At the High Street home of the Native American Cultural Center on Tuesday evening, professor Nicholas Charleston Skyped in to his biweekly Choctaw language class from his own home in Oklahoma, thanking his students for keeping the language alive.
“Language is a critical component of our sovereignty,” Charleston said. “Without it, we’re dead.”
As part of an initiative to promote the study of Native American languages, Yale began offering Choctaw language instruction this fall. The sessions, which are open to all students, are the product of a partnership between the Native American Language Project, the Center for Language Study and the Native American Cultural Center. Funding for the program was provided by a four-year grant from Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. Yale students have had access to language instruction in six Native American languages — including Navajo, Lakota and Salish — since 2010 through the Directed Independent Language Study program, a CLS initiative that allows students to apply for course instruction in languages not traditionally offered by the college. But unlike instruction offered through DILS, which caters to individual student requests, the new Choctaw class offered at the NACC is open to all students without an application.
“The idea was to make available the kind of language and cultural instruction to students more broadly, not just through a DILS program,” CLS Director Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl said.
The classes, which began in late September, are not offered for course credit and usually draw six to seven students per week, according to David Rico ‘16, who is taking the course. Most of the students interviewed who identify as Choctaw said they are motivated to learn the language so they can reconnect with their heritage.
“I think learning your own language is one of the most empowering ways to connect to your culture and decolonize your mind,” Rico said. “Out of the hundreds of generations of my family that have lived on this continent, only two haven’t been able to speak Choctaw, and I’m one of them. English is like a break in the line, and I want to return to that.”
The sessions were organized by Assistant Director of the CLS Angela Gleason, former interim NACC director Christopher Cutter, current NACC director and assistant dean of Yale College Kelly Fayard and history professor Ned Blackhawk, who secured funding for the initiative. In the future, they hope to expand the program to provide instruction in up to four Native American languages per year — a goal that is contingent upon whether the program can be funded on a more permanent basis, Gleason said.
Students and faculty interviewed said the program is representative of, though not necessarily linked to, a trend on campus toward increased celebration and study of Native American peoples and a greater awareness of how those peoples are underrepresented at Yale. The 2013 relocation of the NACC from a few rooms in the Asian American Cultural Center to its own building exemplifies this trend, they said.
“I think that the University within the past few years has become a little more receptive to the cultural center communities,” said Tanner Allread ’16, a student in the Choctaw class. “[The University] has become a little more open to providing funding for certain programs, and this fits into that.”
The language sessions are held from 7–8 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesday nights.