From French to Akkadian, students have a wide array of options to fulfill the mandatory Yale College language requirement. Some options, however, are missing — as of now, Yale students cannot receive academic credit for studying indigenous languages or place out of a language requirement by displaying fluency in an indigenous language.

“During my first semester at Yale, I realized that I could not take my native language, Mohawk, for any type of credit,” said Alanna Pyke ’19 (Kanien’kéha), president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale. “Students have worked throughout the years to gain credit for our indigenous languages to no avail.”

Yale’s Native American Language Project, or NALP, which was launched in the fall of 2015, allows interested students to study languages such as Navajo, Creek and Cherokee. The courses are based on a community class model and are conducted over video chat twice per week with Native American language teachers from around North America. But these classes do not count for academic credit, an issue that is gaining more visibility on Yale’s campus. At the Henry Roe Cloud Conference last November, Yale students and alumni on two panels spoke about the importance of reclaiming indigenous languages and students discussed their efforts to have Native American languages approved for academic credit by the University. At a gala the evening of the conference, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said he hopes indigenous languages are recognized for credit at Yale within four years.

Although many Native American students at Yale are taking courses through NALP, Pyke said, they do so at the cost of taking on an additional academic commitment that is not recognized by the University and simultaneously must take other language classes in order to fulfill their formal academic requirements.

“It’s eminently reasonable to ensure that students who undertake the difficult and complicated work needed to study their Native language receive academic credit,” said Greg Buzzard LAW ’18, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “Native American languages are very complex and often quite challenging for English language speakers to learn. Studying a Native American language is not an extracurricular activity; it’s an academically rigorous intellectual exercise.”

Buzzard said that while Native American students do “undertake these classes as a labor of love for our tribal nations,” these courses require effort that could otherwise be spent on “academically remunerative activities.” This effectively penalizes Native American students by refusing to give them credit for intellectual labor, he added.

Bobby Pourier ’20 (Oglála Lakȟóta) told the News the situation is made worse because Native American students often have to take “colonial languages,” such as English and French, that have historically displaced indigenous languages through violence and imperialism.

“Since Yale does not offer credit for these indigenous languages, Yale is sending a clear message to its indigenous students, which is that our knowledges, stories and cultures are not valid sources of academic thought or study,” Pyke said. “Yale’s disregard for indigenous people creates an academic environment that is susceptible to further acts of prejudice.”

Pyke and Pourier both pointed to an incident in the Spanish department earlier this semester as evidence. Chase Warren ’20 (Standing Rock Lakota) was enrolled in an L3 Spanish class when, at the beginning of the semester, he said, he was handed a course packet that contained an offensive image of a Native American wearing a headdress that resembled the Washington Redskins logo with the caption “indio con piel roja,” or “Redskin Indian.” Warren said he felt shocked by the image, but that no one in the class discussed its significance.

Warren described the image as a “mockery” of his culture, stressing that it should not be included in the course packet ever again.

“It felt like a constant reminder of the genocide of indigenous peoples across the Americas, a genocide that the Spanish helped perpetuate,” Warren said. “Because it was not talked about, I felt that human degradation was normalized and unaware students were left with problematic and stereotypical views of indigenous peoples to this continent.”

Warren said he and other Native American students met with Chun after the incident and that he believes the image is no longer printed in the course packet.

“I believe that the Spanish department is using this opportunity to review its materials and to make sure that they have intrinsic value to the study of Spanish,” Chun said.

Chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Department Howard Bloch declined to comment for this article.

In an email to the News in December, Chun outlined the steps that Yale must take before Native American languages can qualify for academic credit. First, he explained, the Yale Center for Language Study would have to consider a proposal and then consult with the department through which the languages would be offered. This consultation would include assessing demand and then requesting resources from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean’s office. Next, “if resources become available,” Chun said, the individual courses would need approval from the Course of Study Committee. Then the University would conduct a pilot of the new language courses before determining whether it can offer enough classes across levels for students to fulfill the language requirement. Finally, the addition of a Native American language curriculum would require the approval of the Yale College faculty.

History professor Ned Blackhawk, a member of the Western Shoshone, acknowledged that it requires “considerable programmatic energies to administer such courses,” but said that students should still receive credit for studying Native American languages.

“Many of our Native students do have prior exposure either in their families or home communities to their Native languages and, I feel, would benefit from such reforms in undergraduate language requirements,” Blackhawk said. “I have known over my now nearly nine years here many students who struggle with the current language requirements, particularly American Indian students from reservation communities that do not often offer language instruction in traditionally defined foreign languages.”

Blackhawk also noted that Native American languages are losing fluent speakers and have been historically targeted by American schools in assimilation efforts. In fact, Blackhawk explained, Yale alumnus Richard Henry Pratt developed a government policy enforced from 1880 through 1930 that aimed to eradicate Native American languages in government-sponsored boarding schools that existed to separate children from their Native American families.

Pourier told the News that older generations of his family lost contact with Lakȟólʼiyapi or “Lakota Language’ during the assimilation period but that his community is now producing more Lakȟólʼiyapi speakers through prekindergarten immersion nests in addition to primary and secondary school curricula.

His hope is that these students will not arrive at universities like Yale only to find that they cannot continue relearning their language and will instead need to begin classes in a new language approved by the administration.

“We are also looking for continuous support from the student body, faculty and members of the administrations,” Pourier said. “Many students have been sympathetic to our plight.”

The rest of the Ivy League also lacks options for students hoping to study Native American languages for academic credit. The University of Pennsylvania is the only Ivy League institution to offer classes on Quecha, an indigenous language from the Andes. And while Dartmouth has a Native American Studies program, it does not teach Native American languages for academic credit.

Among Yale’s peer institutions, Stanford stands out for providing classes that qualify for academic credit on a wide range of Native Americans languages, including Cherokee, Nahuatl, Navajo, Quecha, Hawaiian and Lakota. Multiple Midwestern universities also offer native languages for academic credit, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“At Stanford our language programs focus on creating learning environments that set up students for academic success, personal growth and satisfaction in what they learn and how they learn,” said Eva Prionas, the program coordinator of Stanford’s special language program — a division of the Stanford Language Center dedicated to offering courses on less commonly taught languages. “It is very important to model community ideals and encourage Native American students to maintain identity by teaching them language and culture, by connecting with programs on campus and outside, and by providing outreach activities within the community at large.”

Britton O’Daly | britton.odaly@yale.edu

  • Claire Bowern

    It’s worth mentioning here that Linguistics did offer 2 classes this year in Mohegan, a Native American Language of Connecticut. Introduction to Mohegan was offered in the fall, and an advanced “topics” course is offered this spring.