For most Americans and college students who don’t attend Yale, Columbus Day makes for a fun three-day weekend celebrating the man who, according to mainstream myth, discovered America. But for many Native Americans, Columbus Day is a celebration of the man whose arrival in the New World initiated the genocide and repression that have characterized much of the relationship between indigenous Americans and the descendants of European colonists. The fact that Columbus Day is a federally recognized holiday only adds insult to injury by completely overlooking that unseemly chapter of history.
In reaction to this injustice, several protesters in Berkeley, California, began to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) on Columbus Day. The Native American Cultural Center (NACC) and the Association of Native Americans at Yale (ANAAY) have tried to increase awareness of IPD and, more generally, of the Native American presence at Yale. This year, IPD was commemorated in several ways: advertisements on T-shirts and posters declaring it “a day to celebrate the resilience of indigenous peoples throughout campaigns of assimilation, cultural degradation, and outright genocide,” drumming outside Beinecke and on the L-Dub courtyard, a panel at the NACC followed by a dinner, and chalk markings all around Old and Cross Campus.
One chalking in front of Sterling Memorial Library, which read, “You are on indigenous land,” received a response. Someone wrote the following, incorrectly, below “land,” “but most Native Americans didn’t believe in property three centuries ago.” This misconception, that Native Americans in what became New Haven had no qualms about letting Europeans settle on their old homes, is one of many that plague Native Americans throughout the country.
Yet even at Yale, where one would hope that such subtly racist assumptions don’t persist, many Native American students weren’t surprised. When asked what they wish every Yalie knew about Native Americans, they replied with what seems like the lowest of all possible expectations: as Vera Eastman, JE ’11, put it, “that we still exist.”
Eastman, who is half-Vietnamese, one-quarter Jewish, and one-quarter Native American of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribe, says that her heritage means her family. Despite the huge variety of tribes present at Yale, each with a very different culture, the role of family in shaping their Native American identities is a common thread. Family seems important in a very different way than it may for most other Yalies. Goldie Stands-Over-Bull, SY ’13, says that one of the things that surprises most people she meets is that, “I talk to my parents several times a day.” This importance of family also makes many Native Americans at Yale define their purpose differently than they feel most of their peers do. Stands-Over-Bull said that what’s “motivating me through my higher education is what I can bring home.”
The Native American community at Yale is mostly defined by ANAAY and NACC, which is located above the Asian American Cultural Center on 295 Crown Street. The two organizations have mostly overlapping membership, with 15 to 30 of the estimated 80 to 100 Native Americans at Yale. This is high participation, according to Hayley Carpenter, CC ’11, current president of ANAAY. Carpenter and other organizers of the IPD events were satisfied with the turnout at the day’s main event, a panel on indigenous identity that attracted about 25 people.
Until this year, Yale had a dean for Native American affairs. (Shelly Lowe, who held the position, began working at Harvard University’s Native American Program this year.) Compared to other schools, Yale has a sizeable Native American community, though Harvard’s, Dartmouth’s, and Stanford’s are larger. Unlike these schools, however, Yale’s Native American population is not dominated by members of a single tribe, says Native American Recruiter and Co-Director of International Admissions, Jean Lee. Eastman described the diversity: “We’re all different just in the same way that everyone in this Yale community is unique.”
According to Lee, the Class of 2013 has the highest number of Native American students in Yale’s history: 35 students. She explained that Native Americans are the most underrepresented group in higher education, and she is working on outreach to Native Americans both on and off reservations to help address the issue. Lee is the first Native American recruiter at the Yale Admissions Office, and this is her first year on the job.
ANAAY and NACC focus mostly on tying together the Native American community at Yale. This year, they have screened movies and organized board game nights, meant to create what much of the membership described as a support group. Most members of ANAAY say that they find that the community is brought together not because its members are Native American so much as by friendship common experience, and the shared struggles of developing their identities as an underrepresented faction of the student population.
Michael Honhongva, BR ’12, the Head Student Coordinator at NACC, said, “What binds us is that we’re friends, rather than us being Native.” Stands-Over-Bull agreed that, despite the differences in tribes, “We all have a similar sense of what we’ve gone through in a society that’s predominantly not what we are.”
Liz Reese, PC ’11, looks at her education here as a double-edged sword. She says that growing up on the Nambé Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, she was aware that “education can be a frightening thing.” By attending a school like Yale, dominated by mainstream American culture and intellectual patterns, there is a threat that she will change and begin to “think like them,” or adopt “ways that are not her own.” She also spoke of how education was a tool of both cultural destruction and assimilation during the period when Native Americans were forced to attend traditional boarding schools. She worried this might happen to her.
Reese, who signs her emails with her Tewa name Yunpoví as well, maintained that despite all this, her family and tribe are very proud of her. “I think that the knowledge I gain here strengthens my resolve to do good for my community,” she said. “I view my Yale experience as a sacrifice so that one day I can help my people.”
Reese explained this sacrifice by saying that it is “not to say Yale isn’t a wonderful place, but I miss things at home.” Coming to Yale with such a strong Nambé Pueblo heritage was a “culture shock. A lot of the time, it’s really awkward being Native on campus.”
For Reese, bringing up issues related to being Native American is something that she thinks “people don’t want to hear.” She mentioned that two of American presidents most responsible for the extermination of Native Americans—Andrew Jackson (who oversaw the forced expulsion of thousands of Cherokees in the Trail of Tears) and Abraham Lincoln (who signed the Homestead Act of 1861, responsible for ejecting hundreds of thousands of Native Americans off their land)—are honored on our currency. This mainstream celebration does extend to Native Americans like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, but these figures helped white men in ways that indirectly harmed Native Americans.
“When people meet me,” Reese said, “they try and fit me into their framework of what Native Americans are.” However, she claims that framework is shaped by dominant culture and not representative of her unique identity.
ANAAY and NACC were not the only groups celebrating IPD this year. The Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC) renamed more than half of the residential colleges overnight, protesting with chalk what they see as Yale’s tacit endorsement of slavery in the names of colleges. In a letter to the editor in the Yale Daily News, four members of UOC explained that they chalked on IPD because they felt it is “an appropriate day to reflect on the people Yale has chosen to honor.”
Both the IPD organizers and UOC tried to air Yale’s historical wrongs. Nevertheless, many in the Native American community at Yale seem less interested in focusing exclusively on past injustices, and more interested in creating a tight-knit support group. In the face of widespread ignorance, the small Native American population here plans to throw a party this spring to celebrate native cultures and gain more awareness on campus.
Reese believes that UOC’s chalking, though it may have sparked a conversation, raised the wrong issues by distracting the Yale community from “our events which were intended to honor, celebrate, and call attention to the current heritage and legacy of Indigenous people at Yale.”
Honhongva disagreed, saying that he’s glad that UOC did what they did. He wrote in an email that through the IPD events, “I also wanted to simply start discussion on Native Americans at Yale.” Ultimately, he said, “Yale needs to be aware of its impact on the world.”