts about being here. They sincerely want to know what it means to be Native American.”
At times, Hemmers said she has received offensive questions that would not be asked of other cultural groups, such as, “Are you guys still around?” or “So, do you have a casino?”
Many Native American students said one common misunderstanding among Yale students is their belief that there are no variations between tribes and cultures. Because many tribes to which students belong have fought each other for hundreds of years, it is often difficult for Native Americans in a community to identify with one another, the students said. Furthermore, it is very rare for there to be more than one student from each tribe at Yale, they said.
“It’s like saying there’s one Chinese American, one Korean American, one Japanese American and trying to identify [them] with each other,” de Zutter said.
But Yale’s Native American community is embracing its collective culture in honor of Indigenous People’s Day. The holiday is an opportunity for Native Americans to commemorate their history.
“It’s just kind of an alternate celebration where we choose to celebrate our … 500 and some odd tribes that are no longer with us today as a result of Columbus’s discovery of America,” Sayler said.