More than two centuries ago, a Mohegan Indian named Samson Occom made his way to England to preach the gospel and ask for money. His dream was to found a college exclusively for young American Indians.
Lord Dartmouth was one of those who listened - and Occom soon returned with 12,000 pounds (about $1.17 million in today's terms), enough to establish one of the finest schools in the colonies.Occom had become a Christian preacher after attending a school for American Indians in Connecticut run by Eleazar Wheelock and eagerly agreed to raise money when Wheelock won a land grant to set up a similar school in New Hampshire.
But when Occom returned in 1768 with such a considerable sum, his mentor reneged on his promise. Wheelock, Dartmouth's first president, made the Ivy League school a preserve for young white men.
Occom, feeling betrayed, turned over the money and left, never seeing the campus he had worked so hard to build.
"There was an injustice perpetrated on Occom and his people," said Lenore O'Jibway, a Dartmouth development official who is working to renew the college's ties to the Mohegan tribe and heal a wound that has festered for 225 years.
Today, Occom's portrait hangs over the fireplace in the Dartmouth College library. His Bible and writings are carefully stored there as well, and the town honored his memory with Occom Ridge Road and Occom Pond. But to people outside the Mohegan tribe, he remains a little-known figure.
Fascinated with the story, O'Jibway, a Sioux who is Dartmouth's assistant director of special gifts, decided on her own to rekindle ties with Occom's descendants. She took a personal day last summer and traveled to Montville, Conn., to meet with tribal elders.
"The first reaction was hurt," she said. "They said that whole experience had broken Samson Occom's spirit. . . . He went on to have nothing more to do with white people."
Occom continued his missionary work but only with other American Indians. And in Dartmouth's first 200 years, only 20 American Indians have attended - none of them Mohegans.
O'Jibway and the college are working to change that.
"We want to rebuild relations with the Mohegan tribe," O'Jibway said. "It's way overdue - centuries overdue."
In a telephone interview last week, Mohegan Chief Ralph Sturges said that while some elders still resent Occom's mistreatment, most welcome Dartmouth and its plans.
The 1,000-member tribe decided to break away from the Pequot tribe and cooperate with white colonists before Occom's time. Unlike the Pequots of today, who have made millions running a casino on tribal lands, most Mohegans live in humbler circumstances in towns in southeastern Connecticut.
John Sirois, head of Dartmouth's Native American program, said the college plans to recruit Mohegan students. There's also hope of sending Dartmouth students to help set up a tribal government, improve health care, conduct a census and do other research projects.
Dartmouth, which became coed in the 1970s, now has a 23-year-old Native American Program that graduates 75 percent of its American Indian students, compared with a national average rate of about 7 percent.