BOSTON History was made Thursday at Harvard University’s 360th commencement exercises.
For the first time in nearly 350 years, the school awarded an undergraduate degree to a member of the Wampanoag tribe, as Tiffany Smalley graduated with a degree in government.
That makes the 22-year-old the first member of the Wampanoag tribe to graduate from Harvard College since Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. In 1665, he became the school’s first-ever Native American graduate.
Smalley’s family and leaders of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard were looking on as Smalley also accepted a second diploma — a posthumous degree for Caleb’s classmate and fellow Wampanoag, Joel Iacoomes, who died in a shipwreck shortly before graduation.
Smalley says Iacoomes’ degree comes after seven denials from Harvard over the years.
“With the granting of Joel’s posthumous degree I think it’s a huge 180,” she said. “Within the past year especially, I’ve seen a lot of initiative on the part of the university to really celebrate this history.”
Smalley says she intends to move back home one day, to live permanently with her tribe in Aquinnah. But first she wants to learn as much as she can. She’s most interested in historic preservation and economic sustainability.
“I want to make any impact, any positive impact that I can make in my community,” she said. “I, at the very least, I just want to serve as proof that we are still here and that we’re thriving and surviving as a people.”
Smalley moves to Washington, D.C., in August to work for a year as a legislative fellow at the National Congress of American Indians.