Yale's Indigenous students share their stories

Meghanlata Gupta

Updated: Indigenous undergrads talk about how they defy stereotypes and engage with their cultures at the Ivy League school

Meghanlata Gupta

Special to Indian Country Today

At Yale University, Indigenous people make up a small percentage of enrollment: Out of over 13,000 students, a little over 100 identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawai’ian, First Nation or Indigenous more broadly. 

As such a small minority, Yale's Native students say they sometimes encounter flawed assumptions, like the idea that they all live on reservations, that they don't use modern technology or that they have a singular set of beliefs.

On the contrary, Native American and Indigenous students at the New Haven, Connecticut, university celebrate distinct traditions and practices, have varied interests and lead activist movements on campus and beyond.

Although now scattered across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, five undergraduates shared their experiences this past winter and answered the question: How do Indigenous peoples defy stereotypes and engage with their cultures while away at school?

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Jacob Rosales, Class of 2021

Oglala Lakota Nation

"In the end, I want my work to be involved with Native communities."

‘In the end, I want my work to be involved with Native communities.’ — Jacob Rosales, Class of 2021, Oglala Lakota Nation (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)
Rosales (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)

Jacob Rosales has changed his major more than a few times.

Laughing across the table in the Native American Cultural Center’s conference room, he recounted his switches from biology to chemistry, then to English, back to biology, then to psychology, history, and now as a junior, film and media studies. His current passion for film stems from his childhood living in Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“I was a very avid film watcher. We never had cable television or anything, so my family amassed this huge collection of DVDs that I watched over and over again,” he explained.

So far, Rosales has taken classes like “The Classical Hollywood Narrative,” “Storytelling in Contemporary TV,” and “Film, Video and American History.”

Within his classes and film studies more generally, however, he’s found a lack of meaningful representation. Most American movies lack a Native American presence, and even if they do include Indigenous peoples or histories, they often play into existing stereotypes of Native Americans as a monolithic group of people from the past who show up in various “Cowboys vs. Indians” narratives.

“In the mass media, Native people don’t really show up. If I were ever to make it big and make a really big film, I would want to make Native people a big part of that image,” he said.

Rosales stressed the importance of understanding the wide range of Indigenous cultures and experiences. He’s been asked to speak to a classroom about his life as a Lakota student, and he hopes to share with younger students that Indigenous peoples do not have a single culture or lifestyle — rather, they make up extremely diverse communities and nations across the country.

“I want to tell them that there are all of these different experiences, and that no two Native Americans have had the same histories and life events. There is no ‘typical’ experience.”

Gabriella Blatt, Class of 2021

Chippewa Cree Tribe

"I wanted to show people the power of Indigenous comedy and social media for community building."

‘There are many misconceptions about Indigenous peoples that still exist in liberal spaces like Yale.’ — Gabriella Blatt, Class of 2021, Chippewa-Cree Tribe (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)
Blatt (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)

During her high school years living on the Rocky Boy's Reservation in northern Montana, Gabriella Blatt would often stay awake most of the night, eyes glued to her cellphone as she scrolled through Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

"I've always been really involved with social media. Growing up on a reservation in a rural area, it was my way to branch out and see the things I wanted to see and be part of the communities that weren't available to me in person," she said. Her passion for online social spaces has persisted at Yale, where she developed an Instagram meme account consisting of Native images with humorous captions.

“In one of my classes, we talked about how comedy has many connections to racial disparities. Indigenous meme pages create spaces for Indigenous peoples online and are a method for us to gain media representation. In another class, I created my own meme page for the final project to echo these ideas of Indigenous visibility in the media,” she explained.

To Blatt’s surprise, her page has amassed almost 4,000 followers. Many of her posts consist of photos with comedic captions, like pictures of baby Yoda wearing regalia and beaded earrings. The account provides followers with pop culture references and laughs while creating a space where Native people can come together and talk about pressing issues in a lighthearted way.

meme
(Photo by Gabriella Blatt)

“I wanted to show people the power of Indigenous comedy and social media for community building,” Blatt added. The reception to her page has been largely positive — many of her professors even follow it — but she has also received hate mail calling her “racist” and “anti-white.”

Her reply to these claims?

“The meme page operates as a space for Indigenous people. It doesn’t necessarily have to translate to white people understanding what my work is doing.”

Although she has come to expect problematic comments online, Blatt is often surprised to hear similar stereotypes from her peers at Yale.

“During my first year, people would often tell me that their great-grandmother was an ‘Indian princess,’” she sighed. “It’s a common myth about ancestry that white families pass down to their kids. We never had princesses, and it’s offensive to Native women.”

Hema Patel, Class of 2023

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians

"My ancestors guided me here." 

‘My ancestors guided me here.’ — Hema Patel, Class of 2023, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)
Patel (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)

First-year student Hema Patel calls both of her grandmothers every day to practice the two languages she’s learning: Hindi, with her father’s mother, and the Indigenous language of Ojibwe, with her mother’s mother.

As a biracial student, she’s learning to navigate her presence in both the Native American and Asian American communities at Yale.

“Because there are so many opportunities here to participate culturally, I've had a hard time balancing between the two sides of my identity. I have to balance living in a white world while trying to celebrate my Native and Indian cultures," she said. 

Patel is a first-year liaison at the Native American Cultural Center, so she plans events for new Indigenous students to engage with the center and other campus activities. At the same time, she’s been involved within the Asian American Cultural Center, participating in events such as the annual Diwali Celebration.

A few months ago, Patel started a self-proclaimed “side hustle” to help pay for the costs of books, travel and other school needs. On her Instagram page (@beadworkbyhema) are dozens of handmade beaded earrings in a wide range of colors, patterns and lengths. Almost every post has the word “sold” next to it, and she has a monthslong order backlog.

Patel began to build skills for traditional Ojibwe beadwork with her aunt and mom two years ago, but the majority of her learning came from other sources.

"I did what Urban Natives do. I learned it from Youtube!" she laughed. Patel is from Minneapolis, which has a large Native presence. Cities are home to a big percentage of the United States’ Indigenous population. Within these urban spaces, many Native peoples connect with their tribal communities and cultures through the internet.

To gain experience and practice difficult patterns, Hema works alongside Indigenous YouTubers on her computer screen. Although Hema lives over 1,000 miles from both her home and the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Youtube’s Indigenous beadworking community has allowed her to “learn cultural art forms and feel stronger financially.”

Reflecting on the backlog for her earrings, Patel shrugged.

“You have to have the connection between your heart and your hands when you bead. Deadlines aren’t a thing for my beadwork. I tell my customers that it might take three days, it might take three months!”

Matty Motylenski, Class of 2020

Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation

"We come from a long line of people who have fought and resisted and survived, and we're continuing that. I'm never going to stop being powerful."

‘We come from a long line of people who have fought and resisted and survived, and we're continuing that. I'm never going to stop being powerful.’ — Matty Motylenski, Class of 2020, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)
Motylenski (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)

For Yale senior Matty Motylenski, attending Yale is a family tradition.

Motylenski's mother graduated in 1979 as the only Native American student in her class and then attended Cornell Law School to become a criminal defense attorney for Manhattan’s Legal Aid Society. Motylenski's sister graduated in 2016 with a degree in biomedical engineering and now works for the Center of Court Innovation in Brooklyn.

“Most people are surprised to learn that I’m a legacy student, probably because I’m not a straight, white, rich man. There is an image of what a Yale legacy looks like, and I don’t fit that,” said Motylenski, who uses they/them pronouns. “My mom worked incredibly hard to get here, and I wanted to continue the work that she started. Why can’t we have Indigenous students who are legacies?”

Over the past four years, Motylenski has continued efforts for better representation with social and political organizing on campus. At a school that boasts extremely high levels of academic opportunity and resources, students continue to face challenges when pursuing an education in Native American histories and contemporary issues. Motylenski wants to change that.

Motylenski referred to the fact that there isn’t a Native American studies major at Yale, and that Professor Ned Blackhawk is the only Native American professor teaching undergraduates.

Last spring, Motylenski helped lead the successful “Protect Ethnic Studies at Yale” movement in spring 2019. 

When 13 tenured professors withdrew their support from the Ethnicity, Race and Migration program in protest of lack of support from the university, Motylenski and other students started a monthslong campaign to turn the program into a department with appropriate funding and hiring capabilities. Yale President Peter Salovey said at the time that the school greatly valued the program and would ensure affected students would get the resources and support they needed.

Today, Motylenski is a graduating senior. Amidst the loud chatter of students discussing homework and club meetings in Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, Motylenski expressed concerns about the pressure placed on Indigenous students to be both classmates and activists.

“Our community does not have the luxury of just being academics. We have to be activists as well to make sure that our community stays vibrant. I’m a senior now, and I’m tired,” Motylenski admitted.

“This work needs to be done, and I’m just trying to lay another brick for the students to come after and build upon it. I think of all the queer Indigenous people who fought before me. I think of my mom, who was the only person here and had to fight for space by herself. I want to be anything like them.”

Nolan Arkansas, Class of 2022

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

"The Yale Indigenous community is tiny but mighty. We are small, but we still have a lot of really strong organizing and important events."

‘The Yale Indigenous community is tiny but mighty. We are small, but we still have a lot of really strong organizing and important events.’ — Nolan Arkansas, Class of 2022, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)
Arkansas (Photo by Meghanlata Gupta)

On June 3, 2018, Nolan Arkansas, at 18, began the Remember the Removal Bike Ride that retraces the Northern route of the Trail of Tears from New Echota, Georgia, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. 

Three weeks and 1,000 miles later, he arrived in Tahlequah physically exhausted but emotionally and spiritually empowered.

Between 1838 and 1839, the federal government forcibly relocated Cherokee people from their homelands in the southeastern United States to land west of the Mississippi River in present-day Oklahoma. 

The Remember the Removal Bike Ride honors the Cherokee ancestors who were displaced and attempts to create greater awareness of the Trail of Tears among the local public.

“Being a Remember the Removal Bike Ride legacy rider made me appreciate the resilience of my ancestors and the land that I’m on,” Arkansas remembered fondly. “I’m grateful for the communities that we are still able to be a part of despite the traumatic histories of removal and displacement.”

Arkansas’s passion for highlighting Indigenous histories and inequities has continued on campus at Yale. He is a current house staff manager at the Native American Cultural Center, where he helped revive the center’s performance drum group named “Red Territory.” The drum group played for the first time on Yale’s Cross Campus for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Arkansas and other members plan to perform in venues across campus to showcase the “beauty and power” of Indigenous musical arts. 

He is also vice president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, a political organizing group dedicated to raising awareness of Indigenous peoples and contemporary issues on campus and beyond.

Arkansas uses Twitter to discuss with his 4,000 followers the experience of being both Indigenous and queer on Yale’s campus.

“For me at Yale, being queer is easier than being Indigenous. There are more people here that are queer than Indigenous. Coming here, I felt very welcomed as a queer person, but most people don't know anything about Indigenous issues. People usually say their pronouns at the beginning of stuff, but we don't always acknowledge the land we are on,” he said.

Through his commentary on the intersections between Indigenous and LGBTQ+ spaces on elite campuses, Nolan connects with thousands of Native and non-Native people who share his perspectives on Twitter.

Asked about why he came to Yale, his response was simple but encompassing: “I love the Indigenous community at Yale. It felt like a family to me from the start.”

ICT Phone Logo

Meghanlata Gupta, Sault Tribe, is a journalist and rising senior at Yale University from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is the founder of Indigenizing the News (www.indigenizingthenews.com), a news source dedicated to Native voices and contemporary issues. Follow her on twitter @meghangupta or contact at meghanlatagupta@gmail.com

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This story has been updated to correct the number of Indigenous students at Yale.

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