Dartmouth College to return Samson Occom papers to tribe

  • A letter from Samson Occom to his wife, Mary, in 1763, with instructions on how to manage their farm in his absence. Occom's papers are being repatriated from Dartmouth College to the Mohegans in an April 27, 2022, ceremony. (Courtesy Dartmouth Library)

  • Rauner Special Collections Library Rauner Special Collections Library

Valley News
Published: 4/5/2022 4:23:08 PM
Modified: 4/5/2022 4:22:42 PM

Dartmouth College will repatriate the papers of Samson Occom, a leading minister of the Great Awakening and a member of the Mohegan Tribe, to his homeland in Connecticut, announced by President Philip Hanlon last week.

“The Mohegan People believe that every object or writing holds within it the spirit of its maker. With the return of his papers, Occom is coming back to our homelands and our people,” said Sarah Harris, a Dartmouth alumna and the vice chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Council.

Harris is also a member of Dartmouth’s Native American Visiting Committee, which advises the president, proposed to Hanlon that Dartmouth repatriate the documents last year.

The documents’ return is a symbolic step towards redressing historical harm against Occom. He spent years fundraising in Europe to raise more than £9,494 for the preacher Eleazar Wheelock’s school for Native students, only to be betrayed.

When he returned from his trip, Occom discovered that not only had Wheelock failed to provide for his family as he had promised, but that the money would go towards a college in New England for the sons of white settlers.

“Without that funding, Wheelock would never have been able to put the institution together and make it into the college it became,” said Peter Carini, the College Archivist.

The collection is small, occupying about a foot and a half of shelf space, but it is a rich set of documents, Carini said.

For him, one letter stands out. In 1771, Occom wrote to Wheelock, describing the betrayal he felt in direct language unusual for the period.

“Your having so many white scholars and so few or no Indian scholars, gives me great discouragement,” he wrote. “I was quite willing to become a gazing stock, yea even a laughing stock, in strange countries to promote your cause … But when we got home behold all the glory had decayed and now I am afraid, we shall be deem’d as liars and deceivers in Europe, unless you gather Indians quickly to your College, in great numbers.”

Only 20 Native students graduated from Dartmouth College between 1769 and 1970.

The collection also includes a “herbal,” or handwritten record of medicinal plants; a Hebrew primer (Occom wrote in five languages — Greek, Latin, English, Mohegan and Hebrew); and some of the earliest instances of the written Mohegan language.

The documents are also critical for the tribe’s Mohegan Language Project, Harris said. The last Mohegan speaker died in 1908, and parents stopped passing the language on to their children because they were afraid of retribution by teachers in local schools. Occom’s letters will be a valuable tool for reviving the language.

In 1972, exactly 50 years ago, Dartmouth revived its commitment to educating Native American students and realizing Occom’s vision. More than 200 Indigenous students are currently enrolled at Dartmouth College, and more than 1,200 Indigenous students have graduated, wrote a spokesperson for the College.

Then, Native American students helped establish an interdisciplinary program for the study of tribal nations. Last July, the study of Native American and Indigenous Studies officially became a department.

“As we approached the 50th anniversary of our recommitment, there was a piece of unfinished business. We needed to reengage with the Mohegan Tribe and celebrate the contributions of Samson Occom,” said Bruce Duthu, an alumn and the chair of the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies.

It is important that Native students understand that “they were foundational to the institution,” even if it is a painful history, Harris said.

“If we don’t know how we got here, how can we know where we should be going? And for our people, the Mohegan Tribe, this reconciliation and the homecoming marks the beginning of a healing process and renews the shared bonds between the Tribe and the Dartmouth community,” she said.

President Hanlon will lead a delegation to Mohegan land in Connecticut for an April 27 repatriation ceremony at the Mohegan Church in Uncasville, Conn.

The paper’s permanent home will be in a Mohegan cultural center. Researchers will be able to access them on request, and the Tribe plans to expand its research space, Harris said. The Dartmouth College Library has also digitized handwritten documents by and about Samson Occom, which are available for free at library.dartmouth.edu/digital/digital-collections/occom-circle.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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