The Wampanoag language returned to Harvard this weekend after more than a three-century hiatus, during a conference exploring the complicated history between the University and Native Americans who once lived and studied in Harvard Yard.
Lighting tobacco and evoking ancestral spirits, the tribal representatives kicked off the opening ceremonies of “From the Gospel to Sovereignty,” the two-day conference commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Harvard Indian College.
The Indian College, the first brick building in Harvard Yard, was located where Matthews Hall now sits.
It was established in 1655 to fulfill Harvard’s pledge to aid in “the education of English and Indian youth,” as outlined in the Founding Charter of 1650.
This pledge was made to English benefactors who donated to Harvard during its financial troubles of the 1640s on the condition that the College promote Christian ideals among “heathens.”
According to historians, only Wampanoag Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck graduated from the College before the building fell into disuse and was ultimately demolished during the late seventeenth century. Native Americans did not attend Harvard University again until the 1970s.
Friday’s opening ceremony featured tribal chairs from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and Nipmuc Nation, the descendants of the first students of the Indian College.
Lisa Brooks, lecturer in history and literature, presented a paper on James Printer of the Nipmuc tribe, who worked with John Eliot in the basement of the Indian College to produce the nation’s first bible. This Bible was printed in Algonquian, a Massachusetts Indian dialect.
Brooks said she considered the conference significant because it honored the first Native students at the Indian College and also began the necessary work of repairing some “fraught relations” between the local Wampanoag people and the University.
“We all gathered together here to confront this very hard legacy of violence and exclusion and to envision a future that was inclusive and would be about language exchange,” said Brooks.
Judy Kertesz of the Lumbee Tribe, a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization, spearheaded the effort with past Chair of the Ethnic Studies Committee Werner Sollors.
At the closing ceremony on Saturday, the Harvard Indian Intertribal Dance Troupe (HIDT) performed for conference attendees.
Brian M. Wescott ’84 flew in from Los Angeles to attend the event and watch his sister, a current student at the Harvard Medical School, perform. His mother, who had been part of the first cohort of Native Americans to study at Harvard again in the early 1970s, also flew in from San Francisco to witness Harvard begin to become the “place it was meant to be in 1650.”
“All of us are guests in their homeland, and I enjoyed being able to perform for them,” said Erica A. Scott ’06, president of the dance troupe.