CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Students have been digging in a hole in Old Harvard
Yard throughout the fall in search of the traces of the tribesmen who were
once enrolled there.
Although the first finds were an aluminum soda can and a garbage bag tie,
the students, like Harvard University itself, are on a serious quest to
uncover the suppressed memory of the institution's effort 350 years ago to
give an equal education to its American Indian neighbors. The dig, a
project of Anthropology 1130, is part of an on-going University celebration
of the sesquitercentenary of the founding of Harvard Indian College.
Remembered up until now mainly by a plaque on the red brick front of
Matthews Hall, the Indian College earlier this year was the focus of a
two-day conference. The university is using the anniversary to highlight
its renewed interest in Native education.
Although the original Harvard Indian College was short-lived, the
university has been developing its modern Indian program since 1969, when
its Graduate School of Education received a federal grant to train Native
teachers. The John F. Kennedy School of Government launched its Harvard
Project on American Indian Economic Development in 1987 and has conducted
hundreds of studies on tribal governance. The program has been publicizing
tribal success stories since 1999, in its annual Honoring Nations Awards.
All the Indian programs at Harvard came under the same umbrella in 1998,
when the Harvard University Native American Program was designated an
"interfaculty initiative." Executive Director Carmen Lopez, Navajo, said
that status brought together faculty and resources from across the
decentralized university to focus on Indian affairs. It took another major
step forward just last year, she said, "when the Office of the Provost
granted us core funding.
"We're now a line item [in the budget] under the office of the Provost."
Harvard now has 123 Native students, both graduate and undergraduate, from
more than 20 tribes. By contrast, the total number of Native graduates
throughout its entire history might be around 1,000.
Several Natives had already attended Harvard before it founded the Indian
college in 1655. James Printer, a Nipmuc, took his name from his work with
John Eliot, the famous linguist and missionary, in printing a bilingual
Bible in English and Wampanoag. (The name Printer is still prominent in the
roles of the Nipmuc Nation in Massachusetts.) Another former student, John
Sassamon, had a more tragic claim to fame: his assassination by agents of
the Wampanoag chief sparked King Philip's War in 1676.
The Indian college was something of a fund-raising device. Harvard tried to
steady its shaky finances by appealing for support to the Society for the
Propagation of the Gospel among the Indians. In its 1650 charter, it called
for "the education of the English and Indian youth of this country in
knowledge and godliness." The society responded with a grant to teach
Protestantism and the school's classical curriculum to members of the
greater Wampanoag Confederacy in what is now southeastern and central
But the Indian college had rocky going. One of the first students, John
Wampus, Aquinnah Wampanoag, left before graduation to go to sea. (According
to one account, he was slated to be valedictorian before he chose the
maritime career in which New England Indians were in great demand.) Another
was murdered. Two more died of disease. Only one of the Indians, Caleb
Cheeshateamuck, Aquinnah Wampanoag, graduated, becoming the first Indian
with a Harvard degree. But this class of 1665 alumnus died shortly
afterward of tuberculosis.
With this track record, tribal elders decided that Harvard was unlucky and
refused to send further youths to attend. By 1670, there were no more
Indians at Harvard. King Philip's War at the end of the decade abruptly
ended the coexistence of the two cultures.
The Indian College building became a dormitory for the English settlers. It
fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1698. The current archeological
project is trying to locate its original "footprint."
It took nearly three more centuries for Indian students to trickle back to
the university. As Native graduates of its law and business schools began
to lead their tribes to prosperity, they returned some of their new wealth
to the Harvard campus.
The Indian presence is now about 80 in the undergraduate college and
another 40 plus in the graduate schools -- a robust number, although Lopez
said there should be more. Their affiliations range from Aleut to Xaxli'p.
The purpose of their education is now considerably different. In the 1600s,
said Lopez, Harvard meant to Christianize the Native students. "Now it
teaches self-determination," she said.