Tiffany Smalley of Aquinnah reprises a Harvard commencement

Tiffany Lee Smalley with the fruits of her labor, a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. — Photo courtesy of Millicent and Jay Smalley

On Thursday, May 26, Tiffany Smalley became the first Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard to receive an undergraduate degree from Harvard College since the early colonial era. Her tribal predecessors at the college, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacoomes, completed their courses of study at Harvard in 1665, the same year that Isaac Newton earned his degree from Trinity College in Cambridge, England.

Ms. Smalley’s journey to Harvard and her education there, culminating last Thursday, May 26, show how much the university has changed in the years since and mark the renewal of the relationship between the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and Harvard.

“My family and my community have been two major driving forces in everything I’ve done,” Ms. Smalley said this week. “There are a few teachers throughout my high school and middle school years that were simply amazing — teachers whose lessons and motivation have stuck with me to this very day.”

As a sophomore in high school, Ms. Smalley attended a summer program for Native American students at Harvard Medical School, focusing on neurobiology. She says that was when she began to see Harvard as a real possibility.

Two of her fellow tribe members had earned graduate degrees from Harvard University in the past decade — Tobias Vanderhoop, who earned a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2008, and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop Bellis, who earned a Master of Education in 2002.

Still, getting an undergraduate degree from Harvard College is a landmark achievement, and it links Ms. Smalley across three and a half centuries to the place where Mr. Cheeshahteaumuck and Mr. Iacoomes studied. Because he died before graduation, the latter never received his degree.

“We grew up knowing about them,” Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the tribe, said. “It’s been a great source of pride and inspiration for us through the centuries.”

The tribe has always placed a high value on education, according to Mr. Vanderhoop, the modern tribe’s administrator. “Even in my great-grandfather’s generation, several of his siblings went on to higher education and became teachers,” he said. “This is a tradition that was taken on by our community and continued.”

Ms. Smalley says that, in her and others, that tradition continues through the present: “A major priority for the tribe is to make sure that all tribal youth are receiving a quality education, and with the resources provided, it seems to me that they do the very best they can to fulfill that responsibility.”

Harvard’s charter of 1650 sets out, “provisions that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness,” but the early college educated only a handful of “Indian youth.” The short-lived Indian College was funded by an English missionary organization devoted to converting the native peoples to Christianity. Vineyarders Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacoomes were its first students, and the last student associated with the Indian College died in 1714, at about 20 years of age.

In 1970, the Harvard American Indian Program, now Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) began. Shelly Lowe, executive director of HUNAP, says that her office has found no records of any Native student organization or recruitment efforts in the intervening years — all of the 1700s, the 1800s, and most of the 20th century. By the time Ms. Smalley was applying for college, though, HUNAP had helped create a strong native community on campus.

“I chose Harvard primarily because of how welcoming and strong the native community here was,” Ms. Smalley said. “I feel like everyone is really very worried and anxious to find their own niche during freshman year, but for me, the native community immediately felt like home. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to support me and connect me to important people and resources.”

Ms. Smalley became involved in the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program. “It was at least a small way I could make other native students around the country aware of this community that exists at Harvard, and encourage more native students to apply and attend,” she said.

When Ms. Smalley began college, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. “I considered pharmacy for a long time and also environmental studies and/or policy,” she said. “I did, however, always know that I wanted to do something that I could use to help my community in the future. I ended up majoring in government, with a secondary field in ethnic studies.”

In addition to her academic work, Ms. Smalley participated in many activities on campus. She served on the Native Americans at Harvard College student group executive board and danced with Harvard’s Indian Intertribal Dance Troupe for all four years. She also took ballet for three semesters, played basketball and lacrosse, and interned with HUNAP and at the Native Arts Program at New England Foundation of the Arts in downtown Boston.

“I enjoyed college,” Ms. Smalley. “I don’t think I could have gotten the same experience anywhere else but Harvard. I feel I’ve met and interacted with a very diverse set of people, and I’ve loved every minute of getting to know these people — where they come from, their traditions, histories, etc.”

Still, Harvard had its challenging moments. “I think the least enjoyable aspect of my life here was the difficulty faced in terms of maintaining a voice on campus for the native community,” Ms. Smalley said. “For the past few years, we’ve led a campaign to encourage people to stop dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween. However, every year people still dress up as Indians, sometimes even in spite of our messages.”

Ms. Smalley looks primarily to what she’s gained. “I do believe such challenges have made me stronger,” she said, “and better able to deal with similar situations in a tactful and eloquent manner.”

Graduation day brought history full-circle, since Harvard had decided to confer a posthumous degree on Mr. Iacoomes. “We’re so proud, and so grateful to Harvard for celebrating this achievement of Tiffany’s along with Joel,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said. When Ms. Smalley received her own degree and simultaneously accepted the long-delayed degree for Mr. Iacoomes, Ms. Andrews-Maltais stood beside her on the stage.

“Looking over that sea of people,” says Ms. Andrews-Maltais, “I was awestruck, trying to picture myself 350 years ago, and trying to imagine what it must have been like at that time and how much courage those young men must have had, and that in the end, it must have been so rewarding for them to gain that knowledge. President [Drew] Faust’s speech acknowledged the contributions of Joel, along with Caleb, and granting this posthumous degree is their way of demonstrating their renewed commitment to us. That was just so uplifting.”

In addition to the Tribal Council, a large delegation of tribal elders attended Thursday’s ceremony.

Ms. Smalley plans to continue working to help the Native-American community as she moves forward. This August, she will begin her new position as a Legislative Fellow for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.

“I am really looking forward to it,” Ms. Smalley said. “Long term, I’d like to continue working in Indian country and eventually return back to my own community.”