Five hundred twenty-one years ago, Christopher Columbus made his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a water route to Asia. His trip marked the beginning of European expansion and colonization. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people are aware that Columbus did not, in fact, “discover” this new land. Instead, we now have the opportunity to look back at this pivotal piece of history and wonder how it affects us as Yale students. History cannot be reversed, but it can be recognized. So today, we recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an alternative to Columbus Day.
Here at Yale, Indigenous Peoples’ Day stirs conversation each year. While most people are willing to acknowledge the fault lines in American history, what goes unnoticed is the rich tribal history of the land that these neo-Gothic buildings sit atop and the longtime Native presence on Yale’s campus.
This semester, the conversation has centered on the new Native American Cultural Center. Until this August, Native students occupied a few rooms on the third floor of the Asian-American Cultural Center. Since the recent acquisition of the Cultural Center on 26 High St., many people have asked us: “Why do Native students get your own space on campus?”
Although Native students make up less than one percent of the Yale College population, this is the only place on campus where we can practice our unique cultural traditions — and educate Yalies about them. Yale’s Western-oriented curriculum does not always recognize the spiritual and cultural aspects at the root of our tribes. Many times, Native stories are underrepresented in classes that cover African-American, Latino, white and Asian-American histories. With only a handful of Native professors on campus, Yale is generally unable to teach from an indigenous perspective. The Cultural Center provides an additional outlet for Native students to advocate for indigenous studies and prompt discussion between Native and non-Native students.
The Cultural Center also provides a dean and spiritual adviser that would not otherwise be available to us. Sweats, a cleansing ceremony, requires off-campus transportation, and we would not be able to attend without Cultural Center funding. Smudging, the burning of sage that cleanses an individual or space, is against University policy due to smoke hazards, and the Cultural Center provides a safe place in which these regulations do not apply.
The fight for our own house is not new. In November 1989, the Association of Native Americans at Yale held their first organizational meeting. There were eight students present. Having been previously lumped together with what was then called the Chicano Cultural Center, the students made a list of demands, which included their own space and their own dean. Four years later, the newly founded group took hold of the unused third floor of a Crown Street building and called it the Native American Cultural Center.
Well before the ivy-covered, hallowed halls of this university were here, the Quinnipiac tribe inhabited the land and the town of New Haven was instead known as Quinnipiac. In 1638, the tribe was the first to be displaced to “reserve” land in what would later become the United States. It wasn’t until 1910, that Henry Roe Cloud, a Ho-Chuck from the Winnebago Reservation, became the first American-Indian graduate of Yale College.
Today of all days, it’s important to note that the Native community has been fighting for this space for decades. I invite people to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an alternative to Columbus Day and the next time you stroll through Cross Campus to class, remember the roots of the land. In the 17th century, Native people were here. In 2013, Native students at Yale continue to fight for recognition and use today to honor the resilience of our ancestors.
Dinée dorame is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.