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Dartmouth returns the papers of an 18th century Mohegan scholar to the tribe

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This next story is one of betrayal and steps toward reconciliation. In the 18th century, a scholar worked to raise money to build a college for Native American students like him, but the money was diverted to establish the Ivy League Dartmouth instead. Connecticut Public Radio's Diane Orson reports.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Born in 1723, Samson Occom was the first Native American student of the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. Occom was a gifted orator and 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ORSON: Members of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut chant a traditional song before the start of a repatriation ceremony. Guests include Dartmouth officials and Mohegan families.

Sarah Harris is vice chairwoman of the Tribal Council and a Dartmouth graduate. She says for decades, the Mohegans asked Dartmouth to honor Occom's role in the school's history.

SARAH HARRIS: 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.

ORSON: The Mohegans also called on the college to return a collection of Occom's handwritten papers. As Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon prepares to hand them over, he reads from a 1771 letter Occom wrote to Wheelock about the betrayal.

PHILIP HANLON: (Reading) 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.

ORSON: 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 it's one of the earliest examples of written Mohegan language. President Hanlon acknowledges it took too long for the papers to return to Mohegan land.

HANLON: But they are here now, accompanied by the spirit of Samson Occom that lives with them.

ORSON: Jane Fawcett gets emotional as she describes what the repatriation ceremony means to her. Fawcett is a Mohegan nonner, or honored grandmother, and grew up on Occom's homestead.

JANE FAWCETT: Samson Occom was very important to me, actually. He was - he inspired me to go to college. I'm sorry. I don't usually break down.

ORSON: 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. And Mohegan leaders say today's ceremony marks the start of a different relationship with Dartmouth, now that Samson Occam's papers are back home.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.