Accepted: First Wampanoag tribe member to attend Harvard Law School

May 12, 2021

Dartmouth daughter Samantha Maltais has earned a full scholarship  as well as some media attention — as the first member of the Wampanoag tribe to attend Harvard Law School.

Maltais, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, is the daughter of former Dartmouth resident and current Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Cheryl Andrews-Maltais and the granddaughter of Dartmouth resident and Wampanoag tribe member Edith Andrews.

She will be attending the prestigious graduate school starting this fall with a full three-year scholarship from the American Indian College Fund, and has spoken on MSNBC and NPR about her plans to use the law degree to help uplift Native people.

I’m just so incredibly grateful for all the opportunities that have been afforded to me,” Maltais told MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell on his show The Last Word on May 5.

Harvard University was established in 1636 and notes in its charter that its purpose is to educate “English and Indian youth in this country”.

According to a press release from the College Fund, although the first Native Harvard graduate was a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, no Wampanoag person has yet graduated from Harvard law school.

The release stated that when Maltais learned she was invited for an interview, she immediately called her grandmother, Dartmouth resident Edith Andrews, to share the news.

“Her voice broke over the phone,” Maltais said. “But she wasn’t emotional because I received the invitation. She was emotional because, for the first time, someone from her family dared to believe they belonged there.”

“A law degree from Harvard will mean more than just what I can achieve myself. It will mean helping design a future where Tribal youth can imagine themselves at the university’s law school…a future where Native women and girls can see that they belong side by side with some of the nation’s brightest legal minds. It means a step towards healing for my community and inspiring generations to follow,” she said.

Maltais’ mother and her father, Daniel Maltais, raised her in Wampanoag culture and traditions.

A member of the Wolf Clan, she said the matriarchs in her family have fought for the rights of her Tribal people since “contact.”

Yet, she said of her matrilineal line, “None before me had the opportunity to fight with a legal education behind them. For generations, they were forced to rely on strangers to debate our past, present, and futures in the courtroom — strangers who held our sovereignty in their hands, knowing it means nothing to them but the world to us.”

Chairwoman Andrews-Maltais said, “We always knew we had the first American Indian graduates from Harvard. In our community, it has always been a tremendous source of pride to have this distinction...Samantha will be the first member of our tribe to attend Harvard Law School, and to have her be admitted is such a wonderful achievement.”

Maltais told O’Donnell that the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah is still fighting in federal courts for the right to economic development.

Federal laws and case precedents were “designed to eliminate us systematically when they were written,” she said. “And they get cycled through generations — the language changes a little bit, but that same sentiment remains.”

“It’s an issue of injustice,” she added.

The youth also noted on the cable network show that May 5 is the national day of awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

“That is just one legacy of colonialism that has manifested so tragically in our communities,” she said. “And it’s a part of this broken justice system.”

“That’s one of the many reasons that I’d like to pursue a legal career so that I can address that for future generations,” she added.

Maltais completed her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College in 2018 as an American Indian College Fund Full Circle Scholar.