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Tackling Harvard’s Settler Colonialism

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Zion J. Dixon, Crimson Opinion Writer
Zion J. Dixon ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and African and African American Studies in Winthrop House.

What is Harvard’s mission?

Former University President Henry Dunster wrote our college’s first charter in 1650 in part to answer that question. In addition to establishing the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, the document outlines one of Harvard’s goals as educating Indigenous students alongside white ones.

In practice, however, Harvard’s history is entangled with violence, dispossession, and erasure of Indigenous communities. From the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, to the construction of a university on land that was already occupied, to the continued commemoration of the names and faces of people who participated in these historical atrocities, Harvard has hardly been an ally of the Native American community.

That history of dispossession traces back to Harvard’s early years and spreads beyond Massachusetts. For example, the Harvard Legacy of Slavery Report documents how Harvard treasurer Thomas Danforth personally sought out land for the University taken from the Pequot tribe in Rhode Island and Connecticut. This case was not an isolated incident but part of a larger norm when Harvard was developing and expanding: In the 1800s, the Harvard treasurer was a mediator over a decades-long land dispute over a Harvard-owned 300-acre lot in Bucksport, Maine.

Today, our university owns nearly 10 percent of all land in Cambridge and roughly one-third of the Allston neighborhood. All of that area is the homeland of the Massachusett Tribe. Needless to say, the impact of Harvard’s dispossession in the area is large and still relevant today.

Harvard has failed to live up to the laudable goal of Indigenous education in its charter. The historical Indian College building was constructed in 1655, only enrolled five Native students, and was dismantled by 1690. Now, Matthews Hall stands where the bricks of the Indian College were once laid.

Given this legacy and its relevance to the present, Harvard has a responsibility to reconcile with Native communities.

In 2017, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head — the same nation that the first Native American graduates of Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacoomes, were members of — issued a joint resolution calling on Harvard to keep the promise of the 1650 charter through commitments to Indigenous communities and students. In hopes of strengthening the relationship between Harvard and the tribes, the resolution called on Harvard to recognize tribal sovereignty, increase recruitment and retention of Indigenous students, and hire Native American and other underrepresented minority faculty and staff.

The process of atoning for Harvard’s settler colonial history can only move forward if the University centers Indigenous voices, stories, and requests. While such an approach is self-evident to many, I don’t think Harvard has consistently shown up for Indigenous communities.

Harvard ought to consider a wide range of reparative steps. For instance, though the University has started a formal review of the proposal to dename Winthrop House, this process needs more transparency and urgency. Harvard’s museums must also clarify and expedite the process to return Indigenous remains back to their communities.

Harvard also should examine ideas that would be more logistically challenging but surely worthwhile, like offering full financial aid to the descendants of tribes harmed by our institution, surrendering some land owned by the University outside of Cambridge to tribes, and ensuring that all administrators are thoroughly educated about the violence Harvard has inflicted upon Indigenous communities throughout history.

Our University’s promise to Indigenous communities in the original charter remains unkept. Making good on this vow will be a fluid and time-consuming process, but Harvard cannot waste a moment. Only by addressing its past can Harvard create a better future for its Indigenous students and foster reconciliation with affected tribes.

Zion J. Dixon ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and African and African American Studies in Winthrop House.

This piece is a part of a focus on Native American Heritage Month.

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