The skin drum in Tobias Vanderhoop’s hand was small, but the sound it made was huge, echoing off the venerable redbrick buildings of Harvard Yard as if calling forth the sound of other, older Native American drums that might once have filled that space.
Mr. Vanderhoop, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate and the administrator of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), was one of three Vineyarders to take part Sept. 10 in the groundbreaking ceremony for the latest archeological excavations in Harvard Yard. Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the tribal chairwoman, and Tiffany Smalley, a junior at Harvard College, also spoke about the significance of the project, which aims to uncover the history of the Indian College that stood on or near the dig site from 1655 to 1698.
“Harvard shares an old history with my people,” said Ms. Smalley, who worked on the dig in 2007, when she was a freshman. “We open the door to that past when we turn that first shovel of dirt.” Ms. Smalley said she was keenly aware of following in the footsteps of the very first Native American graduate of Harvard, a young Holmes Hole Wampanoag named Caleb Cheeshahteamuck, who obtained his degree in 1665. Another Vineyarder, Joel Hiacooms, lived and studied at the college with Caleb and would have graduated that same year had he not been shipwrecked and murdered on his way to the commencement ceremony. Cheryl Andrews-Maltias spoke of how the stories of the two young men had been a source of inspiration and pride for generations.
This will be the third dig aimed at precisely locating the college, which was Harvard’s first brick building, and learning more about the lives lived within its walls. Students do the archeological work under faculty supervision as an anthropology course, and the class is so popular that the 25 participants have to be selected by lottery. Digging takes place in the fall semester, before the ground freezes. Then the work moves into the lab, where finds are washed and analyzed.
“This is an opportunity to bring archeology to bear on history,” said William Fash, director of the Peabody Museum and professor of anthropology, who oversees the project. “You can read between the lines of written history, which by its nature is Eurocentric.”
The written history of the Indian College is sadly sparse, says Ms. Smalley. “Unfortunately, I’ve learned that there is not much left” documenting the lives of Caleb and Joel. “My hope is that the dig can help to enlighten us about those lives.”
While it is clear that the two were remarkable students, who by age 15 had mastered not only their native Wopanaak language but also English, Latin and Greek, what it was like for these young men to cross over from traditional Wampanoag life on a then-remote Island to study side by side with the elite of the English settlement has not been recorded.
The dig has revealed that they came to a place that was class-conscious: rich students were served off silver plates by poorer students who ate off wooden trenchers. And despite its Puritan ethos, early Harvard could be an unruly place as well. While alcohol and tobacco were banned and dress was required to be “modest and sober,” the dig has unearthed plenty of wine bottles, pipe stems and fancy buttons.
Among the most significant finds so far have been pieces of moveable type from the first printing press in North America, which was located in the Indian college and used to print the first bible published on these shores. That bible was in Wopanaak, and the man who tended the press was a Nipmuc Indian named John Printer. Bruce Curliss, a descendant of Printer, also spoke at the opening ceremony about how moved he was to be able to hold a piece of type that his long ago ancestor had held. Mr. Curliss said he had often pondered the question why Native people had sent their children away to a place as alien as Harvard in the 17th century. “They did it because they understood that we had no other choice but to live together.” As a consequence, he said, his ancestor was able to do something that had never been done before, “to put our stories in print.” His ancestor would be pleased that the bible and other documents he printed have now become a valuable resource for the reclamation of the Wopanaak language, which is being spoken again after six generations. As a consequence, Tobias Vanderhoop was able to recognize the young students about to dig with a stirring “honor song” in Wopanaak. As his drumbeats filled the Yard, his voice rose in the traditional salutation to those embarking on a journey: “I honor you, because you are prepared to walk a new path.”
Geraldine Brooks is an author who lives in Vineyard Haven. Her latest novel is People of the Book.