Knowledge of American Indian history is integral to understanding U.S. history, according to Dr. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, an assistant professor of American studies and history at Yale University.
Mt. Pleasant is a member of the Tuscarora tribe, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in New York. She taught courses at Yale as a fellow in 2005 and was hired as an assistant professor in the American studies department in July 2006. She is the first person to teach courses expressly designated as American Indian history at Yale.
“I don’t think we can understand how we got to where we are as a nation without an understanding of American Indian history,” she says.
Mt. Pleasant’s doctoral dissertation examined the social, political and religious dynamics of the Seneca tribe’s Buffalo Creek Reservation in New York state. Her current research focuses on the ways in which tribes negotiated the European colonial occupation of their lands.
In addition to being the recipient of numerous fellowships, Mt. Pleasant is a two-time recipient of the Dean David L. Call Achievement Award from Cornell. Her essay, “‘We Have Taken it Coolly into Consideration:’ Debating Missionary Presence at Buffalo Creek,” will be published by Penn State Press in a collection of essays about early, modern Native-missionary relations.
According to Mt. Pleasant, academic interest in American Indian history has grown in recent years.
“Since the 1990s, the discipline has really started to take off,” she says. “As senior Native American historians continue to teach younger scholars, we are seeing an organic growth in Native American studies and history.”
Adding credence to her argument is the fact that elite institutions like Yale are hiring more Native academics. Earlier this summer, Yale announced the hiring of Navajo tribe member Shelley Lowe, who will be the first assistant dean for Native American affairs. Mt. Pleasant says she’s pleased that Yale is recognizing the significant growth of American Indian history programs.
Until very recently, she says, a standard college-level U.S. history textbook would typically explain America’s expansion into the West without detailing the fact that this expansion was a claim to territory held by American Indians. Lands and places that the United States claims and owns, she notes, are situated within American Indian homelands.
Mt. Pleasant says she thinks that U.S. citizens would have a better understanding of present-day land claims issues if they understood the process by which colonial powers and the United States came to exercise jurisdiction over those areas.
“Our school system has done a disservice to American citizens by not sharing more information about American Indian history,” she says. “My challenge is to offer them a basic understanding of the contours of that history.”
She says she emphasizes the concept of place in her teaching, pointing out that Native people’s identity is rooted in their connection to a place. She includes the history of tribes from the Northeast region, where Yale is located, to give students an appreciation for tribes both locally and regionally. Ultimately, she says she wants her students to see how their own nationhood is rooted in place.
–Mary Annette Pember
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