May 08, 1997
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  Harvard Honors First Native American Students

By Susan Peterson

Gazette Staff

As I head for class each morning, I find myself going out of my way, wandering behind Matthews Hall to that spot where the Indian College once stood. . . . I am looking for Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. I am haunted by this young man who has been dead for over three-hundred years, or, more accurately, I wish to be haunted by him.

-- George, from the story, "First Fruits" by Susan Power '83, JD '86

Author Susan Power returned to that spot in Harvard Yard on Saturday morning, but she was not alone.

She joined more than 300 students, faculty, administrators, and friends of the Harvard University Native American Program to honor and remember Harvard's first Native American students.

The moving ceremony, held under threatening skies, featured the unveiling of a large slate plaque on Matthews Hall. At this site more than 300 years ago, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacoomes of the Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard studied and lived in the Indian College, Harvard's first brick building.

Caleb was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard (in 1665), an honor he would have shared had Joel not died in a shipwreck just before Commencement. Three other Native American students also studied with them, but two died before graduating and another left to become a mariner.

The idea for the plaque came from Susan K. Power of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who is the mother of alumna Susan Power. The 1650 Commemorative Committee, under the leadership of Harvard Native American Program Director Lorie Graham, spent two years bringing the idea to fruition for Saturday's ceremony. The plaque was donated by Ray Halbritter, JD '90, of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

As a cold breeze blew papers and hats about, the audience heard remarks by graduates, Harvard representatives, and various tribe members -- several of whom wore formal tribal attire of beaded jackets, chaps, jewelry, and braids.

President Neil L. Rudenstine reflected on the growth of the Native American Program at Harvard and the new University-wide courses on Native American issues.

The Indian College stood in the Yard from 1655 to 1698 and lodged students of both Native American and English origin, Rudenstine noted. It later housed the early printing press that published the first translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language.

"As we think about these pieces of our past, I hope that we can also underscore our hopes for the future," Rudenstine said. "The Native community here at Harvard is a vital one -- it has responded to difficult challenges with a constructive spirit of generosity and with a will to create something for the days and years to come."

Jeremy R. Knowles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, pointed out that although the Indian College building collapsed by the end of the 17th century, Harvard should continue to be inspired by those early efforts.

"We do have common ground with [then] President Dunster," Knowles said, "in that we recognize education as enriching both the individual and the community. We're here to fulfill the mission that Harvard embarked upon three-and-a-half centuries ago to make the Native Americans a vital presence here, and through our graduates, to make Harvard a vital presence in the Native American communities across this country."

Beverly Wright, chairperson of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, thanked the University for honoring the first students and other Native Americans attending the ceremony, and commented on the Wampanoag tribe's efforts for education and professional training.

"Harvard University should be commended for the commitment they have made to Native Americans," Wright said. "Because we are a small tribe, dependent on the federal government, independence through education is a top priority."

Closing remarks offered by Pablo Padilla '97, a member of the Zuni Tribe and a government concentrator, ensured that the morning's ceremony was not entirely solemn. The Mather House resident commented on how Harvard has "changed my life."

"I come from a home where English is rarely spoken, and I didn't learn to speak English until I was 10 or 11," he said. Now when he returns home, people tell him, "I walk too fast, talk too fast, and eat too fast!"

On a more serious note, Padilla said, "A lot of people come to Harvard as a means to an end, but I'm glad to say I lived here."

The closing prayer was given in Navajo by Manley Begay, director of the National Executive Education Program for Native American Leadership, which is based at the Kennedy School of Government.

Said Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis, "I was very pleased at the size of the audience and the people who came from so far to be here."

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College