The Harvard Indian College

Affixed to Matthews Hall hangs an often unnoticed slate plaque, inscribed: “Here American Indian and English students lived and worked ...

Affixed to Matthews Hall hangs an often unnoticed slate plaque, inscribed: “Here American Indian and English students lived and worked in accordance with the 1650 Charter calling for the education of the English and Indian youth of this country.” The plaque itself is straightforward, but what is less obvious is the unique history behind it, the history of Harvard’s complex relationship with the Native American community.

In its 1650 charter, Harvard made a promise to extend its resources to the Native American community, a promise that it has started to fulfill only in the past few years. The plaque is part of Harvard’s renewed effort to promote the study of Native American affairs through initiatives like the current excavation of Harvard Yard, emphasizing the importance of addressing Native American issues within the University.

The affairs of Harvard and of the Indian community were bound inextricably from the start. Diana Loren, associate curator at the Peabody Museum and co-instructor for Anthropology 1130, explains this relationship. “Harvard was going bankrupt in about 1646,” she says. “So they went to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, looking for funds.”

The Society decided to grant these funds with one condition: that they be used at least in part for the spiritual and educational advancement of local Native American students. In its precarious financial state, Harvard was only too willing to fulfill this prerequisite. So in 1655, near where Matthews Hall now stands, the Harvard Indian College was built to further Harvard’s new Charter, educating both Indian and English students “in knowledge and godliness.”

“Native American students went to lecture, they dined with the English students,” says Loren. Yet they were at Harvard for an express purpose—to absorb the Puritan teachings and, upon graduation, transmit this knowledge to their tribes. In this vein, the Indian College became home to a printing press that published the first Bible in the United States, the “Eliot Bible,” published in Algonquian by the missionary John Eliot.

The Indian College was only ever home to five native students, only one of whom graduated: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag, in 1665. By the late 17th century the building had fallen into disrepair, and was torn down in 1698 (its bricks were reused in the construction of the original Stoughton Hall). To mollify its original funders, Harvard was to provide Stoughton housing rent-free to any Native American students in the College—but this proved an empty promise, as not a single Native American student would return to graduate until three centuries later.

Finding Living History

Today, the first floor of the Peabody Museum is home to Digging Veritas, a student-produced exhibit revealing archaeological findings relating to the Harvard Indian College. The project began in 2005, part of an initiative by the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Indian College.

Founded in 1970 as the American Indian Program, HUNAP has played a vital role in reviving Harvard’s interest in and responsibility to the Native American community. “Part of HUNAP’s mission is to bring together Indigenous students and other interested individuals to advance the well-being of Indigenous peoples,” writes Executive Director Shelly C. Lowe. She continues, “HUNAP continues to look to the 1650 Charter as part of our foundation.”

It was HUNAP that organized the unveiling of the commemorative plaque on Matthews in 1997 and who invited tribal leaders to speak at the ceremony.

In 2005, the students of Anthropology 1130, “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” took on HUNAP’s initiative as a part of their coursework, combining fieldwork with archive research in order to explore the relationship between Harvard and the Native American community. “[HUNAP] wanted to bring different academic programs into the work,” says Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology William L. Fash, who also co-teaches Anthropology 1130. “We thought that it would be very appropriate to celebrate by doing more work in Harvard Yard, by looking at this Indian College. It was integral to the University—it was part of the charter.”

Fash emphasizes the contemporary implications of digging up Harvard Yard in search of the Indian College. “We want to make the Indian College part of the living history, the living fabric of the University,” he says. “What better way than to actually find it?”

Cultivating Connections

Fash, who is also director of the Peabody Museum, emphasizes the central role of students in this archaeological project. “The students themselves were picking up the deposits,” says Fash. “They themselves were realizing, ‘Hey, we’re really onto something here.’”

Part of the course involves visiting the Harvard University Archives, whose documents bear witness to the connection between Harvard and the Indian community.

“It’s been a wonderful use of our collections in a very immediate way,” says the library’s Public Services Archivist Barbara Meloni, poring over a 17th-century list of Harvard graduates inscribed in meticulous cursive. “The thing that was so exciting for the ‘Archaeology of Harvard Yard’ students was to find Cheeshahteamuck’s name written among the students,” under the 1665 heading.

Tiffany L. Smalley ’11, the first Wampanoag member to graduate since Cheeshahteaumuck in 1665, says she took the course in 2007 because of personal links to the Indian College.

“As a Wampanoag tribal member it was so exciting to find even just the smallest piece that’s a sign of the culture of these people,” says Smalley. Her group uncovered pieces of printing type used in the printing press housed at the Indian College.

These small findings suggested they were on the right track—a guess that would be corroborated with the uncovering of the Indian College’s foundation in 2009. “We found this striking soil change that indicated that we were into some sort of primary deposit,” says Fash. Further analysis proved that the group had found 17th-century material, making it a reasonable assumption that they had discovered the foundations of the College. This summer and fall, they plan to flesh out this discovery, mapping the limits of the foundation to continue digging for artifacts within the walls.

Reclaiming Responsibility

Despite existing documentation, it took Harvard until the establishment of HUNAP to remember its original promise to the Native American community. In part, according to Meloni, this is due to the shear volume of Harvard’s archival collection, making documents easy to lose. But changing national attitudes towards Native Americans have also played a role, with Native American activist movements in the 1970s serving as a catalyst for change within Harvard.

In considering Harvard’s relationship to the local Native American community, Loren states, “I think it’s been rehabilitated through the Harvard University Native American Program.” When it was formed in the 1970s, she says, “It reminded the University of its guiding charter; they forced the University to remember and so this project helps in that endeavor.”

Smalley recognizes the complexity of Harvard’s changing relationship to the Native American community. While the original purpose of housing Indian students was to “Christianize” them, she says, “The Bible printed at Harvard was used and is [now] being used to revitalize our language.”

She agrees that the archaeology project, along with HUNAP and a renewed interest in the Archives, is part of a broader endeavor on behalf of the University to reclaim its responsibility to the Indian Community inherent in its charter. “It’s a really collaborative effort,” she says, “to commemorate these students and remember these students.”

Fash emphasizes the social role of the Archaeology of Harvard Yard course and its findings. “It’s made [the University] begin to live up to its historical responsibility,” he says, “enhancing the legacy of its Charter.”