Yale University sits on top of land once owned by Native Americans. That doesn’t seem unusual, considering pretty much all of the country does as well.
Now, Yale’s Native American students want the university to acknowledge that history with a monument to formally recognize the Quinnipiac people who once lived where its campus sits in New Haven, Connecticut.
WSHU’s News Director Dan Katz spoke with Daisy Reyes, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, about the students’ demands.
Below is a transcript of the conversation.
Right now, people around the country are talking a lot about the importance of monuments, what we should take down, what we should put up. What do you make of the student's request for a monument to the Quinnipiac tribe?
The students’ demand to honor the Quinnipiac people was actually a sub demand under many that emerged in 2015-2016, when the students at Yale decided to join a larger and broader and broader national scale cycle of protests that emerged after the University of Missouri football players threatened to boycott and joined their peers against their administration for mishandling racial harassment. At Yale, they were taking issue with many different things and one of those things was changing the residence hall, Calhoun Residence Hall’s name.
John C. Calhoun, the former US Vice President but also a strong supporter of slavery, and that’s what they took issue with.
Right. And under that demand they also wanted to honor the Quinnipiac people. But we do know now that Yale has agreed to change the name of the residence college and they’re not honoring the full demand of the students, which was that they change the name to a person of color. We know they’ve changed it to Grace Murray Hopper, who was a woman and a pioneer in her own right, but is not a person of color. So what does that tell us? That tells us that the students had sort of a partial victory, right? Yale isn’t going to be completely responsive to all of their demands. And part of this lies in Yale’s status. Yale is an elite institution, internationally known, which means they’re really sort of a leader. They don’t really have to pander to students in the same way that a smaller, private school, with a smaller endowment might have to. One that might have to rely more on tuition dollars for example. Or a large public institution that has to think about their taxpayers.
Yale kinda waffled their position a little bit when it came to Calhoun College and when it came to other controversies involving race. And with this latest monument request which came at the same time, they haven’t taken a position on it. To you what does it say that Yale, being an institution that can control the dialogue, being an elite Ivy League institution, it still has such an issue responding to these demands and these requests for students?
You know, I think that institutions like Yale get to decide where they’re going to go. And they are really leaders when they decide how they’re going to handle this issue. So as a country we’re grappling with commemorative politics, right? How are we going to grapple with our history of racism and what is the answer here? Yale in a lot of ways gets to decide that. And how loud these students are and how they respond to them and their issue is going to be important. It will be interesting to see.
In response to the Quinnipiac request Yale could say - yes we’re going to build this monument and we’re going to acknowledge the Quinnipiac tribe. Or they could say - no we’re not going to build it here’s why. What does it mean to you that Yale hasn’t taken a position on it and really hasn’t been able to create a dialogue?
I think that this issue just wasn’t taken as seriously, as the more pressing issue of recognizing someone who perpetuated racism and supported slavery.
That brings me to one of things I learned while working on this story. Yale was originally founded as Collegiate College, among other things they did there, they trained missionaries to speak native languages to help assimilate members of the Quinnipiac tribe who remained. Should I know that? Should that be common knowledge?
I think that the students that are advocating for this would want exactly that. I don’t know these students, but I would imagine that when the students devised their list of demands in 2015-2016 and included this along with removing Calhoun’s name. They saw a connection between those two things. That the Native American land was stolen and taken from them or that there were missionaries that were going to come and proselytize and take their culture, right, lies in the same sort of issue as slavery. That might seem like common sense to some, but I would say that those connections being made is sort of missing in the dialogue and perhaps that’s why there’s not a response to this issue.
Right now, looking at monuments, what kind of significance do they have in public places? If there were to be a monument in every public space that use to be Native American land, do you think people would look at things differently, do you think something like that is necessary? Because the argument that you hear from many on the Right is that this is a slippery slope.
That is the argument. I think that there is something to be said for removing some of these monuments. I’m thinking about a campus I visited while I was a job candidate in the south. And I was taken to go see a painting that is very famous on that campus. And at that moment I was going to be their first Latina faculty member. And this is in the southwest. And their painting had 5 military leaders and they were all white men. And in the background, you saw Native Americans and Mexican Americans being colonized and reeducated. And as a Latina, seeing that image was not...it didn’t make me feel welcome. And I was a faculty member at that moment. So I put myself in the position of students. So if we have young, first generation college students, who are Black, Latino, Native American and you have these images, they can make a student feel like they don’t belong. So I think there is something to be said about removing them on college campus. Maybe we put them somewhere so they become artifacts, but not exalt them.
But as far as building new monuments, can they bring resolution to some of the issues we’re talking about?
I think this is going to be really interesting to see. As we’ve seen all week, monuments have been removed across the country. What’s going to happen, right? What are they going to do with those spaces? Are they going to put Civil Rights leaders up there? They could easily decide to honor Native American people. Whatever tribe was actually on that land prior. I don’t know if that will happen but I think it would be a powerful message.
Daisy Reyes, she's a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon.
Thank you for having me.