Conference brings Native students together

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Photo by Will Freedberg.

This weekend, Yale hosted more than 100 students from several colleges for the 11th annual All-Ivy Native Council’s conference.

The All-Ivy Native Council is a student organization composed of Native American representatives from all eight Ivy League schools. This year’s conference — hosted by the Association of Native Americans at Yale and the Native American Cultural Center — focused on exploring Natives’ role in environmental sustainability.

The conference featured a number of events, including discussion panels, a speaker series and an open rehearsal with Blue Feather, a student-run Native drum group that performs traditional and contemporary powwow music. Organizers interviewed said the goal of the weekend was to help Native students sustain a traditional Native life in modern society and to never forget the cultural roots of Native traditions.

“From place-names, religious practices and resources struggles with external corporate and governmental entities … Native peoples confront particular challenges in maintaining ecological balance and harmony,” said Ned Blackhawk, professor of History and American Studies and director of undergraduate studies for American Studies.

Christian Brown ’15, one of the head coordinators of the conference, said the event brought together a diverse group of speakers to educate students about the challenges Natives face. He added that panelists came from a broad range of geographic, social and cultural backgrounds, thus accommodating different student interests.

In the conference’s keynote speech, Dr. Karletta Chief — assistant professor of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona — spoke about her own experiences. She explained the hardships she endured while living on her reservation, where resources such as electricity were scarce. Chief also described how she ultimately went on to receive a PhD and is currently seeking tenure.

Chief challenged other students to use their education to pursue their dreams.

“Dr. Chief had everyone on the brink of tears while sharing her life story,” said Leanne Motylenski ’16, who attended the conference. “It was a proud day to be a Native American at Yale.”

Other speakers included Douglas George, Vice President of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, and Melissa Zobel, an author and historian of the Mohegan Tribe. The topics of the conference’s events ranged from “History of Natives at Yale” to “Equality Versus Exceptionalism.”

Organizers said the conference was not just about the speakers and discussions — it was also about building a unified Native community across Yale and the rest of the Ivy League.

“We wanted to show off all the resources and the wonderful community Yale has to offer to Native Americans,” Brown said.

By demonstrating the support network the Native community has created at Yale, Brown said he hoped students would become inspired to grow their own communities in their respective colleges.

To foster closer relationships, the conference included “icebreaker” activities, tours of various Yale attractions and the opportunity to learn about Native drumming with Blue Feather. In between these events, students socialized, played games and shared meals.

“It’s great to be able to connect with students from other Ivies and get to learn their stories and experiences,” said Maggie Seawright, a freshman from Dartmouth College who attended the conference.

All students interviewed said they appreciated the conference, adding that the speakers resonated with everyone.

Stephanie Harris, a senior from Brown University, said she engaged the discussion on the Wampanoag tribe featuring Everett Weeden, a Mashantucket Pequot and Wampanoag elder. As a member of the Wampanoag tribe, Harris said it was refreshing to hear someone else talk about her tribe and the difficulties it has faced.

Others spoke of the friendships they made during the conference.

“I’m leaving with friends I’ve made from other schools and I’ve made closer connections with people from Cornell,” said Quinton Horton, a freshman at Cornell University.

For students, advisors, mentors and professors, the conference served to tie the Native community together and build for a more sustainable future, organizers said.

“We were blessed to have elders such as Kanentiio Doug George and Tall Oak with us, and to hear them talk about our long histories and leadership around the environment and its stewardship,” said Dr. Theodore Van Alst, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Native American Cultural Center. “I look forward to seeing the Ivy Native students move these discussions forward.”

Yale’s Native American Cultural Center was established in 1993.

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