What Columbus Did

Bill Yellowtail | Crow | 1965-1972

Bill Yellowtail’s dad, William Yellowtail Sr., had a friend who was a car dealer in town – just outside of the Crow reservation in Montana. Those two would get together to drink coffee and “other adult beverages.” One day, in the fall of 1964, they got to talking about their sons. The car dealer’s boy was a bit older than Bill, and he was at this “marvelous” place called Dartmouth that was, listen to this, founded for Indians. “You have got to check it out,” William told Bill when he got home that night.

“I was oblivious,” Bill said. Bill was a senior in high school at the time. “I thought I’d go to the local Montana college in Billings. That was a hundred miles away and that was a big deal.”

But his dad was on a roll. He started looking into other Ivy League schools. Back then, Bill said, it only cost ten dollars to apply. So his dad put up the money, and Bill, a good sport, went along with it and applied.

“Lo and behold, I was accepted, and that changed the whole picture,” Bill said. “No one around here had heard of Dartmouth. I come from a ranch and I like to joke that it sounds like a cattle disease.”

Bill was accepted to Dartmouth College and Harvard University. He had never visited either school. He chose Dartmouth because, coming from rural Montana, he instinctively knew he wouldn’t do well in the city, and preferred a college in the woods. He also liked the idea of going to a school that was founded to educate Indians. But Dartmouth was a long way away, and totally different than anything he’d known.

“My dad always said, sometimes you have to do what Columbus did and take a chance,” Bill said. “This idea of accepting a challenge has stuck with me for my whole life. I have a really interesting set of adventures that have been founded on this idea that if an opportunity arises I pounce on it. Never say no. It has worked out well for me. So that’s why I was able to depart from home and travel to this far away universe.”

So Bill took his first plane ride (“What an adventure!”) to Lebanon, New Hampshire – back before the Dartmouth coach existed. When he stepped off the plane, a group of staff members from the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine were there, ready to photograph the Indian. Bill walked right past them in his jeans and a T-shirt, each of the parties oblivious to the other.

“I was a total disappointment. I’m half Crow Indian, and in terms of appearance, I take after my Irish mother,” Bill said. “This was confusing to the Dartmouth community. They expected someone in buckskin and moccasins and feathers. [Being Indian] was just a part of being [on the reservation], so it was not an issue, it was just a natural part of my consciousness. When I arrived at Dartmouth, I had never given thought to these things, but suddenly it was an issue. The whole business of Indian identity was brand new to me. But there I was, absorbed in the day to day business of being Indian and surviving socially and academically in this new universe. Suddenly there I was: being Indian was a big deal.”

Dartmouth students had a particular image of what an Indian should look like – many had never met an Indian and only been exposed to them through drawings and pictures like the Dartmouth Indian Mascot and the Hovey Murals.

“I think the college was suddenly confronted with being a little embarrassed and a little uncertain about the mascot,” Bill said. “It was a caricature. I had not seen anything like that before, and I didn’t think to object. And the Hovey murals, also. I just accepted that that was part of the college, and it was beautiful art. I walked by them every day, on my way to my job at the food service.”

In the fall of 1965, President John Sloan Dickey matriculated three Indians: Bill Yellowtail of the Crow Tribe, Brian Maracle of the Mohawk tribe, and Greg Turgeon of the Sioux Tribe.

“In 1965, everybody was becoming aware of this thing called diversity, though nobody used that term yet,” Bill said. “So Dartmouth took a chance on admitting three Native Americans.”

It was tradition for freshmen to dine together every night. Bill was never able to participate in these dinners because he worked in the dining hall all the way through college. It was his job to don a white coat and serve plates of food to all of the other freshmen. One night, Bill remembers, he approached a particularly rowdy table to deliver their meals. Somehow, the boys at that table knew who he was – they knew his name. As he walked toward them, one of the boys lifted a flat hand to his mouth and performed the stereotypical high pitched war cry – “Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo!” The other boys burst out laughing.

“So what are you gonna do? Well, at the time, I treated it like something that was kind of funny,” Bill said. “I don’t know if it was intended to be funny, I don’t think it should have been funny. That was my first inkling of being viewed by my counterparts as different.”

His freshman fall, Bill took Math one. William Sr. had known a man who was an engineer, and got in his head that Bill could be an engineer, too. Bill got great grades in high school, but he was nowhere near prepared for the rigor of academics at Dartmouth. Having gotten all A’s his whole life, his first D at Dartmouth was “horrifying.” Bill’s classmates, on the other hand, were “beautifully prepared.” That scared and intimidated Bill.

During his freshman year, Bill also took an anthropology class. It was the only class Dartmouth offered at the time that taught about Indians. One day, the class discussed race; the professor brought out a board, and lined up on the board were tiles ranging in color from black, through all shades of brown, to white. According to the professor, that board was used to determine race. All of the students in the class had to roll up their sleeves and compare the insides of their wrists to the tiles on the board. By that time Bill had become self conscious about his identity.

“How absolutely humiliating to me – not meant to be humiliating – but by this time I had become sensitive to the business of being Indian, and not looking the part,” Bill said.

He fell into what, in retrospect, was a “pretty profound depression.” There were weeks when Bill couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed, couldn’t bring himself to go to class. Classic symptoms, though no one recognized them at the time.

“I was on my own. I would have appreciated support, but the notion of entitlement did not exist,” Bill said. “The whole country was all about people pulling their own weight and having to make it themselves and there was some shame that had to do with accepting charity. Crow Indians, from my best understanding, have always had a very high value for self sufficiency. Victimhood was not part of our lexicon.”

Partway through his time at Dartmouth, Bill got into trouble and was expelled. He moved back home for a couple years to work on his family ranch.

“During that time, the college recognized the trouble that I had,” Bill said. “The college, rather than give up, which is what most colleges did at the time – everybody wanted an Indian, and I think they all had a hard time keeping their Indians. I think a lot of them gave up. But not Dartmouth. Dartmouth said, What can we do about this?

In 1969, Dartmouth hired its first Native professional, a Pueblo man named John

Olguin, to be a counselor, tutor, and recruiter for Native students. They also invited Bill back to complete his degree and work as an upperclassmen mentor for an incoming class of ten Native students.

These ten Native students were recruited to Dartmouth from the A Better Chance program – “Project ABC” – which recruited “high potential” high school students who identify with groups that were underrepresented in higher education. Project ABC acted as a feeder program to participating colleges and universities around the country.

“They were really smart kids but they were really disadvantaged academically, through no fault of their own,” Bill said. “Everyone knows that the prep schools were the training ground for the Ivy League. Project ABC was an early strategy to infiltrate the elite.”

The Native students who participated in this program were often recruited from BIA boarding schools.

“Now we’ve come to understand [the boarding school] experience as a very very negative one,” Bill said. “But again, at the time, we didn’t know any different. I was part of recruiting these Indian kids to project ABC. Painful for them. That’s why we recruited groups of ten, at least they had a community.”

According to Bill, those first ten Native students had “a hell of a time.” The college decided, in order to help these students feel at home, to put all ten Native students together on the same dormitory floor.

“A good idea – it created a community,” Bill said. “Unfortunately, it became a community of despair.

The Native floor became a “rowdy place” that exacerbated the problems Natives already had – like alcoholism.

In 1971, the college officially established the “American Indian Program.”

“The college's motivation for starting the NAP was academic,” Bill said. “The cultural

dissonance was not a thing that anybody was aware of or had thought about. The college went straight to work to deal with this academic side of Indian existence.”

To this day, Bill is proud of his alma mater for recommitting to its founding mission to educate Native peoples.

“It’s my view that the College led the nation in learning and implementing these principles [of recruiting and supporting Native students],” Bill said.  “We Natives had to have access to the Ivy League. I still tell high schoolers, I say, ‘Who are the supreme court justices? Ivy Leaguers. Presidents? Ivy Leaguers. Dang near every one. Congresspeople? The vast majority, Ivy Leaguers.’ Though we don’t like to admit it, there is this club that has always been of the Ivy league being dominant amongst the elite in this country – the opinion makers, the decision makers, the policy leaders. That’s a reality. It is my opinion that we Indians need to infiltrate that power structure. You can penetrate that system, if you choose. If you choose to go home, that’s fine, but the point is, you have a choice. We open doors, hard as it is. It’s still hard for Native students at Dartmouth – the cultural distance still remains – but it’s worth the struggle.”