At Long Last, a Harvard Degree for Joel Iacoomes

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by Kenneth J. Cooper

Joel Iacoomes attended Harvard University back in the colonial era; he was one of the first American Indians to matriculate at America’s oldest college. Iacoomes, a member of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, was, by all accounts, a stellar student. His mastery of Latin, Greek and Hebrew made him a strong candidate to graduate first in his class. But not long before his scheduled graduation in 1665, Iacoomes, just 20 years old at the time, died tragically after robbers waylaid the boat he was aboard in coastal waters off Massachusetts. The degree he earned was not awarded—until this spring.

Harvard conferred the posthumous degree on Iacoomes 346 years after his death at its May 26 commencement. It was a doubly historic moment. His bachelor’s degree was accepted by Tiffany Smalley, who on the same day became the first Wampanoag tribe member to graduate from Harvard since Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a classmate of Iacoomes’, graduated in 1665.

“This is a beautiful thing,” says Dr. Patrik Johansson, a 2001 graduate of Harvard’s School of Public Health who is of Swedish, African-American and Cherokee descent.

Six years ago, Johansson triggered the review of centuries-old academic records that led to Iacoomes’ degree finally being granted. Johansson’s petition to give Iacoomes the posthumous degree prompted months of research in 2005 to determine whether Iacoomes had fulfilled all academic requirements.

Harvard’s records showed he had completed four years of rigorous, classical coursework. About that there was no question. But, in Harvard’s early decades, commencement was more than a ceremony—it was preceded by two weeks of oral exams in Greek and Latin.

The initial round of internal research determined it was unclear whether Iacoomes had gone through the oral exams before his death in the summer of 1665. Harvard decided not to award the degree in 2005 but said further research could make it possible.

“A considerable amount of research was needed to ascertain whether Iacoomes completed the academic requirements in effect for Harvard College students more than three centuries ago,” says Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin.

The Ivy League school has been moving to reinvigorate its relationship with American Indians who figured in its original mission. Founded in 1636, Harvard received a charter from the colonial Massachusetts Legislature in 1650 to provide for “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge and godliness.”

“I think the university’s granting of Mr. Iacoomes’ posthumous degree has the potential to generate positive momentum toward furthering Harvard’s commitment to Native American education,” Johansson says.

Iacoomes and the first official American Indian graduate, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, were enrolled in the Harvard Indian College. Native students attended tuition-free and lived in the college’s separate quarters but took the same course of study as White students. The Indian College was closed in 1698 and the building torn down.

In recent years, Harvard has vigorously recruited American Indians, who made up 2.7 percent of the freshman class last fall. An ongoing archaeological dig is being conducted around the foundation of the Indian College, where a traditional Wampanoag home called a wetu was built in April. Last December, a portrait of Cheeshahteaumuck was unveiled on campus.

When plans to award Iacoomes a posthumous degree were announced, Harvard President Drew Faust said the move reflected “a commitment to a diversity of students, a commitment to the communities in which the college was founded, and a commitment to the power of education to transform lives.”

Leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod praised the decision.

“It’s motivational for Wampanoags, and I think it’s motivational for Harvard. It builds on our relationship,” says Cedric Cromwell, chairman and president of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Johansson just happened to be in Boston when the announcement was made.

“I had a smile on my face the entire day,” he recalls. “To some individuals, the news brought tears of joy. I received an e-mail from a Wampanoag tribal elder, which simply stated, ‘I am so happy I’m crying!’” D

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