Navigating our Complex History

October 10, 2016

The second Monday of October is perhaps best known in the United States as Columbus Day, a celebration of the famous explorer—and of Italian-American and immigrant heritage. But today also marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, honoring Native American cultures and histories across the country. Over the weekend, members of the Yale community gathered at an event organized by the Association of Native Americans at Yale to show respect for indigenous peoples here on this continent before Christopher Columbus arrived.

Yale and its home city sit at the intersection of the different histories represented by these two observances. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization founded in New Haven, was instrumental in influencing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937. Meanwhile, Yale’s connections to Native American history are older than Yale itself. Abraham Pierson the elder—whose son was rector of the Collegiate School, later renamed Yale—wrote a pamphlet on Christianity in 1659 that included a line-by-line translation into the local Quiripi language. Yale’s seventh president, Ezra Stiles (B.A. 1746, M.A. 1749), traveled throughout the region sketching, observing, and talking with Native Americans. His maps, drawings, and notebooks are an important source for scholars today.

Jay Gitlin ’71, ’02 Ph.D.—a lecturer in the Department of History and associate director of the Howard R. Lamar Center—has called New Haven a “native place” and a “frontier city.” Of course, relations with neighboring tribes were not always friendly, and disease, war, and pressure from growing settler communities all took their toll on the Quinnipiac and other Native peoples who had long lived in the region.

How do we navigate these overlapping, sometimes conflicting histories? The answer lies in scholarship. The establishment of the exciting new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration has created a focal point for our university’s long history of scholarly inquiry into these issues, and the Yale Indian Papers Project, now housed at the center, makes primary source materials about Native New England available to students, educators, researchers, Native peoples, and the public around the world. This coming spring, the center will award the inaugural Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement, named for the Native American and African American educator, abolitionist, and public servant Ebenezer Bassett. Elsewhere on campus, the Native American Cultural Center provides a community and gathering place for indigenous students and is home to six undergraduate organizations, including the Indian Health Initiative and the Blue Feather Drum Group. The Yale Group for the Study of Native America supports scholarship on Native Americans and hosts the recipient of the Henry Roe Cloud Dissertation Fellowship in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Established in 2010, the fellowship honors Yale’s first known Native American undergraduate, the education reformer Henry Roe Cloud (Ho-Chunk) (B.A. 1910, M.A. 1914).

While we celebrate Yale’s scholarly resources on Native Americans, the printed materials for the Yale football game on Saturday contained offensive depictions of Native Americans, and this unfortunate incident reminds us of the necessity to educate our community about respecting and valuing Native American culture and experience. The Department of Athletics has offered sincere apologies for this error. Robert Penn Warren, the novelist and poet and a longtime professor of English at Yale, wrote, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” This is also the mission of an educational institution such as Yale: only through inquiry, discussion, and the free exchange of ideas can we make sense of all that differentiates us—and all that we have in common.