On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 14, Yale University issued a land acknowledgment recognizing the Native communities whose homeland our university occupies. It was a welcome gesture from an administration that continues to balk at joining the growing community of universities that officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The regrettable irony of the acknowledgment is that only a few weeks prior, Yale University denied support for the Native Northeast Research Collaborative (formerly, the Yale Indian Papers Project) — the only center dedicated to elucidating regional Native histories and working collaboratively with Native communities in the northeast.
Staffed by settler-scholars Dr. Paul Grant-Costa and Tobias Glaza over the course of 20 years, the NNRC developed an expansive, tribally-vetted digital archive of primary source documents drawn from regional and global repositories that is utilized and praised by scholars not only around the country but also around the world. As a result, the NNRC secured its reputation as a trailblazer in the Indigenization (or decolonization) of archives and in connecting Native communities and scholars.
Why did Yale abandon this important work? As an under-resourced project with an ambitious mission, it’s true that the NNRC had come to a point where it needed to retool its strategic plan and funding apparatus to ensure its long-term sustainability at Yale. Recognizing this, the governing body of the NNRC presented a detailed plan to the university for how they would achieve their long-term goals if provided with approximately $250,000 for one year of bridge funding. But though the university has an endowment of close to 30 billion dollars, it declined to extend a lifeline to the NNRC.
The Yale Divinity School is deeply implicated in the decision to displace this Native-oriented project. Until recently, the NNRC was housed in the basement of the newly-renovated Old Refectory, having been displaced from its highly visible office on the divinity school’s quadrangle. For many Native students who have chosen to matriculate at the divinity school, the presence of the oft-touted NNRC signaled a broader commitment on the part of the school to welcome them and support Indigenous scholarship.
But the question remains as to whether the school is committed on a deeper level to reckoning with its fraught history of excluding Indigenous people from its academic spaces and treating us as objects of mission. Sadly, the central location of the Day Missions Library — devoted to preserving records of missionary work — gives the impression that the divinity school’s icons of colonization are inextricable from its scholarship, while Indigenous scholarship is deemed inessential. It is an affront to Native scholars that more pride has been taken in the elaborate, golden chandeliers in the Old Refectory than in the vital research collaborations taking place beneath the room’s refurbished hardwood floors.
Adding to the irony of the university’s land acknowledgment, as the divinity school makes plans to break ground on a $100 million “Living Building” residential complex — positioning itself as the “gold standard” for full-time theological education— it can find neither the will nor the vision to fund a program that draws attention to the Native histories embedded in the very land it intends to “develop.” It would seem that the glint of “gold” is blinding the architects of the divinity school’s future, not only to its history, but also to its theological standards.
Ultimately, Yale’s decision reveals a woeful displacement of value and an alarming myopia, particularly as it relates to its graduate students. The university had the opportunity to envision a much more robust graduate-level, Indigenous studies program with the NNRC as an integral partner. Conceived conscientiously, such a program would have made Yale a hub for Native Northeast scholarship, attracting and invigorating Native and non-Native students and scholars from across the country and around the world. Acknowledging Native Northeastern tribes in this way would be truly inspiring, alluring and visionary.
Land acknowledgments are meaningful only insofar as they are backed by diligent efforts to integrate studies of Indigenous thought and histories into curricula, recruit Native scholars and support existing programs. Otherwise, they are vapid.
By discontinuing the NNRC, Yale has quietly severed the one program that grounds the university in its Indigenous history and maintains its ties to local Native communities. In doing so, the university has disregarded and disrespected the many Native people who have contributed to and drawn upon the NNRC. The university appears to be too engrossed in settler-colonial modes of thinking to sufficiently value relationships with local Indigenous communities or to create academic environments that would support Native students and invigorate our scholarship. Consequently, on the cusp of Native American heritage month, Yale University stands precariously on the homelands of the Indigenous peoples it has verbally recognized but institutionally marginalized.
It is long past due for Yale to put its money where its mouth is and support scholarship and collaborations grounded in the
Madeleine Hutchins (Mohegan) is a first year M.A.R candidate at Yale Divinity School. Anthony Trujillo (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) received his M.Div at Yale Divinity School in 2019. Contact the authors at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org .
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the NNRC has existed for 27 years. It has existed for 20.