Celebrating a decade of Native community, scholarship

The Native American Cultural Center, a “home away from home” for Indigenous students at Yale since 2013, nourishes cultural and academic activities alike.
Brick building with banner that reads "Native American Cultural Center"

The Native American Cultural Center on High Street. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

In the 10 years since the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) opened its doors on High Street in 2013, the number of courses in Indigenous studies has grown considerably. Next fall, for the first time ever, undergraduates will receive credit toward the Yale College language requirement by studying a Native American language — in this case, Cherokee.

These strides are a testament to a supportive community at Yale that has welcomed and embraced Native students and scholarship, NACC director Matthew Makomenaw said during a recent celebration of the NACC’s 10th anniversary of its 26 High St. location.

The event — which also celebrated the recent publication of books by Yale faculty members Ned Blackhawk (Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada) and Hiʻilei Hobart (Kanaka Maoli) — was the first in a full program of events planned in 2023 to mark the anniversary of the NACC’s High Street location. In November, the celebration will continue with an exhibition of archival materials showcasing the history of the Native student community, an Indigenous fall feast, and the Henry Roe Cloud Conference. The conference celebrates Native excellence at Yale and honors the first Native graduate of Yale College (1910), who became a national advocate for Native people.

Two books, "The Rediscovery of America" and "Cooling the Tropics"
(Photo by Allie Barton)

Blackhawk dedicated his new book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and The Unmaking of U.S. History” in part to the NACC, where he has taught classes, led gatherings of the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, and actively engaged in events and activities over the past decade.

The NACC ‘s history and its community — current and former students — have been imprinted on me as a teacher and ultimately as a scholar,” said Blackhawk, the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in a recent interview with Yale News.

President Peter Salovey noted that Blackhawk’s book, published by Yale University Press in late April, has already received major attention nationwide, having been featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, as well as in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and other major news outlets. Hobart’s 2022 book, “Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment,” (Duke University Press) is a social history of ice that examines how ice and refrigeration impacted the tropical islands, exploring the wider themes of Native Hawaiian dispossession, settler colonialism, American imperialism, and racism. The book received the Scholars of Color First Book Award from Duke University Press and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) 2023 First Book Award.

Ned Blackhawk
Ned Blackhawk (Photo by Allie Barton)

Hobart, assistant professor of Native and Indigenous studies in FAS who joined the faculty in 2022, is one of two new faculty members specializing in Native studies. Tarren Andrews (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes), now a postdoctoral associate at Yale, will join the Program on Ethnicity, Race, and Migration as an assistant professor on July 1.

Hobart said that in addition to publishing her book, the last year also brought her such “small joys” as seeing the repatriation of Native Hawaiian ancestral remains from the Yale Peabody Museum to Hawaii, co-hosting an Indigenous feast, and teaching a course on the Yale Farm. Last summer, she was a featured guest on Salovey’s podcast series  “Yale Talk” for a discussion about sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty.

During the recent celebration, Salovey recounted how 30 years ago Yale dedicated a small space to Native students on Crown Street in what was then the Yale Chicano Cultural Center. Members of the Association of Native Americans at Yale —  the first official group dedicated to Yale Native students and also founded 30 years ago — later advocated for their own space, and in the mid-2000s while Salovey was Yale College dean, he helped secure the 26 High St. location for the new center. Yale is one of few universities to commit an entire building to its Native community, according to Blackhawk.

Hiʻilei Hobart, Peter Salovey, and Ned Blackhawk
Hiʻilei Hobart, Peter Salovey, and Ned Blackhawk (Photo by Allie Barton)

Over the past decade, many Native undergraduates have described the NACC as their “home away from home.” An endowed gift from late Yale alumnus Fred C. Danforth ’73 supports the NACC director position, and Danforth also established a scholarship for a Native student to attend Yale.

The “modest” NACC headquarters of a decade ago, Salovey said, “set the stage in fostering an inclusive and supportive environment for Yale’s Native American and Indigenous students but was also very welcoming of people wo just wanted to learn more about Native Americans and Indigenous cultures.”

Today, the center is home to eight Native undergraduate and graduate student groups, and is a gathering place for Native and non-Native students alike to share and celebrate diverse cultures and traditions. Some of the 13 Yale College classes focused on Native and Indigenous topics are also held there. These courses range from an introduction to American Indian history to classes on race and indigeneity in the Pacific, Native American educational policy, global Indigenous cultures, federal Indian law and policy, writing tribal histories, and Early Native print practice.

In addition, the center hosts art exhibits, musical performances, and many other cultural events throughout the year.

A large group of people posing for a photo
Yale students, faculty, and others affiliated with the university’s Native American Cultural Center recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the center’s home on High Street. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Over the past decade, other campus developments in support of Native student life and scholarship include the establishment of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, which promotes and cultivates Indigenous storytelling and performance as well as scholarship and outreach, and the creation of a new post to oversee the Native American collections at the Yale Peabody Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery. In June, scholar, artist, and curator Royce Young Wolf will assume inaugural posts as the collection manager at the Peabody Museum and curator in the art gallery.

In 2015, the Yale Native American Language Program was established to allow Indigenous students to study some of  their languages. Thirteen different languages are offered through the program, most by Native speakers over video chat.

Salovey said Yale will continue to foster a campus environment in which both Native students and Indigenous scholarship thrive. Hobart cited a Hawaiian proverb — which in English translates as “You can’t reach the breadfruit when you’re picking stick is too short” — saying it is an “acknowledgement of the bounty that we can collectively reach when we are resourced and supported towards our goals.”

Planning is now underway for the fall semester celebration of Native achievement and the NACC’s 10th year in its own building, Makomenaw said. He added that he is confident about the future for Native students and scholars at Yale: “We’re going to thrive no matter what comes our way because we have many people who care about our community.”

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