Students stand up for heritage

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A man sitting in the middle of a large room tapped on a small drum and sang in Kanien’keha, the language of the Mohawk Nation, with his voice reverberating loudly off the walls. Slowly, students joined the singer on the floor, holding hands and forming a circle around him as they rhythmically moved their feet to the Round Dance song.

The Traditional Iroquois Social, hosted by the Association of Native Americans at Yale, began with a dinner of Indian tacos, corn bread, strawberry drinks and various sweets and concluded with traditional songs and dances featuring singers from the Ganienkeh and Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Territories. The event, which took place Friday evening in the Afro-American Cultural Center, drew at least 70 people, including students who traveled to the Elm City from Cornell University and Dartmouth College.

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, the University’s first and only Native American faculty member, is teaching courses on Native American studies.
Rachel Engler
Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, the University’s first and only Native American faculty member, is teaching courses on Native American studies.

“I’m glad that so many people are here from so many different places,” ANAAY Secretary Kia Honhongva ’09 said as she watched students and members of the community sampling the special food prepared by the group.

Although times have changed since Henry Roe Cloud became the first Native American student to graduate Yale in 1910, Native American students today are still struggling to carve out a niche for themselves at Yale.

Native American students are still the smallest ethnic group on campus. As a result, in addition to battling misconceptions about their individual cultural backgrounds, the students face unique challenges on campus, including problems with fostering a sense of community and the absence of a Native American studies program.

A growing presence

When Chantelle Blue Arm ’08 came to Yale, she left behind a community overridden with drug abuse, alcoholism, gang-related violence, suicide and deep-seated poverty.

Blue Arm, who grew up in a small reservation in the Lakota Nation located in South Dakota, said her acceptance to Yale was the result of hard work and some luck. She attended an Indian boarding school that was established in part for families that could not support their children financially, though she later enrolled in a private school in Colorado with the help of a former teacher.

Blue Arm said reservation schools are often poorly funded, and the surrounding communities are plagued by rampant substance abuse and violence. The deterioration of the school systems — despite various community reform efforts — has created a sizeable obstacle for Native American students wishing to seek higher education, she said.

“College is just not a focus for Indians,” she said.

Native American students currently make up about 1 percent of both Yale College and the University, with 50 self-identifying Native American students attending the college and 13 students enrolled in the graduate and professional schools, though some students said they believe the figures are a bit larger because there are students who don’t self-identify upon matriculation.

This representation within Yale matches the national demographic, as there are approximately 4.5 million American Indian and Alaskan natives living in the country, making up about 1 percent of the total American population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2004-2005.

Yale Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the college is working to ensure that Native American students see Yale as a viable option by visiting schools on reservations and sending admissions officers to pre-college workshops for Native American students.

“We do have special outreach efforts we make for Native American students,” he said.

Rosalinda Garcia, director of the Latino and Native American Cultural Centers, said the number of Native American students has at least doubled in recent years. The students come from a diversity of backgrounds and tribes, spanning from the Mohawk tribe in the northeastern states to the Tohono O’odham nation in southwest Arizona.

ANAAY President Maya Bernadett ’08, who was raised in the Tohono O’odham nation, said although many students were born and raised on reservations, the majority of Native American students at Yale grew up in cities.

“We’re not a homogenous people,” Bernadett said.

Blue Arm said she plans to return to her reservation with a degree in psychology that will enable her to assist in preventing child molestation, suicide and other problems in her community.

“I want my life to be a tool for helping people,” she said. “I would feel selfish abandoning people back home.”

Native Yale

Even after arriving at Yale, Native American students said they encounter a multitude of challenges in building a cohesive community, including what Bernadett described as the administration’s slow recognition of the group.

“We really hope to become a stronger presence on campus,” Bernadett said.

The development of a Yale support system for students coming from indigenous nations has been gradual and is somewhat difficult to trace.

In the early 1990s, the administration acknowledged the growing Native American population by appointing a part-time adviser to counsel the students. An office located at 305 Crown St. was given to the group as well, and Native American students were able to successfully unite and hold the first powwows on campus.

The position became more established in later years when Shannon Salinas was hired as an assistant dean and adviser to Chicano and Native American students. The Native American Cultural Center, which was formally established in 1993, joined the Asian American Cultural Center and the Chicano Cultural Center in the same Crown Street facility because Salinas also worked as the Dean of Chicano Affairs.

But when the Chicano student groups moved in with the neighboring Puerto Rican Cultural Center in the late 1990s to forge a more unified Latino student community, they made a conscious effort not to bring the Native American group with them due to the fear that the Native American students would blend in too easily with the Latino groups and become forgotten, Garcia said.

The Native American Cultural Center is currently housed within the Asian American Cultural Center at 295 Crown St. and operates under the direction of Garcia, who also acts as the director of the Latino Cultural Center.

Moving ahead

Bernadett said ANAAY has been pushing for a dean specifically for Native Americans for years, and this summer they will get their wish.

The administration has narrowed an initial applicant pool of a few dozen down to four finalists for the position, whom Yale Native American students will meet with and evaluate over the next few weeks. The new assistant dean will assume his or her duties in July.

Garcia said she is thrilled that the University will soon appoint a separate director of the Native American Cultural Center because attending to two distinct groups has at times made her feel she had been spread too thin.

“You would always be short-changing someone,” she said. “I felt guilty walking around campus.”

Some students said they hope the arrival of the new dean will spur the creation of a separate Native American Cultural Center facility, also a long-term goal for the community.

Nathan Segal ’08 said the community is grateful to the Asian American community for sharing its facilities but hopes that the cost of running a new facility will not delay the acquisition of a separate space for long.

“Right now, we are doing the best to make do with what we have,” he said. “Personally, I believe that it is inevitable that the Native community will eventually have its own center, especially as numbers continue to grow and our presence is better felt.”

Students said another goal for the near future is the introduction of multiple Native American ethnic counselors. The ethnic counseling program was founded in 1972 and has since expanded to include 13 counselors. While there are four ethnic counselors each to assist African American, Asian and Latino freshmen, only one exists for Native American freshmen. The Native American position was not given official standing or financial support from the college until last year.

Mica Gilmore ’07, the sole Native American ethnic counselor, oversees 22 self-identifying Native American students while some of her peers oversee up to 50 students, but she said the time commitment becomes a problem because her charges are spread out throughout nearly every residential college.

Gilmore said she hopes the college considers adding on another Native American ethnic counselor to bring a diversity of perspectives to the freshmen.

“I come from a small reservation, but not all students can identify with being from a reservation,” she said.

An American Indian education

As the University’s first and only American Indian faculty member, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant teaches classes relating to the Native American experience under the auspices of the History Department and the programs in American studies and ethnicity, race and migration.

Before she joined the Yale faculty two years ago, the University only offered a small number of classes relating to American Indian studies, many of which were only offered sporadically, students said. Some students and professors expressed hope that Mt. Pleasant’s arrival on campus means that Yale will soon join the ranks of other universities that have well-established American Indian studies programs.

American Studies Program chair Matthew Jacobson said he thinks there is potential for expanded offerings in American Indian studies at Yale given the current Native American population and the University’s continual devotion to the study of North American diversity.

“It is my hope that the University will make a greater commitment to American Indian studies in the coming years, whether or not that takes the form of a ‘program’ as such,” he said.

Yale falls behind some of its peer institutions in its number of course offerings focusing on the study of indigenous peoples. Dartmouth College, which was established for the education and instruction of Native American youth, boasts a strong Native American studies program that was created in 1972 and is currently offering nearly 30 courses taught by nine faculty members. Harvard, Cornell and Stanford universities have similar Native American studies programs.

Students said they were surprised to find that, even with Mt. Pleasant’s courses, Yale College offers relatively few opportunities for learning about the Native American experience.

Sam Ng ’09, who is currently in one of Mt. Pleasant’s classes, said he thinks the college should hire more professors specializing in American Indian studies.

“One professor for all of Yale College is simply pathetic,” he said. “It implies, even on a symbolic level, that Indian history is a fringe, ‘otherly’ supplementary history.”

Mt. Pleasant, who comes from the Tuscarora Indian community in upstate New York, is also currently teaching “The Native American Experience in North America” and “Indian-Colonial Relations in Comparative Perspective,” courses that she said focus on historical Indian-colonial relations and the heterogeneity of Native American experiences across the country.

Mt. Pleasant said she thinks many Americans are still unaware of basic historical facts concerning Native Americans — such as the fact that 90 percent of the original population has been lost since Europeans first arrived on the continent. But Mt. Pleasant said American Indian studies have nonetheless grown considerably in the last 10 years, and she hopes it will continue to develop at Yale.

“Yale University is recognizing the significant growth that has occurred in American Indian history and studies in past generations,” she said. “It’s moving towards the development of a curriculum that more currently reflects the current state of scholarship.”

Breaking the stereotype

ANAAY members at the Traditional Iroquois Social said they were pleased to see non-Native American members of the Yale community in attendance.

“We knew our event had been widely publicized, but this exceeded our expectations,” Bernadett said.

Several students said they hope events like the social will help combat the superficial understanding of Native Americans that many people seem to have.

Skawenniio Barnes ’10 said she does not think that many Yale students know that ANAAY exists or that there are any Native Americans at Yale.

“People seem to be ignorant to the fact that we do have our languages, our culture, our traditions and our laws,” she said.

Segal said he has encountered many Yale students who picture Native Americans as resembling those depicted in John Wayne films or in the movie “Dances With Wolves.”

“Yale stereotyping is still a reality,” Segal said.

Bernadett said she is deeply bothered when she meets someone who does not understand that Native Americans live within their own nations that pass over boundaries drawn by the federal government and that several Native American students at Yale are the first in their families to attend college. But Bernadett said she thinks misconceptions arise because the current Native American student* population is so small, which is why Native American students must work particularly hard to bring awareness to the Yale community.

“It is hard to conceptualize people when you’ve never met them,” she said.

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