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Harvard Reconnects with Its Native American Past Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Jason Urbanus

[image] Bruce Curliss, a direct descendant of one of the Native Americans who attended Harvard Indian College, discusses the excavation of Harvard Yard with students. (Jason Urbanus)


Pieces of lead type found in Harvard Yard that are likely from Harvard Indian College's 17th-century press. (Jason Urbanus)


An 18th- or 19th-century padlock is one of the artifacts that is helping fill gaps in the early history of Harvard Yard. (Courtesy Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard)

On an unseasonably warm day last November, members of Massachusetts's Native American community, along with Harvard University students and professors, gathered in Harvard Yard to commemorate the school's Indian history. For two years, students have been digging on the famous university green as part of a course called "Archaeology of Harvard Yard." Their most astonishing finds so far are several pieces of lead print type, believed to have been part of the printing press that produced the first Bible in the New World--a translation into Wampanoag, a regional dialect of the Algonquin language.

Although Harvard University is one of the world's most famous academic institutions, little is known about its early relationship with local Native Americans. When English settlers arrived in the Boston area in the seventeenth century, Puritan leaders were determined to convert nearby tribes to Protestantism. Harvard's 1650 charter explicitly states its intention to promote the "education of English and Indian youth of this Country in knowledge and godliness." To this end, in 1655, the university finished construction of the two-story Harvard Indian College, the first brick edifice on a campus now noted for its rows of dark red brick buildings. The college was intended to house some 20 Native American students who would be educated according to a seventeenth-century English curriculum. Excavators believe that the pieces of print type discovered during the 2007 field season are part of the printing press set up in the college.

The "Archaeology of Harvard Yard" course has had several Native American participants, including freshman Tiffany Lee Smalley, the first undergraduate member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe at Harvard since the 1660s. "In many important ways our class has revisited what took place on this very ground 300 years ago," said William Fash, director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard. "It's a great opportunity for dialogue between both Native and non-Native American students to communicate with each other and the past."

Jason Urbanus is a doctoral candidate at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America