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In ceremony, Dartmouth turns over historic Occom papers to Mohegan Tribe

Mohegan — Sarah Harris, vice chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Council, first visited Dartmouth College when she was in high school.

She later enrolled at Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H., the first Mohegan woman ever to attend the Ivy League school, graduating in 2000.

Fittingly, she was among the featured speakers Wednesday during a repatriation ceremony at which Dartmouth turned over to the Mohegan Tribe the papers of the Rev. Samson Occom (1723-92), a Mohegan icon whose flair for fundraising secured the seed money for what became Dartmouth.

More than 100 invitees gathered under a canopy erected in front of Mohegan Church for the outdoor event.

In 1766, Occom, believing his mentor, the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, was intent on founding a school that would educate Native Americans, traveled to England, Scotland and Wales in search of financial support for the venture. Alas, he was betrayed, the fruits of his wildly successful efforts ultimately diverted to a school for the sons of mostly white American colonists.

Devastated, Occom left Mohegan to establish a tribal community in upstate New York, where he was buried. Wheelock served as Dartmouth’s first president from 1769 until his death in 1779. 

Mohegans have long honored Occom, “a humble, international hero ... for his writing talents, his commitment to education and his elegant ability to walk from the wigwam of his birth onto the global stage ...,” said Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the Mohegans' medicine woman and historian. 

During Harris' first visit to Dartmouth, her father, Roland, a former Mohegan tribal chairman, advocated for greater recognition of Occom's role in the school's founding. About a decade later, in 2005, the elder Harris and other tribal members repeated the plea, leading to Dartmouth's digitization of the Occom papers.

Back on campus 17 years later, Sarah Harris found "that while progress had certainly been made ... it felt like little had meaningfully changed."

“Telling the truth of the college’s founding honors and gives life to Occom’s accomplishments and shows Native students that they are foundational to the school, not an afterthought,” Harris told the audience. “Truth, even and especially when it’s painful and difficult, is the birthplace of real, meaningful change.”

Harris serves on Dartmouth's Native American Visiting Committee, which pitched the repatriation of the Occom papers to the college's current president, Philip Hanlon, who took office in 2013.

James Gessner Jr., the current Mohegan tribal chairman, said the papers' return was a direct result of Harris' involvement, a pronouncement that prompted a standing ovation for Harris.

Hanlon presented Gessner with a box containing some of the more than 100 documents Dartmouth surrendered to the tribe, which will keep them at its Cultural Preservation Center opposite the Tantaquidgeon Museum on Church Lane. Hanlon said the trove includes the original writings of the scholarly Occom — letters, sermons and journals, some of which are the oldest remaining examples of Native writings.

In a 1771 letter, Hanlon said, Occom describes the “crushing disappointment” he felt upon learning of Wheelock’s betrayal, writing, “... All the glory had decayed and now I am afraid, we shall be deem’d as liars and deceivers in Europe ...”

“The anguish in the letter is palpable,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon acknowledged that for more than two centuries, Dartmouth did little to rectify its treatment of Occom’s legacy and accounts of the college's “duplicitous” founding. On its website, the college now reports it graduated only 20 Native American students between its founding in 1769 and 1970.

It has now graduated more than 1,200 Native Americans, Hanlon said.

Dozens of Dartmouth trustees, faculty members, staff members, students and alumni traveled to Mohegan for Wednesday's ceremony. Afterwards, Beth Regan, vice chairman of the tribe's elders' council, invited them to visit the Cultural Preservation Center and the Tantaquidgeon Museum, located a short distance from Mohegan Church.

In an exchange of gifts, Hanlon presented tribal officials with a commemorative bowl. Tribal officials wrapped him in a Mohegan blanket.

The repatriation comes less than two years after the Mohegans retrieved the diaries of Fidelia "Flying Bird" Fielding, another of the tribe's major historical figures, who died in 1908. The diaries — actually three notebooks and a copy of the Lord's Prayer written in Mohegan — are considered crucial to the tribe's preservation of the Mohegan-Pequot language.

Mohegan officials brought the diaries home from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., which had acquired them in 2004 as part of a major Native American collection.

In 2017, Yale University agreed to transfer to the tribe hundreds of Mohegan artifacts held by the school's Peabody Museum of Natural History.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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