This feature is part of a series focused on amplifying the voices of alumni who are making an impact today and illuminating how the identities we bring to Yale transform both our community and the world.
What is your most enduring memory of your time at Yale?
I'm from the Fort Mojave Indian tribe, and my tribe is located right in the heart of the Mojave Desert. So, my first year at Yale was the first time I experienced a New England winter. In my area, it gets cold for maybe three days in December, late at night, but the rest of the time it's in the fifties and the sixties. At home when it rains, it all comes down at once like a monsoon and then it goes away so you often just wait out the rain. But, in New Haven, it never stopped raining. And then there was this thing called mist! And so, of course, I didn't have the proper jackets. They don't really sell those things in the part of California, Nevada and Arizona where I'm from.
I had gotten a cold because it was so damp and rainy and I was having a hard time keeping up with classes. One of my best friends from Yale is an Alaska Native and she came and checked on me. I told her I just didn't really feel good and that was different for me. She just received a care package from home and offered to bring me some food. I assumed it would be chicken noodle soup but, when my friend came, she had preserved jars of smoked salmon and other indigenous foods from Alaska that her family had sent. When I saw this preserved salmon and smoke dried food I was surprised. Since she made all of the effort to share this with me, I figured let me just eat it — and it was really tasty. It was from her mom and her family!
The next day I felt so much better I was able to go back to classes. It is one of my fondest and enduring memories there, because, even though I was so far away from home, I was able to find a sense of community, and it just kind of made me lean into how Yalies start to build community with each other. And I think that that's really special about what we all share together.
How has your identity shaped your Yale experience?
I'm from the West Coast. I was born and raised on my reservation, and I grew up with contemporary indigenous issues being at the forefront of my world.
One of the things that I noticed when I was on campus was that contemporary conversations were further away, because a lot of people had a more distant understanding of Native Americans. When people would ask, “Oh, where are you from? What do you do?” I would usually say, “I'm Mojave. I'm Native American,” and, for the first time, people didn't know how to respond or react. Perhaps I was the first Native that they may have come in contact with, so their ideas about what Native Americans are were very different than my cultural identity.
There are 565 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, and that does not include those tribes that are state-recognized because of historical impacts or other Indigenous peoples around the world. Some folks have a very limited scope of what Native American means. When I got to campus for the first time, I saw myself being challenged by that idea. One of the things that I worked through internally was to really identify my voice around what that meant. I found being around my peers, professors, and other modes of study really gave me enough time to think about how I wanted to approach this when going into my field of study or my career. I'm glad I had the time and space to think of that on campus. I was a history major, so we read a lot. There was a lot of time for free thinking about those big macro ideas. I worked through many of those thoughts and held conversations with my peers during my time at Yale that really helped to ground and center the work that I wanted to do well into my career and the work that I continue to do on behalf of my Tribe and my community now.
What is your hope for the future of the Yale alumni community?
I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native American Yale alumni and we are small but mighty! Our numbers are a lot smaller than other shared interest groups that are present at Yale, and one of the hopes that I have for the alumni community is that they engage and start to think about their approach to contemporary Native American issues. Wherever you are, there's likely a tribal community in the area where you reside. Some of the focus of my work is trying to help build awareness and education around how to engage and approach work with native communities. On my path to Yale, I went there wanting to learn how I could work with people who are going to be some of the brightest people in the world and to understand how to build relationships so that we could work together.
What I saw in my own community was a need for others to understand what we were experiencing at my reservation level. When I think about Yale alumni, I think about groups of people who are passionate about interesting and sometimes odd things. But also when you have groups of people who are passionate, oftentimes they are driven to impact. I've worked with the Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) to help build programming that creates an opportunity for Yale alumni who may not have connections to tribal communities but are curious about how to work with tribal communities.
Tribes have a lot of things that we're working to offset, especially for our communities. Sometimes, when people with the best hearts knock on tribal doors to offer help, there is still a sense of concern within Native communities about who may be knocking. There is a lot of room to learn how to move past that challenge but it also takes building the capacity at the volunteer level or the alumni level to share the context behind why those feelings may exist and how to appropriately approach them. If we're able to do that on both sides, I think we're going to be better for it as a global community because that's where empathy comes from. My hope is that by offering this in working with YASC, in the future there will be more Yale alumni who want to work with indigenous people wherever they are and that alumni can bring their gifts to those communities that they're a part of in ways that respect and benefit indigenous communities and help us as a whole. It's a big dream, right? But we're starting small because we have to. We're just starting with the conversation and then with a visit, and then we'll build from there, and we'll see how it goes.
What advice would you give to fellow or future Yalies?
The advice I have for fellow Yalies at Yale is… finish! Write those papers and give yourself a little grace. Sometimes when we're in these smaller communities, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Take up the space and the time to think and enjoy that time, because as soon as you graduate and move away from campus, things become a lot faster. Take advantage of the time you have now to think about the big things because those thoughts just might inspire you throughout your career. As someone coming from public service, I definitely needed those big ideas and thoughts on very hard public service days.
Talk to a different community, go to an event, and enjoy all the things that are available on campus so that it can help you grow your own personal experience. It just might help you find ways to remain inspired and motivated as you move in this world as an alum and beyond.
Ashley Hemmers ’07 is an enrolled member of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe, whose reservation spans the states of California, Arizona, and Nevada. She is the Tribal Administrator for her Nation with specialization in multi-state, cross-jurisdictional development and management of Tribal economies and government. Her career has focused on Tribal enterprising and operational development, with emphasis in sovereign fiscal and capital wealth strategies, Nevada gaming, and public service operations. Ashley holds a BA from Yale University, and a Graduate Certificate in Non-Profit Management and Masters of Public Administration from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.