Native American Cultural Center celebrates a decade of growth
Dinée Dorame ’15, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, was a junior at Yale when the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) opened in its own building on High Street back in the fall of 2013.
Before that, the center had been housed in several rooms on the third floor of the adjacent Asian American Cultural Center. Dorame remembers spending a lot of time in the old space, with other Native American and Indigenous students, “fighting for visibility on campus, like many generations before us.”
When the organization finally moved into its own home — a three-story, brick structure with a column porch at the corner of High and Crown streets — it represented the culmination of decades of work for Dorame and her fellow advocates.
“We were resting on a lot of advocacy work of generations before us to get the NACC in place as a physical building,” Dorame said. “It was a reclamation of space, because Yale was built on Quinnipiac land.
“I knew a lot was going to grow from that house.”
And so it has. Today, the center is home to eight Native undergraduate and graduate student groups, some of the dozen-or-so Yale College courses on Native and Indigenous topics, distance-education classes in the Native American Language Program, an art gallery, and cultural events.
Over the past decade, the NACC’s many efforts to foster an inclusive environment for Native and Indigenous students have helped expand their presence on campus, elevated Indigenous arts and languages at Yale, and helped spur an ever increasing commitment to Native studies on campus. This fall, for instance, Yale College students for the first time are able to receive credit toward their language requirement by studying a Native American language (in this case, Cherokee).
“There have been a series of developments that have enriched the NACC and broader campus community,” said Yale historian and NACC advisory board member Ned Blackhawk. He also cited the founding of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program and partnerships with the Yale Farm and the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.
This month, NACC and other members of the Yale community gathered on the Yale campus to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NACC, and the key advances made during the past decade, during the sixth Henry Roe Cloud Conference. The conference, which is held every few years to recognize Native and Indigenous excellence at Yale, honors the legacy of Henry Roe Cloud, a prominent educator and national advocate who was Yale’s first Native American graduate, in 1910.
During the two-day event, hosted by NACC, Native American alumni and members of today’s Yale community attended discussions about NACC’s history, the breadth of Native American and Indigenous studies at Yale, and the growing numbers of Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students.
They toured the Davenport Art Gallery. And they celebrated at a gathering at the Yale Farm on Edwards Street, and during an awards reception at the Greenberg Conference Center.
“Participants had the opportunity to share stories, laugh, learn about the past, be in community, and celebrate accomplishments,” said Matthew Makomenaw, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the NACC.
For many, the occasion offered a chance to recognize a space, and a community, that were formative parts of their Yale experience.
Dorame, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, had never traveled to the East Coast before coming to Yale more than a decade ago. The NACC provided a “safe space” for Native students to practice their cultures and meet one another.
“The NACC was definitely the most impactful part of my college experience,” she said. “The students I met there were my best friends.”
K.N. McCleary (Little Shell Ojibwe), who graduated from Yale in 2018 and is now a student at Yale Law School, said they could not have made it through college without the center and the guidance of Kelly Fayard, who was director at the time.
“I grew up on the Crow reservation in Montana, so coming from a Native community to Yale was a big culture shock,” McCleary said. “I immediately sought out the NACC and spent most of my free time there. It was my home away from home.”
A student-led effort
John Bathke (Diné) started the Association of Native American Students at Yale (ANAAY) as a first-year student at Yale College in 1989. That organization is now the largest Native group on campus. (Its name was changed to the Native and Indigenous Students Association, or NISAY, in 2021). Back then, Bathke was simply looking for a way to coalesce Native students, “just to develop a sense of unity and start a voice for our community.
“The first year there were like five of us,” said Bathke, now an assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at San Diego City College. “A center wasn’t on our radar at all at the time.”
Neither was social media, in those pre-World Wide Web days. So in order to publicize their early meetings, members printed hundreds of flyers, folded them in half into tents, and placed them on the tables in dining halls throughout campus.
All these years later, Bathke said he is “extremely happy” to see how far the organization and Yale have come. On a return visit to campus in 2014, he was especially pleased to walk into the NACC one evening and see students huddled in groups learning Native languages via video conference.
“I’m happy that the Native students continued the struggle after I left, and they grew the organization and fought for a cultural center,” he said. “I’m proud of them for that. And I’m happy that Yale as an institution has contributed to that and embraced the Native population. I still think there is more work to be done.”
The opening of the NACC’s own building came about after years of student organizing, said Blackhawk (Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada), who joined the university in 2009 and is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“Students had long hoped to expand the Native American student community on campus,” he said. “And in the mid-2000s, they started organizing efforts to obtain not only space but also administrative guidance.”
Importantly, he noted, students arranged the first Henry Roe Cloud conferences, in 2005 and 2007, to build awareness of the long-standing presence of Native students on campus.
President Peter Salovey, while dean of Yale College between 2004 and 2008, made a series of commitments to hire an autonomous NACC dean and more Native faculty, and to provide the center with its own facility, Blackhawk said.
In 2011, Yale announced that the NACC would get its own building.
'There is a place for you’
Student efforts through the NACC have also benefited the broader campus community.
For example, Fayard (Poarch Band of Creek Indians), now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Denver, recalled that the center invited a number of Indigenous artists to campus during her tenure at NACC. Those visits, she said, helped open a dialogue with representatives from the Yale Peabody Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery, which led to the creation of a Native American Art Initiative Summer Internship in 2016.
McCleary was eager to fill that internship, and that subsequently resulted in an invitation to organize an exhibit of Native art. In 2019, the Art Gallery’s first North American Indigenous art exhibit opened, curated by McCleary, Leah Shrestinian, and Joseph Zordan, in consultation with an advisory board made up of students from the NACC.
Then, in 2022, the museums named their first assistant curator of Native American art: scholar, artist, and curator Royce K. Young Wolf, who is now stewarding Yale’s collections of art and artifacts relating to the Indigenous peoples of North America.
The NACC has also proved crucial to recruiting Native American and Indigenous students. After graduating in 2015, Dorame was hired as the first Native woman to ever work for the Yale admissions office. Charged with Native American outreach and recruitment, she spent three years visiting various tribal nations, developing relationships in communities Yale had never visited before.
“It was really helpful to show pictures and videos of the NACC,” Dorame said. “I could tell students, ‘there is a place for you on campus, there’s a family here.’ It’s rare in collegiate spaces — a dedicated, three-story building for Native students.”
For Yale senior Truman Pipestem (Eastern Band of Cherokee, Osage, Otoe-Missouria), the NACC made all the difference in his decision to attend the university. While visiting campus as a high school junior in the Yale Young Global Scholars program, a Native student took him aside, gave him a tour of the NACC, and “engaged with me on a level that, by the time I left there, made me realize it was my dream school,” Pipestem said.
“It was about the unbridled opportunity for community that the NACC offered,” he added.
Now the co-president of NISAY, Pipestem has taken full advantage of that opportunity, participating at NACC as house staff, a liaison for first-year students, and a founding member of an intertribal drumming group.
The 10th anniversary of the NACC is especially exciting, Pipestem said, because it was borne out of the advocacy and activism of ANAAY (now NISAY) members.
“I hope the NACC continues to be a place of refuge,” he said, “and a place for critical scholarship, as it has been.”