Henry Roe Cloud was the first Native American to graduate from Yale, earning his B.A. in 1910, and M.A. in Anthropology in 1914. His accomplishments—as an educator, a civil servant, and an advocate for Native Americans—were shaped by a unique combination of influences throughout his life. He was raised indigenous but converted to Christianity, and he had complex relationships with his white adoptive mother and his Native American wife. Cloud’s ability to embody, and, in some cases, strategically and publicly deploy his multifaceted identity, blossomed during his time at Yale. His convictions and plans concerning the advancement of Native Americans through college preparatory education were reinforced by his experiences at Yale.
Cloud was born on the Winnebago Reservation of northeastern Nebraska sometime between 1882 and 1886. He was born into the Thunderbird clan and given the Ho-Chunk name Wo-Na-Xi-Lay-Hunka, meaning “War Chief.” He was assigned his English name when American authorities put him into government-run Indian boarding schools, where pupils were not allowed to speak their native languages. As an adult, however, he eventually began to use both his Ho-Chunk and English names.
At boarding school, he converted to Christianity, becoming very devout. This put him at odds with his tribal leadership, especially when he returned to his home reservation as a missionary, campaigning against certain traditional religious practices.
Cloud attended the Santee Normal School, a church-run school that was more pluralistic and academic than the vocationally oriented government-run schools. At Santee, mentors encouraged Cloud to apply for Mount Hermon College Preparatory School in Massachusetts. Despite taking a year off to earn tuition for Mt. Hermon by working on a farm in New Jersey, Cloud quickly caught up with the other pupils and ultimately graduated as salutatorian.
At Yale, Cloud continued to be a man of many talents, playing intramural sports, writing for the literary magazine, and joining the debate team. He also had a rich social life as a member of a fraternity, the Cosmopolitan Club, and Elihu. He was chosen as one of the three most interesting men on campus by a New Haven newspaper, along with Robert Taft, Jr., the son of President William Howard Taft. In his first year at Yale, he also met his mentors and unofficial adoptive parents, Mary and Walter Roe, missionaries dedicated to the “Indian problem.” The Roes helped Cloud give shape to his goal of founding a college preparatory school for Indians. They arranged the first of what became a lifetime of speaking engagements, where his award-winning oration aided his advocacy and fundraising efforts.
While still at Yale, Cloud worked with the Roes and others to advocate for the release of the Chiracahua Apaches, the descendants of Geronimo’s band, from their imprisonment at Fort Sill. His action was inspired in part, he said, by moral arguments he was exposed to at Yale. He also helped found the Society of American Indians, a reform organization.
Over his long career, his unique position as a full-blooded Indian, but also a trained anthropologist and missionary, made him a valued interlocutor. He worked on some of the most important research and policy initiatives of the time, including the Meriam Report, which documented the many failings of government policy regarding Native Americans. He was appointed as the highest-ranking Native American employee of the Indian Service Bureau, to the adulation of the press, and he was instrumental in convincing the tribes to agree to the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. By the 1930s, he had visited every single reservation and commission in the country.
It was in his pedagogy that Cloud was truly a revolutionary. At the time, government-run Indian education was designed to force assimilation, while focusing on “vocational training”—a euphemism for manual labor—which sharply limited the scope of opportunities for graduates. Through his own experiences, including his time at Yale, Cloud became convinced the that key to improving the lives of Native Americans was promoting self-sufficiency, Christianity, and college preparatory education to Native leaders and advocates. When he founded the American Indian Institute in partnership with his wife, he promoted preferential hiring for Indian candidates and encouraged the inclusion of Native American language instruction, as well as the preservation and celebration of cultural traditions. He later implemented these policies when appointed head of the largest government-run Indian school in the country. This radical approach opened doors that allowed more Native American youth to follow in Cloud’s footsteps into higher education.