"Caleb's Crossing": The story of Harvard's first Native American graduate
Almost 350 years ago, Harvard University graduated its first Native American student. Author Geraldine Brooks imagines his experience in the unfamiliar, Puritan culture of the university.
This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
Less than 30 years after the university was founded, Harvard graduated Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck -- a member of Martha's Vineyard's Wampanoag tribe. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks has just published her historical novel about the scholar, "Caleb's Crossing."
The young Native American attended Harvard's Indian College with a few other Native American students and graduated in 1665. Brooks explains that Cheeshahteaumuck probably didn't grow up around the English, but as an accomplished academic, he transitioned successfully into the elite world of educated colonials. By the time he completed his education, he wrote fluently in Latin and spoke Greek.
Harvard was a different school in Cheeshahteaumuck's time. Brooks describes the institution:
What Harvard was in those days, if you look at the founding document, it says, "Dedicated to the education of English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and Godliness." And this mission didn't really stick. As we know, Harvard became a place of great exclusion afterwards, but for a while, it was this inclusive place.
Initially, the school struggled financially. One of its financial resources was English backers interested in converting Native Americans to Christianity, and creating Native American ministers to return to their communities as leaders.
One of the author's challenges in writing "Caleb's Crossing" was deciding how to address the genocide that was in store for Cheeshahteaumuck's people.
We always have to see history backwards, because that's how it is. But it's interesting when you put yourself in the head of the people who don't know the future. Who have to live history forward. They're running forward into what will become our history. And they don't know.
And so it was a very interesting question to me as a novelist, of how far to take this story. You know, where do I take it? Do I just stop on the triumphant note of him making it through prejudice, having this incredible intellectual journey, this achievement, and triumphing, and becoming one of the most elite and most educated people of his time, or do I take it further, and be true to what happened next?
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