Alyssa Mt. Pleasant: At Yale, She’s Telling the American Indian Story to an Eager Audience

Historians in the News

A LITTLE over a century ago, Henry Roe Cloud, born in 1884 on the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) reservation in Nebraska, enrolled at Yale, becoming the university’s first American Indian graduate in 1910. Today, American Indians make up 1 percent of Yale’s student body, matching their share of America’s population.

A little over a year ago, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, a Tuscarora from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in New York, became Yale’s first American Indian faculty member whose teaching is entirely devoted to American Indian studies under both the American Indian Studies Program and the History Department. The joint position, a first for Yale, turned full time this past fall.

The first session of Dr. Mt. Pleasant’s Introduction to American Indian History drew about 70 students for 15 openings.

“Native and non-Native students are both interested in these classes,” said Dr. Mt. Pleasant, who had worked part time for two years as assistant professor of American studies and history at Yale. “More generally, the field has taken off in the past generation. In the past decade, we see a lot of scholars bringing in the Indian voice.”

Nationally, there are only about 30 American Indians who are professional historians. Dr. Mt. Pleasant is a graduate of Cornell with a degree in history and American studies. Her courses include “The Native American Experience in North America”; “Indian-Colonial Relations in Comparative Perspective”; “Northeastern Native America, 1850 to Today”; and “Land, Homelands and American Indian Histories.”

“Most of the time I don’t like to read about American history,” said Ashley Hemmers, an international relations major in her fourth year at Yale. “It makes me upset, especially Native history. It gets mistranslated or lost. Here, people are really concerned about the conceptualization. The way Yale is set up, it’s supportive of our endeavors. I’m able to hear the Native voice, not more dates and occurrences.”

Ms. Hemmers and Dr. Mt. Pleasant said they watched the discoveries among students as they tried to grasp all the levels of a tribe, how each state differs and each people has a different history.

“They couldn’t believe that Indians did not have the right to use courts until the 1970s,” Dr. Mt. Pleasant said. “Or how the Canandaigua Treaty still continues today. Some of our students walked out with a better understanding of the framework of United States history — that it’s not just about expansion but about diminishment of our homelands.”...
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