Digging up Aquinnah history
Making new discoveries about the past can be a unique and rewarding experience - especially when you have ties to that past. Such is the case for Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member who is a graduate student at Harvard. Her recent work on an upcoming exhibit at Harvard's Peabody Museum helped uncovered some of the rich history behind Harvard's Indian College, an institution that began in 1655, and over the centuries, has in many ways been forgotten.
The Harvard Charter of 1650 established Indian College with the goal of educating English and Indian youths, placing a strong emphasis on religion, aiming to Christianize the Native Americans.
The exhibit, titled "Digging Veritas: From the Indian College to Colonial Harvard Life," will be the culmination of the 2007 archaeological dig in Harvard Yard. Offered as a year-long course at the university, it was an effort to uncover the structural remains of Indian College.
On Friday, August 15, Ms. Sayet presented "In Search of the Indian College," a highly informative talk to visitors at the Aquinnah Cultural Center at the Gay Head cliffs describing the project and detailing the plans for the upcoming exhibit. An intern at the University's Peabody Museum, she discussed the structure and whereabouts of the dig, showed photographs, and provided a brief history of Indian College.
After carefully considering the objects that were found during the excavation, the research team came up with four themes to focus the exhibit on: literacy in the Indian College, rule breaking and religion, the social hierarchy of dining at the time, and the Peabody/Aquinnah connection.
Ms. Sayet and other exhibit researchers visited Aquinnah earlier in the summer and met with several tribal representatives, including Tobias Vanderhoop, Tribal Administrator of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. They and were able to obtain important information on Aquinnah's past, particularly in relation to Indian College.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Ms. Sayet explained that of the four native students who attended the Indian College, two were of the Aquinnah tribe, and explained the close connection that exists between Harvard and Aquinnah's pasts.
One of the former Aquinnah students, Joel Hiacoomes, completed all his requirements and was supposed to be valedictorian, but he was unable to attend graduation due to being shipwrecked.
The other Aquinnah student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. Native students at this time were required to know Greek, Latin, and English in addition to their native tongue prior to attending Harvard.
Although the students digging in Harvard Yard were unable to find the bricks that would have formed Indian College (possibly due to their being located under current Harvard dormitories), the group was able to make some spectacular discoveries, many of which were on display at the discussion.
The students and professors working on the site were surprised to find mostly wine bottles and pipe stems, particularly because, as Ms. Sayet explained, it was against the rules to smoke and drink at Harvard in the mid-17th century.
"The site was said to resemble more of a tavern site than anything else," said Ms. Sayet with a smile. The team also found oyster shells, buttons, and ceramic shards, all of which proved to have intriguing connotations. Many types of buttons were not allowed because they were considered to be "too lavish," and oyster shells are "interesting because they weren't part of the Harvard diet in the 17th century," explained Ms. Sayet. "They may have been a special treat for some students, or they may have reminded some native students of home."
Perhaps one of the most telling finds was the discovery of documents that provide insight into the state of literacy and religion in the 17th century. "They didn't find the foundation of the Indian College, but they did find print type, which is very important because the Indian College had the first printing press in America," said Ms. Sayet. "The first bible printed in the America was also printed on that printing press - that was the Algonquin bible, which was printed in the Massachusett language," the language spoken by Wampanoag Native Americans during that time.
One of the many reasons this project is so unique and exciting is due to its collaborative nature and the dedication and involvement of so many different people.
Simone Monique Barnes, visiting administrative Fellow and assistant curator at the Peabody Museum, accompanied Ms. Sayet. She noted, "The new way of thinking in museums is to make sure that if we're going to write about a culture or an experience is that we have different viewpoints. Doing research we're going to have one perspective and one insight, and the Indian College - where it's coming from with Aquinnah - they're going to have a different experience. They grew up with the stories of the students."
Ms. Barnes added, "What's great about the project is that it was student-developed from start to finish."
The team at the Peabody Museum hopes to return to Aquinnah next summer with a modified version of the exhibit, and share the most recent additions to their expanding knowledge of Indian College and its roots in Aquinnah.
"Digging Veritas" opens Nov. 10 at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The exhibit will run for six to eight months.
Kylie Paul is a recent graduate of Skidmore College, and a frequent contributor to The Times.