Coxe Cage filled with the song of drum circles. The melodies thundered through the bleachers and its perched spectators. They took videos on their phones, messily folded their Indian tacos and followed the swirling movements of jingle dresses. Some browsed the jewelry vendors or ventured down into the arena to drop dollar bills at the blurring feet of especially impressive dancers. Outside, volunteers in red shirts sold snacks and molded frybread dough. It was Oct. 7, the day of the Association of Native Americans at Yale’s seventh annual Powwow.
While ANAAY has traditionally convened the Powwow in November, this was not the case in 2018. The change was political.
“We moved [the Powwow] up to make a statement,” said Alanna Pyke ’19, ANAAY President. “We wanted to honor Indigenous Peoples Day.”
Indigenous Peoples Day has been officially observed on every second Monday of October since 1992 to supplant Columbus Day in communities ranging from cities to universities across the country. But Yale University is not one of them.
At a Women of Yale Lecture Series conversation in September between University President Peter Salovey and Patricia Nez Henderson MPH ’94 MED ’00, vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, a student posed a question via notecard for Salovey and Henderson: Why does Yale University not recognize Indigenous Peoples Day?
Salovey called the issue a “challenging situation [in] New Haven” because the city’s community of Italian-Americans “loves Columbus Day.”
Salovey asked Henderson for advice: “What is the respectful thing we all can be thinking about and doing as this time of the calendar year rolls around?”
“I guess the question is whose homeland are you on?” Henderson responded. The audience snapped loudly in agreement. “I think it should be [celebrated]. It shouldn’t even be up for discussion, right?”
Salovey replied, noting the importance of acknowledging they were on Quinnipiac tribal lands. He then reiterated that Yale should be inclusive of all communities and identities.
But many students, including Pyke, believe that failing to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples Day is contrary to Yale’s aim for inclusivity.
“It’s blatant erasure … It doesn’t recognize that Native peoples were even here before [Columbus],” said Nolan Arkansas ’22, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. “It’s a smack in the face to Indigenous students because recognition is something we have to fight for in the broader world outside of Yale.”
The history behind Columbus Day historically has been sanitized. Christopher Columbus never set foot in the continental United States. Firsthand accounts document Columbus “gifting” Native women to his own crew for them to rape. He wrote in his own log in 1500 that Native girls ages “nine to ten [were] in demand” among his Castilian men. A lost document uncovered in 2006 chronicled punishments dealt by Columbus to Natives that ranged from parading naked women tied to mules through the streets to slicing off ears and noses. His own crew brought back to Europe more than 1,000 enslaved Natives.
Charelle Brown ’20, a member of the Kewa Pueblo, asked, “In light of recent events, why are we still discussing whether or not to celebrate a rapist and a murderer?”
After hosting a conference for Indian resistance in 1992, Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, becoming the first city to officially recognize the celebration.
This change was met with some hostility. Following the decision, a group of Italian-Americans protested the rededication of the holiday. They argued that Columbus Day provided an opportunity for widespread celebration of their Italian heritage, as Columbus was born in Italy, and that the elimination of Columbus Day invalidated their identities.
Mayor Loni Hancock and other Berkeley city officials assured them such an affront was not intended. Rather, Indigenous Peoples Day was to affirm the legacy of Native peoples, who lived in the Americas long before Columbus ever arrived.
Many cities and universities across the country have since followed Berkeley’s example and rejected the legacy of Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Brown and Harvard Universities, for example, both made the switch in 2016 and 2017, respectively, by changing their official school calendars to recognize Oct. 8 as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” But Yale has not followed suit. The University officially recognizes neither Columbus nor Indigenous Peoples Day.
Pyke warned that this could be a sign of Yale “falling behind [its] peer institutions.” She said, “it is important for Yale to recognize [Indigenous Peoples Day] because it falls in line with the University’s goals of promoting equity, diversity and inclusion. It is symbolic of the University’s relationships with not just Native peoples but also people of color. It may also influence other universities and other cities in the U.S. and around the world.
Pyke believes that the Yale administration hesitates to take a “political” stance on the issue, though there have been some “productive conversations” with the Secretary’s Office.
According to Kimberly Goff-Crews, secretary and vice president for student life, “the university supports students, faculty, and staff in their celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” The office for Student Life maintains a list of cultural and religious observances on its website to help the community understand dates of importance for students, faculty and staff, and IPD events are included in those calendars. Goff-Crews explained that because classes take place on the second Monday of October, and staff work on that day, “neither Columbus Day nor IPD appear in academic calendars or lists of staff holidays.”
However, Pyke believes that there is an important distinction between including the day on the Student Life website and officially endorsing it.
“They should [send] something out to all students to say they recognize and endorse IPD,” she said. “It’s not about them getting the day off. It’s about visibility.”
Connecticut has the second-highest Italian-American population in the nation. In many major cities, including New Haven, flourishing industrialism in the late 19th century attracted thousands of Italian immigrant workers. New Haven boasts a “Little Italy” district and is the birthplace of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization and original inventor of Columbus Day. The Knights of Columbus lobbied the celebration to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration back in 1934. But despite the city’s once-primarily Italian-American population, today the number of those with Italian ancestry hovers at around 10 percent.
At the September discussion with Salovey, Henderson challenged his idea that recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day would be difficult because of New Haven’s Italian-American population: “I respect my brothers that are Italian, but this is our homeland. Let’s celebrate it in a way that acknowledges and raises the pride in all of us.”
ANAAY began contacting potential sponsors for the Powwow in early August. From late September to early October, members worked to advertise the event with fliers, Facebook posts and even enormous, neon chalk messages on Cross Campus walkways, urging students to attend. Their efforts paid off. Hundreds of attendees — first-timers, lifelong Powwow fanatics, non-Native Yalies and local Connecticut Natives alike — united in the celebration. Salovey, who was honored by ANAAY for his support of the Native community in 2013, made an appearance toward the end of the event, shaking hands with Native students and watching dances — a display of “solidarity” with the Yale Native community, as an observing member of ANAAY noted.
Indigenous Peoples Day is not about celebrating Native American heritage to the exclusion of Italian-American heritage, explained Hancock, the former mayor of Berkeley, to TIME Magazine. She stated that the day celebrates the people who first lived on the land Americans all call home.
From November 2–4, members of ANAAY and the Native community at Yale attended the All Ivy Native Conference at Columbia University. As rainstorms swirled outside around New York City, Native students filled Columbia’s auditoriums to learn from contemporary Native artists about representing Indigeneity in their work. Many, while exploring the campus, joked about “reclaiming” the city’s heavily gentrified spaces and bonded over their experiences at their respective Ivy League schools. Students from every school voiced concerns about their visibility on campus, from encounters with ignorant classmates to under-supported Native studies programs, no matter the size of their school’s Native population. Occasionally, the conversations shifted to the students’ recent involvement with Indigenous Peoples Day activities on their campuses.
Dartmouth College, with one of the largest and most established Native communities and the greatest student representation at the conference, still does not officially recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. Many Native students discussed organizing their own protests against Columbus Day in support of Indigenous Peoples Day. Posts on social media document students wearing traditional regalia to honor their tribes and communities and holding homemade posters on college greens — “Natives discovered Columbus,” one Dartmouth student’s sign reads. Native Yalies and other students shared how they had taken action during Indigenous Peoples Day as well.
Throughout each Ivy League school, the message is clear: Native students will remain resilient in their fight for visibility. Schools, like Harvard and Brown, that officially recognize Indigenous Peoples Day may only mark the beginning of the restorative justice that young Natives are fighting for. But it remains a significant gesture of support and progress for Indigenous Ivy communities that ANAAY and Native Yalies continue to seek.