With a ceremonial blessing and a cautionary reminder of native peoples’ historic oppression, a group of American Indian leaders joined an assemblage of experienced and budding archaeologists Wednesday (Sept. 26) to begin the search for Harvard’s Indian College roots.

Buried somewhere under Harvard Yard’s well-manicured lawn lie the remnants of both the Old College and the Indian College, which more than 350 years ago combined to make up Harvard.

For 10 years, beginning in 1655, Harvard’s fourth building and first brick structure housed five students from New England tribes who studied side by side with English students.

Only one of those, an Aquinnah Wampanoag named Caleb Cheeshahteamuck, would go on to graduate, becoming Harvard’s first Indian alumnus in 1665. The Indian College would effectively end after that, as Harvard enrolled no more American Indian students. Harvard would continue to use the building until it was torn down in 1693.

Several speakers Wednesday highlighted the fact that though English and Indian students studied together, the motives for the equal treatment were not benign. Harvard’s 1650 Charter calls for the “education of English & Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness.” That mission, speakers said, was part of the broader campaign waged by European settlers to destroy American Indian culture and replace it with European culture.

“The history you seek to illuminate is neither benign nor noble,” said Elizabeth Solomon, a Harvard/Radcliffe graduate and a Massachuseuk at Ponkapoag. “The Harvard Indian College was part of a system to get Native Americans to embrace Christianity and European norms.”

Despite the historical reality, several speakers Wednesday welcomed the modern effort to uncover what remains beneath Harvard Yard as a way to recover what was lost in the centuries after the Indian College’s establishment.

John Peters Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, said that through the devastating diseases and oppression that afflicted native people, much of their culture — which had been passed down orally — was lost. Peters said he was skeptical of archaeologists until he realized that the artifacts they find and the historical context they uncover can help illuminate native people’s lost culture.

“I started to realize this is one way to start to close that gap,” Peters said. “It’s an opportunity to reconnect our living history. I’m looking forward to the results.”

Looking forward to the work is a group of 45 students who will be doing the digging. The students are enrolled in Anthropology 1130: “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” and have committed to two semesters’ work on the project.

The class will be taught by Peabody Museum Director and Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology William L. Fash, by lecturers on anthropology and associate curators at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Diana Loren and Patricia Capone, and by Senior Curatorial Assistant Christina Hodge. It is presented by the Anthropology Department, the Peabody Museum, and the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP).

Wednesday’s ceremony was hosted by Carmen Lopez, executive director of HUNAP, and featured a blessing by Chief Vernon Lopez of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. It also featured comments by Harvard senior April Youpee-Roll, of the Native Americans at Harvard College, and Brian Casey, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for academic affairs.

The Indian College has long thought to have been disturbed by the building of Matthews Hall, but its exact location has been lost over time. Fash said he hopes to prove the conventional wisdom of its location wrong, since a survey of the site using ground-penetrating radar last spring showed several underground structures from about that time that could be foundations and a midden, or trash pile.

Some features are eight or nine feet deep, however, so the students have a lot of work ahead of them.

“We have a lot of digging to do. We have a lot of ground to move,” Fash said.

The digging will mainly occur during weekly three-hour class sessions, though voluntary Friday digs may also be held to speed progress.

The class has attracted several students of American Indian heritage who have questions of their own about Harvard’s history.

Tiffany Smalley ’11, a student in the class who, like the 1665 graduate Cheeshahteamuck, is an Aquinnah Wampanoag, helped with the groundbreaking, sharing the shovel with HUNAP Executive Director Carmen Lopez.

“It’s really interesting to me to study my past,” Smalley said. “This is a unique opportunity to do it at Harvard.”

Kelsey Leonard, a sophomore from the Long Island-based Shinnecock, said the Indian College represented an extraordinary opportunity in history, with English and Indian youth being educated together and seeing each other as equals. In the following centuries, she said, that promise wasn’t fulfilled, and even today American Indians make up just a small part of Harvard’s student body.

A lot of work lies ahead for the students, Fash said. For every one day digging, archaeologists typically spend another day in the lab analyzing results and a third day writing them up. That processing time makes it imperative that students take the course for both semesters.

“The students will be digging history, they’ll be writing history, and it’s important to recognize they’ll be making history,” Fash said, adding, “It’ll be fun. There’s no helping that. Archaeology is great fun.”

Wade hails ‘African renaissance’