Hanging in Annenberg Hall, among paintings of Harvard-affiliated Civil War heroes, is a portrait of a man with collarbone-length dark hair, holding an ink bottle and quill as he turns the page of a book. There’s a map on the wall behind him, and a satchel hanging in the corner of the room. He stares straight ahead, his mouth stern and eyes probing.
Painted by Stephen E. Coit ’71 and first displayed in 2010, this is a portrait of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, Class of 1665, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.
Joel Iacoomes, Class of 1665, another Native American student, matriculated to Harvard College the same year as Cheeshahteaumuck and was to be the class valedictorian, but died shortly before Commencement, killed in a shipwreck on his way to graduation.
Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes, members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), lived in the Indian College in Harvard Yard, in front of what is now Grays Hall. They were men of letters; alongside English and Wôpanâak, Cheeshahteaumuck also spoke Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Not much else is known about Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes, but a few pieces of their lives remain here on campus.
The satchel that Cheeshahteaumuck carried around campus is held in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. It’s made of black fiber with yellow and brown stripes running diagonally across it. At the top, the woven fabric is cut angularly. The bottom looks worn, perhaps poked through by the corner of a book.
While Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes attended Harvard, leaders of the fledgling College actively displaced Native Americans from their land. In the summer of 1664, when Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes were rising seniors at the College, the Massachusetts General Court granted 2,000 acres of land in Pequot Country to Daniel Gookin and George Denison, prominent settlers in New England who had financial and advisory ties to Harvard, to relocate the Pequot tribe members living there.
Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1637, more than 400 members of the Pequot tribe were killed in a massacre and the tribe was eliminated as a viable polity in southern New England.
John Endecott, a four-time Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and military commander, led the charge for the Pequot massacre. Five years later, in 1642, Harvard appointed him to its Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body — which by law long included the Massachusetts governor. After the war on the Pequot, the Massachusetts General Court granted Harvard College 2,100 acres of land.
John Winthrop, former governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as one of Harvard’s founding members, sent 17 Pequot captives to be sold into slavery in Bermuda and himself kept at least three enslaved Native Americans.
Harvard’s founders worked in concert with the Massachusetts Bay colonial system, gradually acquiring land for themselves and for the College while violently dispossessing Native American tribes. As the Massachusetts Bay Colony captured land, they used Harvard, which was founded at the start of the Pequot Massacre, as a mechanism of land ownership.
By 1650, 13 years after the Pequot Massacre, Harvard was struggling to stay afloat. Without receiving a significant donation soon, the College would risk closing its doors.
Just then, the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England — an organization created by the British Parliament in 1649 to fundraise for New England missionaries — made a critical donation to the College for the purpose of educating and Christianizing Native American students.
In exchange, Harvard built the Indian College, the University’s first brick building, and agreed to cover tuition and housing for Native American students.
To rescue the institution from financial crisis and seal the donation, which included “sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues,” Harvard issued a charter committing the College to “the education of the English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness.” The commitment went beyond the British missionaries’ donation and promised ongoing support of Native American education.
But after Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes finished their studies and King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, the University shifted its approach and sent Harvard-educated missionaries to local tribes, often without tribal consent, seeking to “convert and educate” tribal citizens. Over the next 300 years, Harvard continuously expanded onto Indigenous lands, ignoring the consequences for local tribes like the Wampanoag.
It wasn’t until 1970, when the University received federal funding to recruit Native American students, that Harvard acted on the promise made by its own charter to educate Indigenous students and established the American Indian Program at the Graduate School of Education.
Thanks to the efforts of the students involved in the program, the AIP continues today as the Harvard University Native American Program, an initiative that brings together Native American students on campus and expands scholarship on Indigenous issues. But many students and administrators we spoke to believe the University still fails to redress its historical injustices against Native Americans.
It’s been almost 400 years since Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck graduated, and there have been few University-led initiatives to redress or reconcile Harvard’s role in the persecution of Native Americans. Today, few Indigenous students benefit from a Harvard education.
Harvard spokesperson Nicole Rura declined to a request for comment.
“The Charter is a living document,” says Jordan Clark, the assistant director of the Harvard University Native American Program and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
“It’s the document that pushes the University forward and should be the document that all decisions are made from,” Clark says. As Harvard has changed and evolved since its founding, the University remains obligated to uphold the commitments articulated in the Charter of 1650.
“I pray that Harvard can understand the huge debt they have to the Massachusett, the Nipmuc, and the Wampanoag, and all the other Indigenous people that they helped destroy,” said Faries Gray, sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, at a conference on Nov. 3.
He’s wearing a colorful bandana and speaks matter-of-factly as he delivers the opening prayer before a packed audience on the second floor of the Knafel Center in Radcliffe Yard. Behind him is a white backdrop dotted with“Harvard Radcliffe Institute” logos. “The prayer I have isn’t really a traditional prayer,” Gray said. “It’s more like medicine for Harvard.”
The conference, titled “Responsibility and Repair: Legacies of Indigenous Enslavement, Indenture, and Colonization at Harvard and Beyond,” was led by HUNAP in collaboration with Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Harvard President Claudine Gay sat in the audience, listening to Gray’s prayer. At her inauguration a few weeks earlier, Gay was given a facsimile of Harvard’s Charter of 1650. The original charter was displayed on stage beside her.
In her opening remarks, Gay acknowledged Harvard’s history of colonial displacement and destruction. “Today, I acknowledge that history, the pain and harm it has caused, and the responsibility it creates for this institution and its leadership. At the same time, I share my hope for repair, for enduring and meaningful connections and actions that enable a better future for all of us,” she said.
Speaker Elizabeth E. Solomon ’79 discusses the ways she believes Harvard’s 1650 charter has gone unfulfilled. She said that Harvard “needs to develop internal clarity about its past and ongoing responsibility.” Solomon was one of the first local Native American students to graduate from Harvard College after Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes enrolled in 1661, and she’s worked at the University throughout her career, currently working as director of administration at the Harvard School of Public Health. She also serves as treasurer of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag — a tribe that is not federally recognized.
She speaks with the confidence of someone who knows the Harvard administration inside and out and as a seasoned representative of her tribe. Her rebukes are stern but level.
On the panel, Solomon voices her skepticism to the College’s purported commitment to repair its relationship with Native Americans.
“Repair is an action meant to restore what is broken by putting it back together and/or to make amends for past harms,” she said. “We’re not ready for that repair. There needs to be a building of relationship because Harvard does not have a relationship with the local communities here. And most individuals from the local communities do not have a relationship with Harvard.”
Another speaker on the panel, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the tribe that Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes belonged to, also stresses the need for relationship-building between Harvard and local tribes.
Andrews-Maltais looked towards her daughter on the far side of the room. “My daughter is the co-president of NALSA,” Andrews-Maltais said, referring to the Harvard Native Americans Law Students Association. “Not only has she not been invited to participate in this or anything else that the school has, she’s in her final year of law school, and yet, again, overlooked, marginalized, disrespected.”
“When the charter talks about the education of English and Indian youth, those Indians were the people that are local to here, they were me, and they were Wampanoag,” said Samantha D. Maltais, Andrews-Maltais’ daughter.
In 2017, the tribal councils of the two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe sent then-Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust a joint resolution urging Harvard to fulfill the commitment of its 1650 charter.
The resolution’s requested actions include “historic, symbolic, and cultural recognition, and apology;” “student recruitment and retention;” and “partnerships between Harvard and the Tribal Councils.”
Solomon says that “[It’s] only in the past three or four years that there’s really been development of anything I would even call close to a relationship.”
For close to a year, Solomon and a few other members of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag met monthly with HUNAP leadership to write HUNAP’s land acknowledgment. They talked about Massachusett history, the Massachusett tribe’s relationship with Harvard, Harvard’s role in colonialism, and what it meant to have a land acknowledgment.
The resulting two-sentence land acknowledgment is posted on HUNAP’s website, though it does not stand for the University as a whole. It reads: “Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself which remains sacred to the Massachusett People.”
Solomon has been affiliated with Harvard for the entirety of the 48 years since she matriculated as an undergraduate student. Yet, for the most part, she does not feel supported or welcomed by the University.
She emphasizes that although she’s seen Indigenous presence at Harvard grow, “the process of colonization continues,” for instance by Harvard “hoarding money” in a $50.7 billion endowment. “That’s a sense of colonization, consistently taking more than you need,” says Solomon. “It’s not a comfortable place, it’s never been a comfortable place for me.”
Andrews-Maltais’ relationship with Harvard is also shaped by the University’s interactions with her tribe in the past, specifically citing Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacoomes. “It’s mind-boggling to me that while we still use Caleb as a trade factor to this school as to what they did to Christianize our Indian people, we, as the Aquinnah people, the home community of both Caleb and Joel, are overlooked on a regular basis,” Andrews-Maltais said.
“It’s astounding to me that we’re sitting today in a forum like this without Harvard coming to us first for a dialogue between us and the University,” she adds.
After the Indian College closed in 1698 due to neglect, the University did not create another initiative to educate Native American students until 1970, when the Graduate School of Education received federal funding to launch an American Indian Program.
Just a few years after graduating from the GSE himself, Robert A. Matthai was working as an administrator there when the school received an invitation from the “Indian desk” at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, a War on Poverty-era federal agency.
The agency was funding the launching of degree programs for Native Americans at universities across the country, and it wanted Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to be among the first schools to participate.
Matthai sent admissions information to eligible Native Americans around the country. There was an expectation that the students return to their tribes after graduating so their degrees could benefit their tribes as a whole, not just the individual students.
Although Matthai is white, he was one of few people at the GSE — indeed, in the University administration at large — who had any familiarity with Native American tribes; Matthai had recently placed GSE students at teaching internships in Native American schools.
Matthai accepted the job as director of the school’s American Indian Program on the condition that GSE administrators find a Native American director to replace him.
The Office of Economic Opportunity disbursed funds for the program, which would begin the following fall, just four months after the office recruited the GSE. In the months following his invitation to be director of the AIP, Matthai routinely sat down with a Rolodex and worked with a dozen prominent Native Americans from across the country to recruit students.
“In a few months, without the benefit of the internet or anything like it, we had to make potential candidates around the country aware of the program, get them enough information to decide whether they wanted to apply, run them through the Harvard screening process and admissions process, and then get them lined up with housing to come to Cambridge in the fall,” Matthai said in 2021 panel discussion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the program.
When the program began in the fall of 1970, 11 applicants matriculated. For many, this was to be their first experience in an institution like Harvard. Some of the original cohort of Native American students accepted to Harvard through the AIP were present at the panel and shared their stories.
One of those speakers was Wayne A. Newell, who died in December 2021. When he was admitted to the GSE through the AIP, he did not have a bachelor’s degree. He had enrolled at Emerson College after high school, but dropped out from what he retrospectively identified as “cultural shock.”
“You go into a dormitory and it’s like I was invisible,” Newell said. “At the second semester, I did so poorly I left.”
Newell briefly worked at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown — he was legally blind himself — before enrolling at a small college in Maine to be closer to his tribe, the Passamaquoddy. “The same thing happened,” he said. “As soon as they found out I was from a Native tribe, I just got ostracized in a big way.” He dropped out at the end of his second semester.
After dropping out of college for the second time, “I began to realize that I wanted something better than always running away from places I was afraid of, places that [had] a lot of prejudice,” Newell said.
After Newell returned to Maine from an internship at the Economic Development Administration in Washington, the commissioner of the state’s newly formed Department of Indian Affairs suggested he apply to the AIP. At first, Newell resisted, but he ultimately decided to apply.
“I stayed up all night — and I get emotional to think about this part — and opened my heart to whatever needed to be written on that paper,” Newell said. “And I just wrote and wrote and wrote.”
Like Newell, Della C. Warrior was initially skeptical of applying to the AIP. She was a “country girl” working at an Upward Bound program — a federally-funded college preparatory program that, like the AIP, started as a War on Poverty initiative.
Warrior, a member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe of Oklahoma, was raising her two young daughters as a widow when she received an application in the mail. “I thought ‘Harvard? I wonder why they sent me this,’” Warrior said at the panel discussion. “‘I’m just an average person.’” She threw the application in the garbage.
A couple of weeks later, Warrior received another application in the mail, along with a call from an anthropologist she knew at the Smithsonian who encouraged her to apply. This time, she submitted the application.
She got in and notified her grandfather. “He said, ‘Oh, granddaughter, that’s wonderful. You’ll be the first Otoe-Missouria that can go to this prestigious school.’”
At the time of Warrior and Newell’s acceptance, very few Indigenous students attended Harvard. Matthai estimates that between six and 12 Native American students were enrolled between all the schools at the University. “So we pretty much doubled the number of Native American students on campus with that one program,” he said.
According to Warrior, this scarcity of representation drew the Native American students who were enrolled closer. “We all knew each other on the campuses and who we were, and we tried to support each other.”
But after the first two cohorts of AIP students graduated, the program — renamed the Harvard University Native American Program in 1990 — slowly shrunk as federal funding dried up. By the mid-1990s, the program had only one director, who was a graduate student, and a couple of rooms in Read House in the Radcliffe Quadrangle. With the program’s future at risk, a group of Native American students organized a formal push for funding — this time, from the University.
The students brought on Joseph P. Kalt, a white professor at the Kennedy School who was leading a research project on Native American self-governance and economic development. The University still severely lacked Native American faculty, and Kalt was one of the few professors who taught about anything related to Indigenous history and rights.
“The program was on its last legs,” Kalt says. “There are a number of graduate students who picked up the ball and said, ‘We’re going to try to stop this process of decay, and we’re going to rebuild this program.’”
Kalt and the graduate students organized a faculty advisory board to push then-University Provost Steven E. Hyman to fund the program. Kalt recalls explaining Harvard’s historical relationship with Native American tribes to administrators in meetings. “It was building their knowledge of the Native history of Harvard, which had gone dormant,” he says. “It was a classic case of the behemoth, mainstream institution having very little understanding of their contact with almost no input from Indigenous people.”
Kalt believes the administration’s support for HUNAP was partly self-motivated. “I think the line that stuck in everybody’s memory was something to the effect of us saying to the Provost, ‘Look, Harvard University isn't about to proudly announce that it's disbanding its American Indian Program.’”
Once HUNAP became a “line item” in the University’s budget, the program officially expanded to other schools. HUNAP staff taught admissions officers how to increase recruitment of Native American prospective students and advocated for increased financial aid and other support for enrolled Native American students.
As Kalt saw it, however, these functions alone would not make HUNAP a University priority. “HUNAP — to survive and thrive — had to be seen as more than a student support mechanism,” he says. “HUNAP needed to be in a position to contribute to some of the key outputs of the University.” To this end, HUNAP launched interfaculty research projects, fellowships, and course offerings.
Over the last two decades, HUNAP has grown its programming to reach Native American students on campus, local tribes, and tribes across the country. While HUNAP provides an important social and intellectual space for Native Americans at the University, many believe that there is still work to be done to address Harvard’s relationships with Native American tribes.
Every week, members of the organization Native Americans at Harvard College gather at tables in the HUNAP office to meet. The room looks like many other academic spaces at Harvard — laminated wood tables, whiteboards on the wall, and fluorescent lighting overhead. But the otherwise sterile space fills with warmth during NAHC’s programs, from social events, to beading circles, to planning Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration events.
“I found one of my best friends there,” says Dakota A. Degenhardt ’26, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and NAHC. “It was nice to know that there was a Native community at Harvard, and people who share your same identity.”
Lena M. Tinker ’25, a member of the Osage Nation, currently serves as NAHC’s co-president. Tinker, a Crimson Arts editor, has been involved with NAHC since her freshman year. “NAHC is family, and NAHC is home, and it’s distinctive from any other place on this campus,” she says. Tinker carries a small notebook with her. She smiles often as she speaks, moving easily from making casual jokes to discussing what she sees as Harvard’s shortcomings in engaging Indigenous peoples.
NAHC primarily functions as a space to meet and build relationships with other Native American students. “It, I think, fundamentally changes our experience at this institution to be able to have those kinds of spaces to be in community with each other,” Tinker says.
NAHC, in partnership with HUNAP, recognizes the importance of engaging with local tribes, though only a few Native American students at Harvard are from the area. Most Native American students are from the West Coast and the Midwest.
It took 346 years after Cheeshahteaumuck’s graduation in 1665 for another Wampanoag student, Tiffany Smalley ’11, to graduate from Harvard. When Smalley walked across the stage, she accepted two degrees: one for herself and another for Joel Iacoomes.
“Harvard, as an institution, doesn't actually promote knowledge about local Indigenous communities. When you come here as a Native person, you will have an increased awareness of looking for local communities and wanting to understand the space that you're visiting,” Tinker says. She believes that having a strong social presence of Native American students at Harvard is essential to building Indigenous academic programming.
After speaking with her professors on the issue, Tinker says the turning point for an Indigenous studies program may lie in increasing the enrollment of Indigenous students at the University. “Things change the more people you have on campus,” she says.
Though Indigenous students make up a small fraction of the total student body, they make up a larger proportion of the University today than at any other point in its nearly 400-year history. At the College, the Class of 2026 has the greatest admissions rate of Native students at 3.7 percent, about 72 people, though this fell to 2.7 percent for the Class of 2027.
In 2021, Maltais, now the co-president of NALSA, became the first Wampanoag person in Harvard history to enroll at the Law School. For Maltais, education is inseparable from her identity.
“I was aware of the school since I was a kid,” she says. “These are all framing narratives that I think we all grow up with, just recognizing that Harvard is here, Harvard is on Native land, Harvard has this relationship of assimilation with our tribal community.”
Moreover, she finds the Indigenous course offerings lacking, and as a student of federal Indian law, Maltais says that pursuing those opportunities requires her to follow a “very self-driven path” at the Law School.
“We look at the curriculum, and there’s one federal Indian law class, and we look at the roster of professors and there’s no Native professors,” she says.
Maltais’ words echo the demands of the 2017 Wampanoag joint resolution, which include increased student recruitment and retention, the hiring of Native American faculty as well as faculty from other underrepresented minority groups, and teaching on Native American subjects.
Maltais also takes issue with the Law School’s handling of the Oneida Indian Nation Professorship of Law, the first endowed chair in American Indian studies at the University. Today, the professorship sits empty. To Maltais, the Law School’s failure to fill the Oneida professorship is just one part of an institutional landscape that she feels often fails Native American students.
Tinker echoes Maltais’ desire for Harvard to prioritize the academic study of Indigenous peoples and histories. “I would love to see an Indigenous studies program come to Harvard,” Tinker says.
“There is this unique relationship developed in the charter that would seem to set up — you would hope that it would set up — an intention on Harvard’s side to actually become a space or a university that promotes Native scholarship.”
Like Tinker, many Native American students on campus feel that the University has an obligation to repair its past harm to Native Americans, particularly given Harvard’s historical benefit from the exploitation of Native American tribes.
Samantha Maltais points to the administrative delays to repatriate the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans held at the Peabody Museum as an example of how the University’s promise to support Indigenous peoples can ring hollow.
“I think that having that as a reminder — a very haunted reminder of the history of Harvard University’s relationship to tribes is really disheartening,” she says, pointing to the Peabody Museum just a few blocks away.
“And it’s a very difficult thing to be reminded of as we’re struggling to get the same education as our peers.”
On a cloudy day at the end of September, students, faculty, and members of Native American tribes from across the Northeast arrive at HUNAP’s 25th annual Harvard Powwow on the McCurdy Outdoor Track in Allston. Some dress in tribal regalia, others in orange T-shirts to commemorate the Indigenous survivors and victims of missionary boarding schools in North America, known as residential schools. Beneath a white tent, Chris Newell, Wayne Newell’s son and the powwow’s emcee, bids the crowd to sit around a dancing arena as three drum groups warm up behind him.
The attendees stand during the opening prayer. Next, the survivor of a residential school in Canada, standing alongside her family, speaks about her memories of abuse at the school. When she concludes, Newell signals the Grand Entry of dancers into the circle.
For the rest of the afternoon, Newell calls the dancers, led by Kendra Eaglestar of the Jemez Pueblo and Atsa Zah of the Narragansett, to the circle by gender, age, and region.
They travel along a ring of dozens of spectators, as the drum groups build a steady beat and sing. Children follow the steps of older dancers, and at one point, spectators place money in the path of a young boy.
Degenhardt served on the powwow’s planning committee. “Multiple times a year, I’d get to see my family on the reservation and go to powwows, and that’s why powwows are so close to my heart,” Degenhardt says. Helping to organize the Harvard powwow was one way for Degenhardt to bring her family’s traditions to campus while experiencing the customs of other Native American students and local groups.
The powwow, which is organized by HUNAP in collaboration with Native American students, provides students on campus a way to show their culture and build relationships at a university where so few identify as Indigenous.
At the same time, the powwow serves as a venue for Native American students and affiliates to advocate for the University they want to see in the future.
“That’s the one time of year where I don't criticize Harvard University for lack of connection with local Native communities,” Newell says. “Because that's the one time of year where Harvard opens its door actively and does a really good job of hosting.”
“I wish it was more than just once a year.”
Correction: December 4, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Wayne A. Newell died in January 2022. In fact, he died in December 2021.
— Magazine writer Ellie S. Klibaner-Schiff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her at @ellieklibschiff.
— Associate Magazine Editor Jade Lozada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.