An Aquinnah Wampanoag woman is about to become the first of her tribe to attend Harvard Law School, closing a 360-year-old circle that began with one of her ancestors.
When Harvard University was founded over 370 years ago, its original charter called for “provisions that may conduce to the education of English and Indian youth of this country.” In 2010, the school honored Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate what was at the time called Harvard College in 1665. Cheeshahteaumuck was a man from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, a group who have lived in the area of Martha’s Vineyard long before European contact. The school hung a painting of him in his graduate robes, his hair worn long and loose in the manner of Wampanoag men.
This autumn, Samantha Maltais of the same people will become the first member of her tribe to attend Harvard Law School. She calls it a “full-circle moment” for the relationship between the university and her tribe. Maltais is attending on a full scholarship, which was awarded to her by the American Indian College Fund.
“Coming from a tribal community in its backyard, I’m hyper aware of Harvard’s impact,” said Maltais, the 24-year-old graduate of Dartmouth and the Peace Corps. “It’s a symbol of New England’s colonial past, this tool of assimilation that pushed Native Americans into the background in their own homelands.”
Maltais, like many other indigenous students, wants to see historic universities like Harvard lead the way in seeking educational equity for Native American students, especially right now. Native students had the lowest graduation rates in the country before the pandemic, and saw the steepest decline in college enrollment in 2020 of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. In 2009-10, there were 45 Native American students enrolled in Harvard University (out of over 6700 students). In 2019-2020, only 19 are completing the school year.