Native Americans at Harvard
From the Indian College to student support programs and pow wows
The education of Native Americans is woven into the long history of Harvard University. The Charter of 1650, by which Harvard continues to be governed, pledges the University to “the education of English and Indian youth.”
Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of the Wampanoag tribe, Class of 1665, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. His classmate and fellow Wampanoag Joel Hiacoomes returned to Martha’s Vineyard to visit relatives just prior to graduation, but he was shipwrecked on Nantucket on his return trip and not seen again. Cheeshahteaumuck successfully graduated, but died a few months later in Watertown. From 1655 to 1698, the Indian College stood in Harvard Yard, on the site currently occupied by Matthews Hall.
Despite the University’s pledge to foster the education of American Indian youth, it was not until 1970, when the American Indian Program (AIP) emerged on campus, that a program was established to specifically address Native American issues. In 1990, the AIP was reorganized as the Harvard University Native American Program, with a focus on interfaculty scholarship and teaching, Native outreach, and student recruitment and support.
Three hundred and forty-six years after Cheeshahteaumuck, Tiffany Smalley ’11 became the second Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard College. She and her fellow Native American Harvard alums, now numbering more than 1,000, have experienced a Harvard far different than the former Indian College. But with Native Americans and Pacific Islanders together comprising only 1.5 percent of the Class of 2019, much work remains to be done: in recruiting more Native students, and in educating non-Natives about this vital segment of the Harvard community.
A banner bearing the Veritas turtle symbol of the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) frames a dancer in Radcliffe Yard. The annual Harvard Pow Wow, now in its 21st year, honors Native American culture with traditional songs and dance. Participants include Native Americans from Harvard and members of tribes from across the United States and Canada.
Jason Packineau, HUNAP community coordinator, stands rooted in a landscape he knows well, outside Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico during a trip to recruit local students to apply to Harvard. Packineau is from the Pueblos of Jemez and Laguna, and is also an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara) of North Dakota.
A conference on Native American running at Harvard explored the history and importance of Native American running traditions. The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, known for their ability to run long distances between widely separated settlements, could cover up to 200 miles over a period of two days. “Like other Native American communities,” explains Professor Daniel E. Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist, “the Tarahumara have been gathering together to race for thousands of years. These races brought people together, helped to redistribute food and goods, trained hunters, and promoted health and fitness.”
Oren Lyons (Onondaga), left, speaks with First Nations elder Doreen Spence at the Native American running conference. A lifelong lacrosse player, Lyons played professionally and has been a supporter of the Iroquois Nationals team, which has won the silver medal (placing ahead of the United States) in each of the last four World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. Doreen Spence is of Cree ancestry (Northern Alberta), and has represented her people in forums for human rights, women’s issues, and aboriginal health. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the 1000 Women project (2005).
Miles Graham ’16, left, speaks with 1964 Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota). For Mills, running was not an end in itself, but a vehicle for building bridges between people of different cultures and religions. At age 77, Mills is on the road more than 300 days a year with his foundation Running Strong for American Indian Youth, promoting the physical and spiritual benefits of running for indigenous people in the United States and around the world.
The exhibit “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women” is on display in Byerly Hall at Radcliffe. It features prints from Project 562 by Matika Wilbur, a photographer from the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes in Washington state. Over the past three years, Wilbur has photographed about half of the 567 officially designated tribes in the United States (up from the previous number, 562), and plans to keep working until she has documented them all.
Exhibit assistant Giorgia Cannici looks at Matika Wilbur’s portrait of Juanita Toledo of Jemez Pueblo, N.M., at the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery in Byerly Hall at Radcliffe. “I really love Matika’s work,” Cannici says. “She is an incredible communicator, both through her photography and her words. So many people passed by the exhibition after having heard her talk and told me how moving her words were and how much they were impressed by her contagious joy.”
Robert Odawi Porter (Seneca Nation), senior advisor at Dentons US LLP and 67th president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, addresses a conference on Native peoples and politics at the Radcliffe Institute. Porter is an expert in the field of American Indian law and has dedicated his 20-year career to protecting and expanding the rights of indigenous nations and peoples. He has urged Congress to amend the National Labor Relations Act to recognize tribal governments.
Audience members listen to a speaker at the conference “Native Peoples, Native Politics.” The conference materials included this statement: “Politics requires more than voting; it requires knowledge of law, organization, identity, history, and culture. Native American communities are sovereign nations within the United States, yet must still negotiate politically within a federal democratic system that at times inconsistently honors their rights, their land and water, and their ways of life.”
Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), co-founder of Idle No More, addresses the conference “Native Peoples, Native Politics.” Idle No More is a grassroots protest movement, founded in 2012 among the aboriginal peoples in Canada comprising the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. The group is protesting a proposed oil pipeline system that would jeopardize one of the world’s most important forest ecosystems and threaten indigenous sovereign rights to protect air, water, and land for future generations.
Head man dancer Kenneth Shirley (Navajo), a student at Arizona State University, traveled by himself to the Harvard Pow Wow after being invited by his cousin, Damon Clark ’17. “For me, being head man dancer was a dream come true, and what better pow wow to be serving than Harvard?” Shirley said. “I was very glad and honored to be able to come to Boston and show my dancing to the audience and faculty members of Harvard University.”
Braelin Lettner, 14 months, a Nipmuc from Palmer, Mass., joins in the dancing at the 21st annual Harvard Pow Wow in Radcliffe Yard. Seated in Grafton, Mass., the Nipmuc Nation claims more than 500 citizens.
Erica Scott-Pacheco ’06 announces a blanket dance to honor classmate Clarence “Duane” Meat ’05-’07 (Anishinaabe). “I was very active in Native Americans at Harvard College,” she recalls. “As a freshman, I was excited to live in Matthews Hall, the site of the original Harvard Indian College in the 1640s. I encourage the University to honor its commitment to Harvard’s Charter of 1650 with continued support for Native students and scholarship.”
Merritt Baer ’06, HLS ’10, left, comforts Kathryn Fairbanks, a member of the Anishinaabe tribe from Leech Lake Nation in Minnesota, as she is honored with a blanket dance for her son, Clarence “Duane” Meat ’05-’07. Duane was killed while home in Minneapolis in 2006. Erica Scott-Pacheco ’06 is announcing the dance in the background.
Erica Kiemele (Blackfoot/Métis Nation of Alberta/Taiwanese), a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School, dances across Radcliffe Yard. She is the co-leader of the HMS Native American Health Organization, a member of the HSPH Native American Student Organization, a teacher for HUNAP’s high school program, and is currently on an away rotation at the Northern Navajo Medical Center. Kiemele plans to practice emergency medicine in Native communities in the Pacific Northwest.
Caden Chase ’17 (Seneca/Cayuga), current co-president of Native Americans at Harvard College, poses with the HUNAP eagle feather staff. Chase recalls going to a Halloween party during his freshman year and encountering a non-Native woman dressed as Pocahontas, who greeted everyone with a raised hand as she said, “How!” “I don’t think she was doing it out of malice, just ignorance,” Chase says, “but thankfully I haven’t seen that again.”
“One of my most special memories as a Native student is the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” says Ikaika Ramones ’16 (Native Hawaiian). “When Harvard celebrates Columbus Day, we celebrate the survival and resistance of our ancestors. As an ultra-minority on campus with little known about us, it meant a lot to hear our songs and poetry echo in Harvard Yard, see our dances where the Indian College once stood, and have a part of where we come from breathe and come to life. Seeing members of the Harvard community join hands in a final dance of commemoration was one of the most unexpected and powerful moments in my time here.”
Rachael Cornelius ’16 (Oneida) stands in front of a U.S. map with tabs showing the hometowns of Native students at Harvard. “The Harvard University Native American Program has been my home away from home,” she says. “I spent many nights working out chemistry equations on HUNAP’s giant white board, overusing the coffee maker, and falling asleep on the sofa. Through both HUNAP and Native Americans at Harvard College, the community comes together as a family through dance, art, and food. I know the strong ties we made will not be undone by our graduation.”