James Larson, Senior Photographer

On Nov. 29, the Underground at the Schwarzman Center was a space for vibrant celebration for Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Month.

The Native American Cultural Center hosted an Indigenous Arts Night that featured both student and faculty performances, including spoken word poetry, singing, dancing, drumming and improv. The entrance to the Underground also showcased student artwork such as beading and paintings. The first Indigenous Arts Night was hosted by the NACC in February 2020, and this was its second time putting on the event.

“It’s a celebration of Indigenous faculty, staff and students … to really show the diverse talents that we have as Native people,” explained Matthew Makomenaw, director of the NACC and assistant dean of Yale College.

Makomenaw highlighted the importance of celebrating Indigenous art, music and comedy, especially since they are generally visible on campus 

Helen Shanefield ’26 performed a hula dance at the event. Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, Shanefield danced for the school Hālau Hula Ka Lehua Tuahine under her teacher, Kumu Hula Kaʻilihiwa Vaughan-Darval. Shanefield has been hula dancing for almost ten years now.

Shanefield explained that she wanted to perform hula at Indigenous Arts Night because the dance style is not “always present in Yale spaces.”

“I thought this whole event was really cool, and I was really excited to get to see everyone else’s amazing talents,” said Shanefield. “The NACC has been a really good community for me.” 

Another highlight of the event was an improv performance, playfully called “Indigeprov.” Student members of multiple campus improv groups collaborated with professors in a series of improv games.

Performers Kemper Lowry ’25 and Kyra Kaya ’26 both noted that getting to do improv with the professors was the most enjoyable part of the performance. It was also a chance to highlight the important role that comedy and humor play in Indigenous cultures.

“I’m Native Hawaiian, and a big part of our culture is this idea of ‘talking story,’ which is telling stories with others,” explained Kaya. “A lot of that comes in the form of comedic stories. So I think that inherently, it’s a part of my nature to tell stories and be funny on stage. Improv is just one of those avenues that I channel that through.”

Makomenaw saw the show as an opportunity to build a community by bringing people together through art.

“Art can make people cry, it can make people laugh, it can make people feel good,” said Makomenaw. “It brings out feelings, and joy is one that we just in general as a society need, in terms of being human again and laughing together and being in each other’s company. I think art is a way to do that.”

Maurice Harris, director of marketing and communications at the Yale Schwarzman Center, also discussed the role of artistic performance in spreading intercultural awareness and dialogue. 

“YSC celebrates along with the wider Yale community artistic expressions inspired by Indigenous histories and cultures,” Harris wrote in an email to the News. “YSC collaborates with the University’s cultural centers to hold spaces where students feel represented, can engage their differences, and can identify common interests through cultural exchange.”

The NACC was founded in 1993.

Esma Okutan is the graduate schools reporter for the News. Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, she is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards studying economics.