Last year, the University had 2,744 faculty members who were white. One-hundred-twenty were black, and 93 were Hispanic. Six hundred and six were Asian, and only one was Native American.
That number has since doubled, due to the hiring of Ned Blackhawk, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who joined Yale’s History and American Studies departments this semester. Faculty and students said Blackhawk could contribute significantly to Native American studies at Yale and could raise the profile of the University’s small Native American community.
Blackhawk calls himself an “urban American” — a member of the Te-Moak tribe of the West Shoshone nation raised in Detroit, Mich.
“One would think I’d have to fit into stereotypes to know anything about the culture,” Blackhawk said. “I grew up away from these communities, and yet I chose to be a historian. Why? To mend some wounds that have been made by cultural misunderstandings.”
Blackhawk graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 1992. He then pursued graduate work at the University of Washington, earning a Ph.D. in history in 1999. From there, he moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he stayed for 10 years, teaching courses on western American Indian culture and history. And in January 2009, chairs of Yale’s History and American Studies departments announced that Blackhawk would be joining the University’s faculty.
With Blackhawk, the faculty now has two Native American professors. The other is history professor Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, who is on sabbatical this academic year and could not be reached for comment. The Native American student body is also small; last fall it comprised less than 1 percent of the Yale College student body.
“Many people seem to forget that American Indians exist,” Blackhawk said. “This is partially tied to the long-standing history of America’s relationship with its Indians.”
At the University of Wisconsin, Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of the school’s student body last fall — just under 90 percent of the student body was white that term. There, Blackhawk served on diversity committees and encouraged leadership among minority students and faculty.
Former colleague and Wisconsin history professor Brenda Plummer called Blackhawk “a strong advocate for people of color across the board.” But it was ultimately a lack of variety that led Blackhawk to look for academic opportunities outside Wisconsin.
“I wanted to be in a more diverse academic community, one that had resources to develop and build programs and courses that are interesting,” Blackhawk said. “Yale’s traditions of academic excellence and committed faculty makes this possible.”
Blackhawk said he is ready to engage with the University’s Native American community. Indeed, the University sought to hire him in order to strengthen that community and build Yale’s academic offerings in Native American history, said Ezra Stiles College Master Stephen Pitti ’91 , who played a major role in Blackhawk’s hire.
“There’s a lot of excitement with administrators about the kind of connections he can forge between Yale and local and national Native American communities,” explained Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95, who also weighed in on the decision to hire Blackhawk.
Blackhawk said he plans to take his students to the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, Conn.
Because Native American students are so few and far between, he said, they serve as spokespeople for their tribes on social, academic and intellectual issues. The University maintains a Native American Cultural Center, but Blackhawk said he hopes to institutionalize “an academic entity that handles the everyday academic affairs of these students.”
Blackhawk could prove to be an agent of academic change, said Hayley Carpenter ’11, president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, by helping to bring about more course offerings in Native American history.
“Dr. Blackhawk’s presence and input in the Yale Native community can only help raise our visibility on campus and increase the quantity and quality of our events and activities,” Carpenter said in an e-mail message, although she added that the University could still do more to bolster the “Native American presence in our faculty and administration.”
Blackhawk will teach “Indians and the Spanish Borderlands” and “American Indian Law and Policy” this term. His wife, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, an assistant professor of American studies, will teach “American Captivity Narratives” and “Intro to Chicano Literature.”