Skakel McCooey

Every Thursday, students gather in the kitchen of the Native American Cultural Center for “Baking and Bonding,” what NACC Director Kelly Fayard called one of the Center’s “signature events.” Together, they listen to music, prepare food, update each other on their lives and sometimes even play with Fayard’s dog.

The NACC — which was founded in 2013 — is the youngest of Yale’s cultural centers, and its community is the smallest in terms of number of students. Both Fayard and Assistant Director Kapiʻolani Laronal will leave their positions at the end of the semester, and new faces will take the reigns next academic year. As Yale’s Native community gears up for a transition in leadership, its members told the News that they are proud of the community’s strength and its development and increased visibility since the Center opened six years ago, and that they look forward to welcoming their new leaders.

“Even though it is the smallest demographic of the cultural centers and even though there is so much misinformation about Native people in high school curricula, the Native students here are fiercely dedicated to helping this campus become a better place by virtue of understanding more about Native people,” Fayard said. “Students are just willing to fight for what they think is right, and also to work to help other people understand more about the Native struggle, not just on campus but from a larger perspective.”

Before the NACC opened, the Native community shared space with the then-Chicano Cultural Center — now known as La Casa Cultural — and later with the Asian American Cultural Center. Administrators announced in 2011 that the NACC would receive its own building, which was opened two years later.

Fayard told the News that when she took over the director position in fall 2015, she found that some people felt “intimidated” when visiting the NACC. Given this feedback, she said she emphasized cultivating a home-like, welcoming feel in the NACC.

“I had a student one time say to me that the only place on campus where they didn’t have to think about being Native American was at the NACC, and I think that’s really profound,” Fayard said. “I think in a lot of cases, because there are so few Native students, they end up feeling tokenized or like a stand in for all Native students. I think it’s a place where people can go and don’t have to feel like they have to explain their identity, because it seems like they’re being interrogated about that in a lot of other places.”

In addition to “Baking and Bonding,” the Center often holds events to bring the community together, such as community dinners with guest speakers.

In an interview with the News, professor of history and American studies Ned Blackhawk, who is the only tenured Native professor at Yale, said that Yale is one of very few universities in the eastern U.S. to have a standalone Native cultural center. He said that the physical location has given rise to more Native student groups as well as aided in research and academic work on Native American topics. He also highlighted that the establishment of the cultural center has brought heightened visibility of the Native community on campus.

Still, Blackhawk noted that expanding such an “inclusive and socially active community” is “not without its challenges,” adding that the Center could benefit from more permanent staff and faculty members to “enrich and broaden” NACC initiatives.

Blackhawk also said that the NACC serves an important spot for prefrosh recruitment during Bulldog Days, and that the number of Native students at Yale has increased since the Center opened six years ago.

In interviews with the News, several NACC members emphasized that they believe the greatest strength of Yale’s indigenous community is its students.

Anthony Trujillo DIV ’19 said that the existence of the NACC was one of the big things that drew him to attend Yale Divinity School, and that meeting Native students from across the University is a valuable experience that the NACC provides.

“One of the challenges in being a grad student is that, in many of our programs, there might be one or two Native students,” Trujillo said. “The Center ends up being one of the important places where grad students in particular can connect and have that sense of being in a community — not being isolated — which is in my particular situation really important.”

Katherine McCleary ’18, a current Woodbridge Fellow who has been active in the Native community at Yale since 2014 — the year before Fayard assumed her post — said that she sees incoming students “re-energize” the community every year in the perspectives they bring to the table and the issues they wish to tackle.

Members of the Native community emphasized that the community is diverse within itself but finds common ground under the roof of the NACC.

“People don’t realize how Native cultures are very, very different and steeped in many different types of histories,” said Meghanlata Gupta ’21, a member of the Association of Native Americans at Yale and a NACC house manager. “It’s honestly a blessing that we can find common ground and work together on this campus even though these white, rich institutions continue to try to divide us.”

Moving forward, Fayard said she is excited to see a “new person with new ideas and new perspectives” fill her role next year, adding that she thinks it will provide the community with a “great opportunity to grow.”

Gupta highlighted that the NACC’s director and assistant director play a big mentorship role in many students’ lives, and that she looks forward to seeing what “new forms of mentorship” the incoming leaders will provide. Association of Native Americans at Yale President Gabriella Blatt ’21 said she is excited to welcome the new leadership and help them get acquainted with Yale’s Native community.

“I’m very excited to, as ANAAY president, be able to welcome them into the community and guide them through things that the house has done in the past and things I would like to continue doing, and making sure that our old students and incoming students feel welcomed and also are a welcoming presence to them,” Blatt said.

Henry Roe Cloud, the first Native American Yale student, graduated in 1910.

Asha Prihar | .

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.