I’ll admit that I had absolutely no clue about the history of the Wampanoag.
Not until I talked to Tiffany Smalley did I begin to understand the breadth and importance of this tribe’s legacy to our country.
And it was a revelation.
Probably everyone knows by now that Smalley is the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard University since Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk in 1665. On May 26, she stood proudly in cap and gown under a clear blue sky, alongside classmates and before Native Americans who had driven for miles to commemorate the occasion, and received her degree.
“Tiffany is a great girl,” says Beverly Wright, the newly elected selectman in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, who traveled up to witness this historic moment. “We are very proud of her.”
Smalley also accepted a posthumous degree on behalf of Jacob Iacommes, Cheeshahteaumauk’s classmate and fellow travel companion who was killed shortly before the commencement in 1665.
Harvard has been on a serious mission as of late to make amends to a community some argue it has egregiously wronged since 1665. The university that denied Iacommes a claim to a degree seven times before finally granting it this year, hung a portrait of Cheeshahteaumauk in a prominent position in the dining hall in December, and for the past few years, it has been conducting an excavation of the Indian College, a two-story structure intended to house 20 Native scholars in 1655.
Smalley thinks that without the Wampanoag, Harvard would not exist today. “We actually saved Harvard,” she says. And she may be right.
You see, Harvard was in major financial trouble in the 1650s. So it accepted a grant by the New England Company to educate and house Natives of the Wampanoag Confederacy. But instead of reaching out and teaching Natives after receiving the grant, the school refocused its recruitment efforts on non-Native students, bringing into question whether it ever really intended to honor its commitment. The Indian College quickly fell into disrepair and of the five Native students it enrolled only Cheeshahteaumauk graduated. By 1693, the college had been demolished, the grant money absorbed into other activities and the emphasis on Native education effectively discontinued.
So why the sudden reversal of position and the revived interest in the Wampanoag lately?
Smalley thinks the attention is because the Wampanoag are entering a golden-age. “We are thriving,” she says. “Becoming stronger than ever.”
She looks enthusiastically into a bright future and sees nothing but an expanse of possibility unfolding for the tribe.
Wright believes this spotlight is happening because the Wampanoag are an enduring, enterprising, and important tribe. Plus, it’s time. The Wampanoag Nation that once included all of southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, encompassing more than 67 distinct tribal communities, should be noted as the first people to welcome the Pilgrims and help them get them through their first winter. They were also the people that inspired Thanksgiving.
But with only six communities of about 2,000 members left, it is clear the Wampanoag have experienced terrible loss over the centuries. Yet they are still here. “And we’re still on our own traditional homelands,” says Wright. “We can still document our existence for over 10,000 years.”
The Wampanoag received federal recognition—the Mashpees in 2007 after a three-decade long fight and the Aquinnahs in the late ‘80s, which may also have gone a long way to directing more favorable eyes their way.
Maybe, too, the focus comes with the changing tenor of our country and a new concentration on giving back. President Barack Obama created the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an annual summit aimed at improving the troubled relationship between Natives and the federal government. Perhaps in this type of national charitable environment, Harvard also felt the need to reach back, mend fences and acknowledge previous wrongs.
Other projects and initiatives are also contributing to this new outlook for the tribe.
Because of a series of dreams, Jesse Little Doe Baird has been working on a dictionary for Wôpanâak, the ancestral Wampanoag language, since 1996. In each of her dreams, she said Wampanoag tribal members would speak to her, but she couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Then finally, it dawned on her that they were speaking Wôpanâak. So she took that as a sign and has made it her life’s work to reintroduce the language to the tribe and establish a broad base of Wampanoag speakers.
In 2010, Baird received a $500,000 McArthur Genius grant and a $530,000 grant from the Federal Administration for Native Americans to finish her dictionary and create a master-apprentice teaching program. Today, the dictionary has 11,500 entries. And she manages a range of educational programs in Mashpee and Aquinnah, including after-school classes for youth, beginning and advanced courses for adults and summer immersion camps for all ages.
Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks released her new book, Caleb’s Crossing, this past month. It is a fictionalized version of the tale of Smalley’s 16th century compatriot, Cheeshahteaumauk. The book, which has already been named an Amazon Best Book of the Month, tells an imagined story of his crossing from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston and his even more challenging “crossing” into a completely different culture.
And some tribal members are banding together to begin pushing Harvard even further to establish Iacommes and Cheeshahteaumauk scholarships for students.
Maybe you all knew that the Wampanoag were the first to greet the Pilgrims and are the inspiration behind Thanksgiving.
Maybe you also knew that they are in the process of revitalizing their language.
And maybe you even knew about Indian College and how an investment into the Wampanoag’s well-being and education may be the reason Harvard stands strong today.
Or maybe—like me—you did not.
Somehow, the Wampanoag’s story seems tailor-made to inspire me.
As an African-American woman (with a dash of Cherokee that I am just beginning to uncover), I must say I deeply understand disenfranchisement. I also understand the swelling of pride that can overtake when the community you are a part of is suddenly acknowledged and praised for its contributions and when long-standing wrongs are made good and your community feels whole again.
The more I read and discover, the more I feel connected to the Wampanoag. My wishes are for the next 10,000 years to be filled with even more bright young people like Smalley who all speak Wôpanâak and who are making an even more indelible impact on the fabric of this country.