Ask someone when they think the first Native American attended Harvard and they might guess somewhere in the 1950s. Perhaps they’ll go back as far back as the mid-19th century. In fact, the first Native American was a Vineyarder, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, and he graduated from Harvard in 1665. Now, more than 300 years later, the second Wampanoag tribe member to attend as an undergraduate is settling in as a freshman.
“I think it is such a perfect time for me to have got here,” says Tiffany Smalley, 18, surrounded by her textbooks under the yellow umbrellas of a Harvard Yard cafe. One of her first acts on campus was to sign up for the Archeology of Harvard Yard, a practical class which aims to exhume what’s left of the Indian College buried under the quad. By looking down at the dig site from her red brick dormitory hall, Ms. Smalley can monitor the recovery of her Harvard heritage every morning. “Right now, we’re only finding pieces of glass and china,” she says, “but I certainly hope that we find something amazing like documents from the printing press or maybe personal things left behind by the native students.”
Ms. Smalley grew up in Aquinnah as a member of the Wampanoag tribe, a group which makes up around half of the town’s 300 registered voters. Now in Boston, a city of over half a million, she joins a student body larger than the population of the Vineyard and is experiencing the inevitable culture shock of life on a different scale. “I hadn’t lived in a city and I thought I would really like it,” she says. “But it kind of makes me appreciate small towns a lot more!”
She knew a few people on campus when she arrived and it helps that fellow Wampanoag and cousin Tobias Vanderhoop is attending graduate school at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy school of government just down the road. “It’s really good to have him here,” she says. “Growing up as part of a tribe has meant I have more people I can count on and trust.” She credits this background with her academic success. “Beyond what support I’ve had from my immediate family, that bond encouraged me to keep striving to do well,” she says.
Harvard’s Indian College was at best an experiment. As a condition of a much-needed funding grant to the financially ailing college from the New England Company, the Indian College had a clear mandate to Christianize its student body. The significant accomplishment of the college was a translation of the Bible into Algonquian by John Eliot, a white academic known as an apostle to the Indians. Some debate exists on whether the college was intended as a long-term project or simply a useful fund-raising tool.
Whatever the case, European students soon began using the college and Native American admissions rapidly dwindled. The neglected building was demolished in 1667, leaving Caleb as the only graduate from a group of eight Indian students, with the majority of the others of the others succumbing to small pox.
While Ms. Smalley is inspired by the prospect of connecting with the experience of these early students, she knows that their presence at the college was far from wholly positive. “The goal was to diminish our culture and belief system,” she says.
What passes for a good time with Ms. Smalley is rather unique. She had, for example, the chance to visit Harvard as a 16-year-old member of the highest academic achieving Native Americans in the region. “We studied neurobiology,” she says “It was really in-depth and it was fun.” Other activities she has found fun include working as a youth community member to put bylaws into her town charter and, more recently, ballet.
“It’s fun,” she says, of the weekly classes she has been taking at school. “It’s a beginner class. There are a lot of tall people,” she says in defense of her basketball player height. Formerly a permanent fixture on the Vineyard high school team, she is trying out for the Harvard junior varsity basketball team and jokes that her nights are spent running on the treadmill in vigorous preparation. Harvard students do take their sport seriously. Ms. Smalley’s two roommates from New Zealand and California are both varsity players and budget their time carefully between study and training. “They are really awesome,” she enthuses. “I never would have expected to meet someone from New Zealand. Her accent is hard to get used to.”
It was Mr. Vanderhoop, 33, who originally inspired her to become involved with United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) in her early teens, spurring a clear passion for community politics. Today she sits on the executive board. “UNITY is plain proof that youth in Indian country are working to make the difference,” she says. “Of course, there are things that aren’t being done as well — we suffer from alcohol and drug use, lack of education, health and land issues and a lack of political autonomy — but I think taking an approach which emphasizes the positive things that are happening is more effective than focusing on what’s negative today.”
While Ms. Smalley has no idea what she will major in, currently hedging her bets with courses in Spanish, archeology and economics, when it comes to her long-term plan, she is far more singular.
“I want to do something for my tribe or for a tribe or for Native America in general,” she says. “I see the problems that we have today and I really want to face them. I definitely see myself going back to the Island and the community.”
If she seems unusually seasoned for someone who just reached voting age this year, last year Ms. Smalley took on a graduation project of learning Wompanaak (a language which, until recently, hadn’t been spoken for 150 years) at the Vineyard high school. She completed this project, which had much in common with a college thesis, while juggling her SATs. Studying the Wampanoag language is doubly challenging since the dictionary is still incomplete and the established language is entirely distinct from English.
The process of learning this language, along with much else in Ms. Smalley’s life, inevitably involves connecting with the tribe’s past. If the swirling mass of historical and cultural symbolism that accompanies her first year away from home threatens to overwhelm, she juggles it admirably, offsetting her sober commitment with an infectious excitability and endearing self-deprecation. “I’m not fluent [in Wompanaak]. Not at all. But Tobias and I often say stuff on the phone, things like ‘Bye!’, or ‘How you doing?’ ” She translates the latter phrase. “Actually . . . that’s either ‘How are you’, or ‘Where are you.’ Or ‘Who are you!’ Anyway, it’s fun.”