Ryan Flynn/AP
Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school in New Haven, Connecticut on November 9, 2015.

Fighting Racism at Yale: Native Students Push for Dialogue

Rick Kearns

Native students at Yale joined more than 1,000 people to make their voices heard in an event this week called the March of Resilience, where students of color and their allies showed unity and strength in the face of ongoing racial problems on campus.

On Monday, November 9, close to 1,200 students of color, faculty, administrators and allies marched from Yale’s various cultural centers toward the Sterling Memorial Library. Student leaders gave speeches and groups such as the Blue Feather Drum Group performed songs, including a version of Northern Cree’s “Young & Free.”

For many Native students at the event, the march is part of their ongoing protest of harassment and racist comments from all levels of the campus community; as well as a reaction to the institution’s neglect of these issues.

One of the student leaders at the march was Rose Bear Don’t Walk (Bitterroot Salish/Crow), president of the Yale Indian Health Initiative, a member of Yale Sisters of All Nations and a founding member of the Blue Feather Drum Group. Bear Don’t Walk, a senior political science major, said she has been dealing with racial issues in Yale since her first year at the university.

“I’m a senior and since my freshman year for instance, I’ve had to speak with students dressed in offensive costumes on Halloween and explain to them why these outfits are offensive to us,” Bear Don’t Walk asserted.

She says some students responded with hostility and at least on one occasion “my life was threatened.

“It was very troubling and it’s hard to be a woman of color at Yale,” the activist said.

She noted that an incident a few days prior to the march was seen as a relevant example of the problems Native students face.

The issue started after the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council sent a university-wide email, a few days before Halloween, asking students to “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact [they] may have” on peers, and to avoid things such as “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.”

In reaction to that email, Erika Christakis, a Yale Assistant Master of Silliman College – an undergraduate residential community – sent out an email on October 30, telling students: “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic] are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Many Native students and leaders responded quickly to Christakis’ message. Activist Reed Adair Bobroff (Navajo), who is also a singer and poet, said the email “undermined the work that we do and invalidated our experiences.” Bobroff and other students protested, which lead to yet another reaction to the reaction.

A few days later at the William F. Buckley Jr. Programs’ “The Future of Free Speech Conference,” author Greg Lukianoff said, “Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’ email, you would’ve thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village!”

Within hours of the Lukianoff comment, student protesters gathered in front of the conference hall. One of the protestors was Katherine McCleary (Little Shell Chippewa), who is the social chair for the Association of Native Americans at Yale, the events coordinator for Yale Sisters of All Nations, the physical health coordinator for Indian Health Initiative and the head women’s singer of Blue Feather Drum Group.

“The statement trivializes the genocide that occurred in this country,” McCleary said. “It was also reported that laughter erupted in the room after the statement was made. A small group of Native students immediately asked to speak to an organizer of the conference but we were denied. Police also blocked our entrance into the conference.”

McCleary said that within an hour more than 50 students of all different backgrounds gathered outside the conference building, holding signs saying, “Genocide is not a joke” and “Idle no more.” They then chanted, “Genocide is not a joke” as the conference attendees left the building.

“This is an instance where we successfully used our freedom of speech to defend ourselves. Yet, instances like this occur all the time on campus and we often don’t have the energy or power to respond,” McCleary said.

“The university does not understand that these things are still occurring,” Bear Don’t Walk stated. “The general sentiment of Native students at Yale is that they don’t feel safe or supported or that the university is looking out for our interest.”

Each of the activists noted that other students of color have experienced harassment and threats, too.

“I can’t tell you how many nights were sacrificed to finish planning an event with my community or were spent singing with friends so frustrated with this institution that the only escape we could find was in our own voices,” Bobroff said.

“My fellow peers of color from across the other cultural centers feel very much the same way,” he added.

But despite the racial problems and incidents on campus, things are headed in a positive direction according to a few of the activists.

Bear Don’t Walk, McCleary, EmilyVan Alst and other Native student leaders met with President Peter Salovey and Dean Jonathan Holloway recently where they discussed the need for stronger responses to racial incidents from the administration as well as recruiting more Native faculty and administrators, adding cultural sensitivity training and Native Studies courses.

“Right now the climate of Yale is positive despite negative media coverage,” Bear Don’t Walk added.

“Communities of color are coming together in love and unity and we will continue to fight for the future generations.”

RELATED: Yale Student Disses Wansum Tail and Pocahottie in ‘Costumes, a Poem’

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Imagine that! Who would have thought a university attended primarily by rich, White elitest would have a racism problem?

hesutu's picture
Submitted by hesutu on
Regarding "Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic] are the hallmarks of a free and open society." As we know "sic" indicates a spelling error transcribed without the privilege of correction. This is an effective technique to indicate to the reader that the original source is ignorant of basic spelling and therefore can be considered an unreliable source due to their low intelligence and education. However, in this case the "sic" is invalid. Offense and offense are both valid and correct spellings of the term.