Native American student community grows

The Native American Cultural Center has expanded its offerings as the percentage of students at Yale who identify as Native American has grown.
The Native American Cultural Center has expanded its offerings as the percentage of students at Yale who identify as Native American has grown. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

This semester has marked a significant increase in activities offered by the Native American Cultural Center, or NACC, due to greater involvement from Native American students in the class of 2016.

Yale administrators hired Theodore Van Alst as dean of the Native American Cultural Center in 2010, and through his emphasis on targeted outreach to Native American high school students as well as those at Yale, interest in the NACC has grown considerably, according to students involved in the Native American community. The Native American community is typically one of the smaller cultural groups at Yale, students and staff said, but they have noticed an increase in involvement over the past two years because of the higher number of freshman and sophomore Native American students, said Elizabeth Rule ’13, vice president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, the student group affiliated with the NACC. As a result, the center has increased its programming by adding five new events this fall that have seen higher attendance than in years past.

“I most definitely noticed an increase this year in membership [and] attendance,” said Dash Turner ’15, a member of ANAAY. “This year, this new freshman class is ridiculously passionate and they’ve been setting up [many] new events.”

Last fall, the NACC announced plans to move into a new location at 26 High St. But the cultural center has not yet moved and remains at its current house at 295 Crown St., which it shares with the Asian American Cultural Center.

Still, under the guidance of Van Alst, the NACC has added new events to its schedule this year that include family dinners, movie nights and sweat lodge ceremonies — traditional purification ceremonies — which have helped students bond in a social setting, Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16 said.

Five students involved with the NACC also began a Native American arts organization called Blue Feather this month, said Naivasha Harris ’16, a member of the ANAAY and Blue Feather. The group sponsors weekly beading classes as well as a drum performance group that will have its first show on Nov. 3, she said. Medina-Tayac said he hopes Blue Feather will attract students involved with the arts and help the Native American community grow, adding that he has noticed several students not yet involved with ANAAY attend Blue Feather activities.

Amanda Tjemsland ’13, president of ANAAY, said the organization has around 20 members this year, compared to between five and 15 in recent years. Many of the students that have recently joined are freshmen, Rule said, adding that many events this year have seen a higher turnout.

On Oct. 8 — Indigenous People’s Day — ANAAY hosted an awareness event where 10 members passed out flyers on Cross Campus, Rule said. Only two students attended last year’s event, she said. The group also threw a new s’mores social to celebrate the holiday with over 30 students, Rule added.

“We still don’t have a lot of people but we have more than we’re used to,” said Dinee Dorame ’15. “We’re feeding off all the positive energy from the freshman.”

Several students and faculty interviewed said an increase in student involvement with the Native American community comes from Van Alst’s efforts to recruit and engage undergraduates.

Van Alst said he has given information sessions to high school students in Native American communities across the country since his arrival at Yale two years ago. He added that he aims to show prospective students and their families the support networks available at Yale for Native Americans.

The class of 2014 has 0.9 percent of students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native and 2016 has 2.8 percent Native American students, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Dorame said she thinks the substantial increase in Native American undergraduates over the past two years is a result of Van Alst’s focus on recruitment.

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, a professor in the history and American studies departments, said she thinks Van Alst has succeeded in making Native American high school students aware of Yale’s native community.

“[Van Alst] has undertaken extraordinary efforts to raise Yale’s profile in Indian Country,” Mt. Pleasant said. “For many Yalies this may seem surprising, but it has been important to go out to reservation and urban Indian communities to let students and their parents know that native students attend Yale, that they are supported here and that they have home at the NACC.”

Freshman members of ANAAY interviewed said they have become involved with NACC because they have found a close-knit community through the center’s new programs.

David Rico ’16 said he comes to the NACC almost every day, explaining that the house has become more than a place to understand his culture, but rather a community where he has made his closest friends.

The NACC was formally established in 1993.

Clarification: Oct. 24

A previous version of this article mistakenly suggested that the NACC had canceled plans to move to its new location at 26 High St.

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