Courtesy of Alex Zhang
As an undergraduate at Duke University in the early 2000s, Kelly Fayard was a solitary voice each Columbus Day as she attempted to bring awareness to indigenous people’s deaths at the hands of European explorers.
Fayard, who grew up on a Native American reservation in Alabama, spent Columbus Day crisscrossing campus, hanging up posters that paid tribute to native peoples who died in the Americas who died in the 15th and 16th centuries. Back then, Fayard was one of only a handful of Native American undergraduates at Duke, and hardly anyone outside that small group paid attention to her Columbus Day activism.
“I don’t even know if they really cared,” Fayard, who now serves as the director of Yale’s Native American Cultural Center, recalled on Sunday. “We were such a small community. They didn’t seem to give us any recognition at all, which in some ways is worse than being [against us].”
Fayard, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, was joined this weekend by dozens of Native American students at La Casa Cultural to protest against Columbus Day alongside a community she never had at Duke. Monday marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day, an alternative to Columbus Day that is gaining support across the nation.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was founded in Berkeley, California, in the early 1990s, though ideas for an alternative to Columbus Day have circulated since at least the 1970s. A number of major cities — including Denver, Phoenix and Seattle — have adopted the holiday over the past few years.
At Yale, the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day began on Sunday at La Casa, where a group of around 30 students gathered to dance and share stories about their indigenous ancestry, surrounded by posters criticizing the legacy of Columbus.
Yesterday the group reconvened on Cross Campus to chat with passing students and display their posters. Later that afternoon, at an Ezra Stiles Tea sponsored by several Native American groups, Frank White Bull of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council spoke about his tribe’s efforts to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a proposed four-state crude oil pipeline that would cut through tribal land.
Overshadowing the weekend’s celebration of Native American culture was an ongoing controversy over the program booklet for Saturday’s Yale-Dartmouth football game, whose front cover displayed racially insensitive images of Native Americans. In a campuswide email Sunday night, the Athletics Department apologized for the program’s design, which featured the covers of past Yale-Dartmouth programs — half of which bore “racially insensitive” images of Native Americans, the department later acknowledged — to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ivy League match-up.
At the Cross Campus celebration — which was attended by University President Peter Salovey — students interviewed said the program incident was indicative of the challenges Native Americans at Yale experience every day.
“It is difficult to be an indigenous student here,” said Haylee Kushi ’18. “We have only one Native American professor here, and we have very few classes on indigenous people.”
As a member of the Kanaka Maoli, Kushi grew up in Hawaii and attended a private high school for Native Hawaiians. Moving to Yale was a difficult transition, Kushi said. Even within the University’s Native American community, she said, students have different traditions and celebrate cultural heritage in different ways. She has encountered only a couple other Native Hawaiians at Yale.
Still, Kushi added, NACC events such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration are a welcome reminder of the native traditions she misses from her childhood in Hawaii.
“The Yale community is not supportive of this particular thing,” she said. “People are saying, ‘Ya’ll are too PC, Columbus Day is great.’ We’re just going to show what we’re really about, and support each other.”
According to Katie McCleary ’18, the president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, only 40 or 50 roughly 200 Native undergraduates regularly participate in NACC events.
But, she added, her main objective as a Native American leader on campus is not to recruit students but to ensure they feel comfortable at the University.
“That’s what Indigenous Peoples’ Day is about — coming together in solidarity to celebrate each others’ cultures,” McCleary added. “It’s about celebrating ourselves.”
Correction, Oct. 11: A previous version of this article referred to the Kanaka Maoli as a tribe. In fact, they are simply known as the Kanaka Maoli.