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After 200 years, Dartmouth returns papers of Native American who helped establish the college

Occom Papers Repatriation Ceremony
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
The Unity of Nations drum group plays a traditional Mohegan song before a repatriation ceremony at the Mohegan Congregational Church in Uncasville, Conn. After more than 200 years, Dartmouth College has returned the handwritten papers of 18th-century Mohegan scholar Samson Occom to the Mohegan Tribe.

This is the story of a betrayal that happened 200 years ago and a step today toward reconciliation.

Born in 1723, Samson Occom was the first Native American student of the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock. Occom was a gifted writer and orator, and he became a minister. In the 1760s, at Wheelock’s urging, Occom traveled to Europe to raise funds for what he believed would be a school in Connecticut for Native students.

But not long after his return, he learned that Wheelock diverted the funds to the founding of a school in New Hampshire that catered to the sons of white settlers. It became Dartmouth College.

The Mohegan Tribe long wanted the college to return a collection of Occom’s handwritten papers.

Dartmouth recently returned the documents during a repatriation ceremony in Connecticut.

Occom Papers Repatriation Ceremony
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Chief Many Hearts Dr. Lynn Malerba and Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel of the Mohegan Tribe drape a custom Mohegan Pendleton blanket over Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon during a repatriation ceremony where handwritten papers of 18th-century Mohegan scholar Samson Occom were returned to the tribe.

At the ceremony, members of the Mohegan Tribe and Dartmouth officials sat under an open tent.
Sarah Harris, vice chairwoman of the Tribal Council and a Dartmouth graduate, spoke to those gathered. She said for decades the Mohegans had asked Dartmouth to honor Occom’s role in the school’s history.

“Hundreds of years of not telling Occom’s story has denied both Native and non-Native students and the larger community the truth of Dartmouth’s founding,” she said.

Occom Papers Repatriation Ceremony
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Sarah Harris, vice chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Council, stands for a portrait in the Mohegan Congregational Church in Uncasville, Conn. Harris, a Dartmouth alum, has pushed for decades to get the school to recognize the role of Samson Occom in the founding of Dartmouth.

As Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon prepared to repatriate the documents, he read from a 1771 letter Occom wrote to Wheelock about the betrayal.

“Your having so many white scholars and so few or no Indian scholars gives me great discouragement. And now I am afraid we shall be deemed as liars and deceivers in Europe.”

Occom’s papers include letters, diaries, sermons and a page of indigenous herbal remedies. He wrote in five languages: Mohegan, English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Dartmouth experts say the collection is one of the earliest examples of written Mohegan language.

Hanlon acknowledged it took too long for the papers to return to Mohegan land.

“But they are here now, accompanied by the spirit of Samson Occom that lives with them,” he said.

Jane Fawcett got emotional as she described what the day meant to her. Fawcett is a Mohegan “nonner” — or honored grandmother — and grew up on Occom's homestead.

Occom Papers Repatriation Ceremony
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Jane Fawcett, 86, former vice chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribe, stands for a portrait after a repatriation ceremony where handwritten papers of 18th-century Mohegan scholar Samson Occom were returned to the tribe. Fawcett grew up on the site of Occom's home.

“Samson Occom was very important to me,” she said. “He inspired me to go to college. … I'm sorry; I don't usually break down.”

For two centuries, Dartmouth did little to honor its founding purpose. Fewer than 20 Native American students got Dartmouth degrees between 1769 and 1969. In 1970, the school began actively recruiting. About 1,200 Native Americans have graduated since.

Mohegan leaders say the ceremony marks the start of a different relationship with Dartmouth, now that Occom’s papers are back home.

A page from the back of Samson Occom’s Hebrew primer, written by Occom in the Mohegan language (left), and a portrait of Samson Occom
Dartmouth Library
/
Dartmouth Library
A page from the back of Samson Occom’s Hebrew primer, written by Occom in the Mohegan language (left) and a portrait of Samson Occom (both photographs courtesy of Dartmouth Library)

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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