A bundle of sage sits below my dorm room window. When lit, its smoke cleanses my mind, body, and spirit. It rids the air of bad energy, and it keeps me sane.
It reminds me of home: a reservation life that never eludes me. The sage is placed alongside my hand-beaded Yale pennant, my moccasins, and my hand-drum. These objects are small tokens of my Crow and Bitterroot Salish heritage and they keep my identity close.
I come from a reservation in Montana. My homeland is Indian country, a place of Medicine Dances and camas bakes. Coming to Yale, I was worried about the distance from my culture: how could I practice here? But by my second semester, I was singing and drumming with the Blue Feather Native American drum group, joining on-campus activism with the Association of Native Americans at Yale, and beading with friends every week at the Native American Cultural Center.
There are 162 Native American undergraduate students currently enrolled at Yale. Many arrived equipped with traditional knowledge and keepsakes to remind them of home. But others had not yet explored their indigeneity before starting college. Yale’s Native American community has helped them build an awareness of their heritage, hundreds of miles from home.
Kodi Alvord ’17 remembers going to powwows as a kid, but only to watch. It was hard for him to actively participate in his culture while growing up in Mount Pleasant, Mich., far from his Navajo homelands in the Southwest, where he was born. At Yale, Alvord drums and sings powwow rhythms with Blue Feather. He wears a silver bear on a black cord around his neck — a symbol of his family’s Bear Clan. When Alvord drums, the bear feels two beats: the beat of his heart and the new beat of his drum.
On the day David Rico ’16 was born, his grandmother gave him a medicine pouch stitched with a bear claw, the symbol for the Choctaw creation story. Growing up in the mountains of Appalachia, Rico was told stories about the bear claw’s connection to his grandmother’s spirit animal. When she passed away, Rico began wearing the pouch around his neck. “It has become a part of who I am and it’s a constant reminder of my grandmother,” he said. “Her spirit is always watching over me.” She watches on as David drums for Blue Feather with his own handmade drum, performs poetry, and passes time in the Native American Cultural Center.
During her first Lakota lesson at Yale, Emily Van Alst ’16 was asked if she wanted to introduce herself as a “Lakota girl” or a “Lakota woman.” Van Alst, a Síhasapa Lakota and Eastern Cherokee, hadn’t given the idea much thought. Her Directed Independent Language Study teacher told her that a “Lakota woman” has an attitude of independence and the ability to fend for herself. Throughout high school in Connecticut, Van Alst had felt the opposite: isolated, ridiculed, and judged because of her indigeneity. Back then, she had pushed her identity away. But, after her freshman year at Yale, Van Alst made the decision to introduce herself as “Lakhóta Wínyan hemácha yé,” a native woman. “I’ve definitely grown from a native girl to a native woman at Yale,” she said. “I take my culture as an opportunity to educate instead of pushing it away.”
Dale Williams is from the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. Back home, the Mandan Arikara flag flies proudly over her hometown, and buildings display tribal designs. William misses these daily reminders of culture, along with the six annual powwows in her community. Being separated from her family is not easy for her; sometimes, she feels incomplete at Yale. But the Native American Cultural Center, where Native American artwork is displayed proudly and identity and native issues are discussed freely, feels a little bit more like home.
Home for me will always be my reservation. But here, I can keep home close. My moccasins tread carefully on the pale cobblestone, but I’m not walking alone. I am walking with the people with whom I have created a joint identity: Yale natives. We learn, we love, we sing, and we get homesick. Helping one another to discover culture and to celebrate it, we walk together.