The average Yale student comes to college from a public school east of the Mississippi. In traveling to New Haven, these Elis leave behind family and friends.
A select few also leave behind their tribal nation.
“I come from a very distinct background,” Chris Brown ’15 said. “It’s complete sand and desert, painted valleys and rock walls. I live on a table-top mesa. Coming here is very different.”
When at home, he often travels to visit his grandmother on the Navajo reservation, where she lives, raising horses, sheep and cattle.
For students like Brown, finding a home on campus where they can explore and celebrate their heritage is crucial. For this reason, most Native students celebrated this Tuesday, when a press release from the Office of Public Affairs and Communications announced that Native Americans would have their own cultural center by next fall.
The Class of 2015 boasts the largest number of Native Americans in Yale’s history: 40 current freshmen declare themselves to be primarily Native American. Before this freshman class arrived on campus, Yale College had only 23.
The Native American Cultural Center (NACC) is currently located at 295 Crown St., a space the group shares with the Asian American Cultural Center. Founded in 1993, the NACC has been shuffled together with other groups in the past, first with La Casa, Yale’s Latino Cultural Center, before eventually moving to its current space.
“We’ll develop the center to build the community and to grow it,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said in an email to the News Thursday. “What Yale has learned over the years is that strong cultural houses with robust programs contribute to and support academic success.”
The new space on 26 High St., less than a block from Old Campus, is more than just a house; it is a reflection of a community’s struggle for a place within the larger campus, and it is a home.
Commenting on the new house, Provost Peter Salovey said, “We’ve come a long way.”
FINDING A HOME
Indigenous People’s Day — an alternative to Columbus Day that takes place across the globe — is the largest event sponsored by the Native American community. On Oct. 12, 2009, the Native American group Mystic River played a hand drum outside University President Richard Levin’s office at Woodbridge Hall.
Native Americans on campus face their own issues of representation.
During the setup for Indigenous People’s Day, members of the Association for Native American Students at Yale (ANAAY) chalked sidewalks with statements such as, “This was once Native American land.”
The next day Diza Rule ’13 , vice president of ANAAY, stumbled upon a counter-chalking: “Native Americans had no sense of land ownership,” it read.
“This was insensitive and derogatory,” Rule said.
She added that many Native American students feel left out of a campus that rarely recognizes them. Since its founding in 1993, and until this past week, the Native American community has not had a place to call its own.
Michael Honhongva ’12, former ANAAY president, said that most people never realized that the Native American house is currently above the Asian American Cultural Center. This made it hard to attract people to the house, he added, especially when the group attempted to recruit freshmen.
Sharing a cultural house with the Asian Americans has been difficult, Brown said. Since the Native American parts of the house are largely on the third floor, Brown said he often feels intimidated walking up six flights of stairs past the AACC.
Brown added that having two cultural groups in the same house can also pose several logistical issues.
“There was always an issue because we always had very different events going on,” he said. “This week for example, the Navajo Supreme Court is coming to visit, and yet we don’t have instant access to a meeting place.”
Without their own space on campus, Amanda Tjemsland ’13, president of ANAAY, said Native students are difficult to recognize because they often blend in with other white students.
“Most people don’t know we exist cause we don’t have a specific color of our skin,” she said.
But after Assistant Dean and Director of the Native American Cultural Center Theodore Van Alst was hired in 2010, the community has attempted to assert its presence on campus.
Now that the Native Americans on campus will have their own house, Rule said, they will have more space to practice sacred religious traditions that are often an important part of Native culture.
Native students say they hope that the new house will give them greater presence on campus. Chelsea Wells ’13 said that when she first introduced herself to students upon arriving on campus, many were confused when she said she was Native American.
“Since I’m not full blood, I don’t look Choctaw,” she said. “People had never heard of the Choctaw Nation, so I had to explain my whole background again and again. Then my mom came, who looks very Native, and people were very confused.”
She added that she hopes her experience will show others from her tribe that they can continue their education while maintaining their Native identity.
Wells has fought against the idea that all Native Americans look the same, or come from reservations. In her role as peer liaison — a mentoring program for underclassmen associated with various Yale centers — Tjemsland has trained freshman counselors not to ask Native students what their tribal name is or how Native they are.
Tjemsland said the latter question can often offend Native students. For example, she is less than one-eighth Native American although she fully identifies with the community. Affiliation with the Native American community is a choice, she said, rather than something defined by a fraction of her blood.
‘A NATIVE HOME’
In 1906, Yale College admitted its first Native American undergraduate, Henry Roe Cloud 1910 GRD 1912, a member of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. But before this, the relationship between New Haven and its Native populations had been fraught with conflict, said Yale historian and professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02.
Indeed, the city of New Haven was founded in the wake of a smallpox epidemic that decimated Connecticut’s Native communities in 1633, he said, adding that between 50 and 90 percent of the American Indians in the area died. Puritan settlers took the outbreak as a sign of God’s favor.
“History,” Gitlin often reminds his students, “is not always pretty.”
A year later, in 1638, colonists founded the settlement of New Haven, striking a deal with local Indian sachems whose tribes had been diminished by war and disease.
“[New Haven] was a Native place, and we tend to forget that,” Gitlin said.
After the city’s founding, many of Yale’s illustrious alumni maintained contact with Indian tribes still residing along the Connecticut shoreline, he added.
The Reverend Abraham Pierson, father of Yale’s first rector, learned the local dialect of Quiripi and published a catechism for the nearby tribes. Many early Yale alumni, including Jonathan Edwards 1720, followed his example and became missionaries to the Native population.
Ezra Stiles 1746 was one of the few early Yale graduates who had a positive interaction with Native Americans, visiting tribes in the Northeast and recording what he found.
Gitlin added that most early Yalies probably knew some Native Americans personally and were familiar with basic Indian phrases. “Tabut ne” meant thanks; “sheesucks,” eyes; and “shkook,” snake.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Native American communities were becoming less visible, he said. Even as they lost contact, Yalies contrived religious, educational and political policies concerning Native Americans all the more fiercely.
For example, in his capacity as Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun 1804 created the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. Calhoun supported the removal of Native Americans to an area beyond the frontier and advocated a program to assimilate Natives into Anglo-American culture.
One Native leader, Choctaw chief Peter Pitchlyn, cautioned members of his tribe against attending the Ivy League schools. He decided against sending Choctaw youth to Princeton, Harvard, and Yale because those schools were all “dissipated and full of wild fellows.”
It was in this environment that Cloud first arrived at Yale. An article about him in a New York newspaper commented that he was “the most prominent figure at Yale this year, not even excepting the son of our fat president,” a reference to then-President Howard Taft. Cloud was even tapped for the senior society Elihu. After graduating from Yale, Cloud went on to become an Indian Service official, reformer and educator.
Cloud’s enrollment in Yale College marked a new era in Yale’s relationship with Native Americans.
For one, the Peabody Museum began amassing a sizeable collection of Native artifacts, establishing Yale “as a center for a modern and more respectful field of anthropology,” Gitlin said. Yale professor Edward Sapir instituted the classification of Native American languages still used today.
At the Law School, Professor Felix S. Cohen arguably founded the field of Indian law in 1942 with the publication of his Handbook of Federal Indian Law, a book that offered Native Americans a set of legal tools to redress historical injustices.
Perhaps as a result of Yale’s improved relationship with the Native American community, its members have consistently grown since the time Cloud first studied here.
And when the Yale Corporation considers names for the two new residential colleges, Cloud’s name will be on the list of choices, Levin said in an email to the News.
TO THE RESERVATION
But attracting Native Americans to the University has been far from easy.
Students and administrators attributed the increase in Native American students in the Class of 2015 to Van Alst’s recent appointment and to increased communication with potential applicants.
“We try to visit reservation schools when and were we can,” Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said. “We have two admissions officers who serve as Native Outreach Coordinators, one of them a Native American himself.”
Brenzel also pointed to national outreach programs like College Horizons, a summer camp to which Native students can apply to get help from admissions officers on how to write college applications, as a potential recruiting ground for Yale.
For the first time this year, Yale has attracted more Native American students to its campus than its rival, Dartmouth College.
Dartmouth — which has graduated more Native American students than all the other Ivy League schools combined, with over 850 graduates since 1972 — flies potential Native American applicants into the college for free. Molly Springer, director of Dartmouth’s Native American program, said this program sets it apart from other colleges such as Yale.
Indeed, recruitment at Yale has not always been so successful.
On his freshman year spring break , John Bathke ’93 drove his aunt’s truck across the Navajo reservation, an expanse bridging three states: Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. He drove for “literally hundreds of miles” on the snow-covered landscape, trying to cover a region as large as West Virginia. He was on his way to yet another high school.
He was on a mission: Yale had paid for Bathke, founder of ANAAY and a student recruitment coordinator, to return to the Navajo reservation as part of a program for students of color to recruit students from their hometowns.
“Yale didn’t really recruit Indians [at the time],” said Bathke, founder of ANAAY and a student recruitment coordinator during his time at Yale. “They only Indians that came were happenstance, ones that fell into the system.”
The recruiting mission Yale sent Bathke on was a bit misguided, he said. In a city, a recruiter can easily visit multiple schools in a very close area, but travelling across the “mountainous country” of the Southwest proved more difficult.
“I was going through places really out of the way,” Bathke said. At many of the schools he visited, Bathke was the first person from Yale or even the Ivy League that had come to talk about college.
For Tjemsland, the number of Native American students is vitally important to the community’s representation on campus. The first step towards getting students to the NACC is to get them interested in applying and coming to Yale.
Rule echoed Tjemsland’s sentiments: “For us, holding an event or even collaborating with some other group is a tremendous undertaking because right now we have maybe six people who are willing to give significant amounts of time and energy to the things that the Native community wants to do.”
On an even more fundamental level than hosting events, Rule says, the very presence of Native Americans on campus serves to counteract student ignorance about the community.
Rule recounted one such instance of ignorance. She had been talking to a fellow Yalie freshman year about a course she was taking with Yale American Studies and history professor Ned Blackhawk. Upon hearing his name, the classmate asked if he was Native American, and if he wore traditional Native regalia to class.
“Was she somehow overlooking the fact that I was Native American?” Rule wondered at the time. “I think it is important to have people represented in a university because so much of the university education is from experiencing other people, and other people’s experiences and life stories.”
Wells said she has also faced perhaps a more surprising level of ignorance. Once, after she told one of her friends that she had a Choctaw language class the next day, her friend asked her what that was.
“It’s the language of my tribe,” Wells answered.
“‘Wait, Native Americans still exist?’” her friend countered, to Wells’ intense shock. She had assumed all the Native Americans died out with colonialism. Both Wells and her friend were “blown away” by the exchange, Wells said.
STUDYING A HERITAGE
For many Native students, the best way to combat stereotypes and ignorance is to study their heritage in an academic setting. Yet once Native American students are on campus, they have to be proactive if they wish to study their heritage.
Blackhawk said the four years of college are often a time for “coming to terms with oneself and with personal identity.” Yet there are only two Native American professors at Yale College.
In comparison, there are 869 white tenured faculty, 86 Asians, 26 blacks and 25 hispanics. There is one tenured Native American faculty member.
Dinnee Dorame ’15 said that two faculty members is too few. Many students choose to take classes in Native American studies to inform themselves for their future careers, oftentimes returning to their own tribe or working for the Native American community at large.
“If they ever want to get a strong Native American studies program, there could be more courses offered,” she said. “More than Native students would take those classes.”
Honhongva said that it is important to study Native American history in college because high schools only teach this history tangentially as it relates to greater European or American trends.
But the first step to accessing this education is to hire more Native American faculty, said Shelley Lowe, director of the Harvard Undergraduate Native American Program and former assistant dean of Yale’s NACC.
Some students, including Rule, also wish there were a Native American studies major. But Kathryn Dudley, DUS of American Studies, said she knows of no plans to create one. Instead, American studies students can choose to concentrate on Native Americans in fulfilling their major requirements.
Rule refers to the support her tribe has given her through scholarships and GPA incentives in her decision to work with Native Americans after graduation. She feels a responsibility to give back as “one of the few people that has the knowledge of what’s going on, both good and bad.”
Wells said that if she doesn’t return to the reservation she will dishonor her grandfather who was moved in a second forced migration after the Trail of Tears, dishonor her grandmother who was sent to a boarding school where the Choctaw language was forbidden and dishonor her mother, aunts and uncles who still work for the tribe today.
“There’s only one way to keep my identity, and that’s to always be doing something for the tribe,” she said.
Wells is studying her Native language through Directed Independent Language Study. Wells discovered that her language teacher, an elder in the Choctaw community, went to the same boarding school as her grandmother.
“Through her, I get to know my grandmother who passed away,” Wells said.
Wells credits Yale in her decision to study the language: “I don’t know if I would have done it if I would have stayed at home,” she said. “When so much is offered, like at Yale, you realize you can do really anything.”
In this sense, at least, coming to Yale has solidified her Native identity rather than diluted it.