Native Americans at Harvard

Dating back to its original charter, the University committed itself to the “education of the English and Indian youth of this country.” Since then, Harvard, with the help of the small yet formidable population of Native American students on campus today, has been working to follow through on its stated purpose and responsibility.
By Valerie B. Elefante and Annie M. Goldsmith

Harvard College struggled financially shortly after it was founded in 1636. To support the country’s first institution of higher learning, the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England donated money on the specified terms that the College cater not only to Englishmen, but to American Indian students as well. According to archives at the Peabody Museum, the first brick building on Harvard’s campus was known as the Harvard Indian College, and by 1655, five native students attended the school.

Dating back to its original charter, the University committed itself to the “education of the English and Indian youth of this country.” Since then, Harvard, with the help of the small yet formidable population of native students on campus today, has been working to follow through on its stated purpose and responsibility.

From the islands of Hawaii to the plains of North Dakota, indigenous students come to Harvard from all over the country. Whether or not they grew up on reservations, these students face new challenges as they experience the transition from a native community to a college campus.

Many choose to become involved in Native Americans at Harvard College, a close-knit group of about 15 members who join together to foster native culture on campus, celebrate their heritage, and advocate for native issues. For November, Native American Heritage Month, FM catches up with four members of the native community and learn about their experiences here at Harvard.


We meet Kenard G. Dillon II ’17-’18 over coffee at the Greenhouse Cafe in the Science Center. Dillon is a member and the former political chair of NAHC. He was, at a time, responsible for facilitating dialogue within the organization and working with outlets such as the Institute of Politics. We sit down with Dillon and ask him to introduce himself; he immediately starts speaking in Navajo, the language of his tribe.

“It’s what you’re supposed to do when you meet someone or speak to someone,” Dillon says. “It’s important to tell people who you are and where you come from.”

Dillon describes himself as a mixture of Navajo, Hopi, and Apache; he grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in northern Arizona. “It’s like your typical small town,” he explains. “It just happens to be on a reservation—and its inhabitants just happen to be Navajo.”

Dillon’s high school presented a slightly different schedule than a traditional American school’s. Having gone to a public school on his reservation, Dillon received Tribal Sovereignty Day off in April rather than Columbus Day in October. And when it comes to holidays, his family celebrates Christmas and Thanksgiving, but the meaning of these days reflects something different to him and his family.

“We don’t think about the traditional narrative. For Thanksgiving, it’s just a chance to get together to eat; Christmas, a chance to get together to give presents,” Dillon says. “Like, let’s just get together with family.”

Damon J. Clark ’17 is also a descendant of the Navajo tribe, but he grew up on a reservation in New Mexico where, he says, his community had to combat various hardships.

“Thirty to 40 percent of people don’t have water or electricity, so [it’s] a whole different idea of what success is,” he tells us. “Lots of students are facing homes where there’s a high amount of alcohol, drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment.”

Another cause of adversity some of these communities face are traced back to deep-rooted tensions between white and native people, SaNoah LaRocque ’19 explains. Born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians reservation, LaRocque grew up in Belcourt, N.D., where she says a sharp divide exists between cultures. Even within the walls of her high school, which is located off of the reservation in the city of Grand Forks, opinions on community issues often sparked controversy.

“The community there was just racially split, I guess,” she recalls. “Grand Forks is where the University of North Dakota is, and their logo is the Fighting Sioux, which is a tribe of native people, and the NCAA told them that that was not an appropriate logo to have.” LaRocque explains that the logo was banned a few years ago. Since then, “tensions have been high in the community. There’s been a lot of negative things about native people in the community.”


Many of these students say that hometown conflicts led them to take action in order to preserve their culture. LaRocque experienced one of her greatest challenges when her high school banned any decoration of graduation caps—that meant she could not wear her eagle feather, a family heirloom, when she received her diploma.

“In my culture, an eagle feather is the highest honor a person can receive, and I always say it’s a part of who I am,” LaRocque explains. “It defines me not only as a native person, but just as a human being in general. I always say that if my house was on fire, the only thing I would grab would be my eagle feathers.”

After petitioning her high school’s administration, she convinced them to finally change the rule, allowing her to proudly wear this symbol of her culture. LaRocque was mentioned by Michelle Obama in a speech made in July at the White House Tribal Youth Gathering. The speech introduced Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), a program that look to improve the lives of native people across the country. Obama cited LaRocque’s successes as “a perfect example of what Gen-I is all about.”

Facing similar challenges in maintaining his heritage, A. Kaipo T. Matsumoto ’17, a Native Hawaiian from the island of Oahu, comments on how the loss of Hawaiian language in his hometown exacerbated natives’ struggles to revitalize their lost culture. He is the first in his family to speak Hawaiian in five generations; he grows out his long black hair as a kind of political statement in response to this problem, he explains.

While he thinks his long hair “looks good,” he says with a smile, it’s also a political statement: “I grow my hair out for all my ancestors that didn’t, or had it cut off in the name of being a civilized citizen of America.”


Matsumoto has experienced, first hand, the struggles of coming to college from a very different world.

“The culture shock that’s associated with being at Harvard, and in New England, and being away from the communities we live in is probably the biggest hardship,” he says. “And also the way that it’s relatively invisible to other people.”

He remembers when, during an international student program, his Canadian friend approached him and said, “Kaipo, I feel like you are more international than I am, even though you’re considered the 50th state of America, and I’m from across an international border.”

LaRocque, coming from a reservation, looked forward to arriving at college, a place she hoped would foster a more inclusive environment for native people. She expresses that these wishes have, to some extent, been fulfilled.

“Since I’ve been at Harvard, it’s been a completely different atmosphere,” LaRocque says. “People here seem to be very open-minded and receptive to native people, wanting to know more and hear what kind of issues native people are facing today. Just to know more about our culture—why things are offensive, why logos and costumes are offensive—instead of turning their back and being like, ‘No, you’re wrong.’”

Many of the students note that a particularly challenging aspect of being one of the few native people on a college campus is combating the stereotypes that people tend to have about native culture. LaRocque sometimes struggles with the idea that she could represent such a vast and diverse community when it comes to advocating for native issues.

“Native people come in all different shapes and sizes, colors—blue eyes, brown eyes and all kinds of eyes. And just having to be a representative of native people—it’s challenging,” LaRocque says. “It’s scary to think that as an 18-year-old girl at Harvard College I have to represent over 500 tribes of native people across the country.”


The NAHC serves as a community on campus for a group of native students.

Matsumoto, the club’s co-president, describes the purpose of the group as “a space to serve the native students here and make sure they can get through and navigate the institution.” Secondly, the club concerns itself with publicity, aiming “to actually establish a presence on campus, and say there are issues that affect native students in particular, and that there are actually native students on campus—because a lot of people can go four years without even knowing there are indigenous people at Harvard,” he says.

One of the events that NAHC is responsible for organizing is the Ivy Native Council. Clark, the vice president and former treasurer of the group, helped plan the 10th annual conference early last April. The council attracts 125 indigenous students from across many schools to get to know one another. He detailed the three-day conference as one of his favorite parts about being involved in NAHC.

“Even though we’re active with the native group on campus, there’s actually a bigger network of indigenous groups on other campuses—all eight Ivy Leagues and MIT, McGill, Notre Dame. Those are schools we get to know,” Clark says.

NAHC also organized the recent Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration that took place on Oct. 12 in front of Matthews Hall, which is also the geographical location of the original Indian College. Dillon performed a spoken word poem in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the ceremony, and LaRocque demonstrated jingle dress dancing, a traditional dance of her tribe and an important part of her life.

And after three years of lobbying, Matsumoto and Leshae Henderson ’16 convinced the College to accept ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, or the Hawaiian language, as fulfilling of the language requirement. Clark, and other members of NAHC, started petitioning for Navajo last spring and have yet to be successful. The College has since introduced a Navajo language seminar.

According to FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane, the College does not have an ongoing preceptor who teaches Native American languages. She wrote in an email that the Office for Undergraduate Education establishes language tutorials based on the “academic needs and requests of our students.”

Although the College has supported many of the initiatives NAHC has taken, some of the group’s members believe there is more that administrators can do to further improve their relationship with native students and uphold the Charter of 1650. Dillon gives us a few examples, including hiring more native faculty and adding classes in native studies.

“We have a bit of support, but we need some academic support,” Clark says. “We need to reinforce the idea that we do matter in the institution.”

Several student members of NAHC are passionate about educating others around them and suggest that change only comes when their peers are open to listening.

“It just goes to show, native people have voices that need to be heard, and it’s time for communities to be more embracing of those differences,” LaRocque says.

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