Britton O'Daly

Roughly 200 students, alumni and faculty came together to celebrate Yale’s Native American community at the fifth annual Henry Roe Cloud Conference this past weekend, which concluded with a powwow inside Coxe Cage on Sunday.

Hosted by the Association of Native Americans at Yale, the Henry Roe Cloud Conference began in 2005 to honor Henry Roe Cloud, class of 1910, a Winnebago graduate of Yale who, in 2005, was thought to be the first Native American graduate of Yale and who subsequently led a prominent career as an educator and advocate for Native American people. This year’s conference — the first in four years — began with a tea at Pierson College with Sam Deloria ’64 (Hunkpapa Lakota), who served as the director of the American Indian Law Center for 35 years, and Yale history professor Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) on Friday afternoon and continued with a series of presentations and speaking events on Saturday. The events culminated in a gala dinner at the Quinnipiack Club and finished with the powwow. Ashley Hemmers ’07 (Mojave) and history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 were awarded the distinguished alumni award and the friend of the community award, respectively, at the dinner.

“This was a really big year for us in the Native community at Yale. We are bringing back two traditions at the same time, one of them being the powwow and one of them being the Henry Roe Cloud Conference,” said Haylee Kushi ’17 (Kanaka Maoli), the president of ANAAY. “These two things happening on the same year, the same weekend, it meant a lot of work but it also meant that this was really, really special to us.”

The powwow on Sunday was the first to be held by Yale’s Native American community in more than 10 years, according to Madeleine Freeman (Choctaw/Chickasaw) ’21. Students, alumni and indigenous people danced and joined drum groups in Cox Cage throughout the day while attendees watched, shopped at various stands and enjoyed food provided at the event. Special segments of the powwow included a round dance for graduating Native seniors, a hand-drum contest, a dance sponsored by alumni, a head woman giveaway and a potato dance.

For many of the students and alumni who are part of Yale’s Native American community, the conference and powwow represented a triumph in community growth and recognition.

“I graduated from Yale in 2013, and when I was a student here the Native American Cultural Center was a room basically in the attic of the Asian American Cultural Center,” said Elizabeth Rule ’13 (Chickasaw). “We didn’t have a steady dean, I saw three or four different ones in my time, and there weren’t that many members of our community. So now, in the last few years, to see the growth and to see that culminate in this powwow, which is a celebration for Yale students but also the Native community in this general area, is incredible — it’s always something that we dreamed about when I was a student here.”

Reflecting on the weekend’s events, Freeman suggested that as a Native American student at Yale it often feels difficult to keep in touch with her culture. She added, however, that resources like the Native American Culture Center and the opportunity to powwow make her feel a lot more comfortable on campus.

Wanda Ward, a tribal health educator from the Mi’Kmaq nation and a vendor at the powwow, praised the conference and the powwow as opportunities to educate people about Native American ceremonies and gatherings. She added that events like the powwow offer opportunities for reconciliation in light of the extended persecution Native Americans suffered holding these sorts of ceremonies.

Events on Saturday included a presentation on library collections that bear special importance for the Native American community at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a screening of “This Is Who I Am” — a film by Kalvin Hartwig about preserving indigenous identity in mainstream culture — and panel discussions involving alumni and students on the topic of reclaiming indigenous languages.

Reflecting on the value of keeping indigenous languages alive, students participating in the discussions highlighted the difficulty of receiving academic credit for the study of indigenous languages at Yale. Although there are opportunities provided by Yale to study various indigenous languages, students currently do not have the option to study indigenous languages for class credits or to fulfill language requirements.

“It’s important to have these kinds of conversations at Yale. The Native community here has grown a lot in the last few years so it’s really good to see, especially the Native undergraduates, bringing Native narratives and into the academic conversation, more so than has been done in the past,” said Gregory Buzzard LAW ’18 (Cherokee Nation). “Language revitalization is such an important issue for tribal communities. It’s on everybody’s radar, and Yale has all the resources to make this contribution. … They really could do a lot more to recognize for credit.”

At the gala, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said he hopes indigenous languages will be recognized for credit at Yale within four years.

Describing the difficulties she faced as a Native American student at Yale, Hemmers recalled wanting to drop out of Yale after racial slurs against Native Americans were chalked on Old Campus during Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She added that she realized it would be more important for her to stay on campus to build support and understanding for the Native American community instead of heading home.

“I’m hoping that, through these stories, the students in this room can realize that by partnering with others and by also working towards something bigger, that you can be deliberate enough with your actions that it will fill a room with one conversation, and that’s really what happened with the Henry Roe Cloud achievement award,” Hemmers said at the gala. “It started with a conversation with an ally and a Native student, and it grew into this room, and it grew into faculty, deans and a center.”

Gitlin applauded Yale’s Native American community for continuing to “push the rock up the hill” and gaining support from the University administration, also noting how far the community has come since Hemmers was enrolled at Yale.

Many people who attended the conference and powwow were not indigenous. Ryan Mera Evans ’19 told the News that, while he is not from the Yale Native community and had never been to a powwow before, he has a number of friends in ANAAY and wanted to see the result of their hard work.

Yale administrators stressed the importance of the conference for both the Native American community and the Yale community in general.

“It is very important, not just for the Native American community, faculty and students alike, but it’s important for Yale that we have this distinguished association with Henry Roe Cloud, that we have a strong and vibrant Native American community here,” Chun told the News. “To have a conference in which we are celebrating the community and celebrating the distinguished alumni and most importantly bringing in people from all over, alumni and scholars alike, it’s just a great thing.”

The Henry Roe Cloud Conference was first held at Yale in 2005.

Britton O’Daly |