Assembly: Judith Sanford-Harris '70 on Indigenous History and Culture

By Jack Stedman

Commonwealth School will officially honor Indigenous Peoples' Day on Monday, October 12.

As a part of the remembrance of the rich history and culture of indigenous peoples in Massachusetts, Commonwealth invited alumna Judith Sanford-Harris '70 to speak at assembly on October 8. Judith is an elder of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, who have lived on this land for more than 12,000 years, long before white Europeans arrived. 

Judith began her presentation speaking in a local dialect of the Wompanaak language and honoring the Massachusett, whose land Commonwealth School sits upon. She then launched into a detailed and abundant history of indigenous history interspersed with current-day issues. Keep reading for a brief look into the history as told by Judith and find resources to learn more about present-day issues.

Harvard Indian College

By the mid-1640s, Harvard College was in desperate need of funds. John Elliott, a missionary from England who was attempting to learn Massachusett and Wopanaak dialects to convert natives to Christianity, and the Harvard president appealed to the New England Society for Propagation of the Gospel. The society agreed to give funds to the college, granted that it would "Christianize the heathens," as they put it. 

And so Harvard College launched the Harvard Indian College. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, Joel Iacoomes, and James Printer were among the first indigenous peoples to attend preparatory schools in Roxbury and Cambridge, where they quickly learned English, Hebrew, and Latin, before going on to Harvard. Printer, as he was named for his skill in printsetting, printed the first bilingual Bibles on the continent in the Harvard Indian College building.

Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the only one to graduate. In 2011, after a long fight, Joel Iacoomes was finally granted a posthumous degree, and the Wampanoag are still pushing the school to honor this history further with scholarships, mandatory freshman courses on this history, and more. 

The Mashpee Revolt

Central to the history of the Wampanoag tribe is the Mashpee Revolt of 1833. Mashpee, where Judith's grandfather was born, is a town on Cape Cod and the site of the headquarters for the Mashpee Wampanoag, one of two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes. 

In 1833, after many years of misguidance and oppression by the state government, local indigenous leaders declared independence from the town and demanded freedom to use their own land.

You can read more about this nonviolent revolt here.

What's Happening Today

We encourage all to read up on what is happening today regarding indigenous peoples in our state. With the help of Judith, we have gathered resources for further reading and learning: 

More Reading: Read out other blog about fall assembly speakers.