Native American history on the Hill

Assistant Professor of History Daniel Tortora said that Native American cultures have never been a major concern for the College, despite the best efforts of organizations such as Four Winds. Eoin McCarron ’13 and Lindsay Peterson ’13, working with Tortora, researched the history of Native Americans on the Hill in an attempt to draw attention to what Tortora called “a dismissed, maybe misunderstood minority on Mayflower Hill.”

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Colby Outing Club hosted Chief Henry Red Eagle for multiple lectures. Red Eagle was a Native American actor and outdoor enthusiast who came to the College to try to change the opinions that students held about Native American people.

“Colby was not a beacon of multiculturalism at this time, [but] Red Eagle enriched the lives of those who witnessed his talk,” McCarron said. Nevertheless, McCarron explained that “many students probably saw him as an oddity,” and his talks most likely did not change the overall perception of Native Americans for many students.

At one point, McCarron said, Foss Hall held a banquet with a Native American princess. McCarron added that a College taskforce met in 1999 and decided that administrators “needed to be given professional diversity training,” but such efforts have done little to eliminate misunderstandings of Native Americans on the Hill.

McCarron finished his portion of the presentation by emphasizing Chief Red Eagle’s message that understanding other cultures and open-mindedness must remain important to students today. Peterson focused her segment of the presentation on the experiences of Native American students at the College and some specific incidents of bias by students against Native Americans over the years.

Peterson said that even the Echo has been guilty of some insensitivity. She said that an editorial in the Echo during the 2003-04 academic year “compared overzealous classmates to Pueblo warriors.”

The College also has very little recognition of Native Americans in its curriculum, mainly because many professors who had contributed to the Indigenous Studies minor retired in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, effectively canceling the minor. Native Americans are also underrepresented in the student body. In their research, Tortora, McCarron and Peterson found that there are only “27 living alumni and a handful of current students that actually claim Native American descent,” which makes for only 0.2 percent of all living alumni. The national average at colleges and universities is a one-percent Native American population, with a population of up to two or three percent at some colleges. Many of those alumni did not want to talk about their time on the Hill or indicated some regrets about their experience. However, some Native American alumni did enjoy their time at the College and worked hard to make the community better.

Andrea Bear ’67, one the College’s first Native American students, worked hard to raise awareness of Native American cultures in Maine and beyond. Henry Sockbeson ’73 was another “one of the few Native Americans who had an overwhelmingly positive experience here at Colby,” Peterson said. After receiving a degree in government from the College, Sockbeson went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is now working as a tribal lawyer. More recently, Kelsey Potdevin ’09, a Native American from Alaska, participated in the Alternative Spring Break trip to the Wabanaki reservation, where she was very popular with the Native American children.

Tortora said that, despite the positive experiences of some Native American students, the College has yet to do enough to make their education as productive and welcoming as possible. Tortora also said, “In most aspects of life, we found that they face the same problems that other Colby students face.” However, Tortora, McCarron and Peterson found that Native American students face these problems without the same resources that other students use. The presenters emphasized that there is hope that the College could become a more inviting place for Native American students, but the problem can only be solved if the College supports Native American students and adds classes to the curriculum to increase understanding of Native American cultures.


Indians at Colby: Timeline

Lindsay Peterson ‘13
Daniel J. Tortora, Assistant Professor of History

Andy_Bear_66Andy Bear ’66, a member of the ski team here at Colby, spent each of her Jan Plans doing field work among the Wabanaki Indians.  During her second year at Colby, she studied the contemporary struggles of the Maliseet band.  During her junior year she joined the Maine State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.  She did field work among the Passamaquoddy and later shared her findings in legislative hearings in Augusta.  Bear also oversaw student visits to the tribal reservations and raised awareness in Maine and beyond for Wabanaki struggles.[1]  Bear (now Bear-Nicholas), a Maliseet language expert, currently works as a professor and department chair of Native Studies at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada. She is a prominent example of alumni who carried their passions with them after graduation.  And her current work fulfills Colby’s precept of exploring the relationship between academics and “one’s responsibility to contribute to the world beyond the campus.”[2]

Henry_Sockbeson_73Henry J. Sockbeson, an enrolled member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, is one of the few Native alumni who had an overwhelmingly positive experience at Colby. Sockbeson found Colby academically challenging initially and almost failed Spanish in his first semester, but rebounded in his second semester to make the Dean’s List.  He remembered, “Just to perfect matters finals were upon us and the girl I was dating all that first semester broke up with me just prior to finals.”[3]  Sockbeson graduated in 1973 with a degree in government.

Three years later, he graduated from Harvard Law School.  He was the first Wabanaki to do so. Sockbeson has given his life’s work to the struggle for tribal land claims, sovereignty, and religious and voting rights.  He has served Colby as an overseer, head class agent, and January internship sponsor.  He earned Colby’s Distinguished Alumnus/a Award in 2008.  He has since returned to campus to speak to prospective Wabanaki high school students. Today Sockbeson is a justice on the Mashpee Wampanoag Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts.  His experience at Colby both underscores the fact that Native students have lived much like other students, but that they contended with homesickness and isolation a little more than most.  It also highlights the possibility for careers in tribal law that students today are often unaware of.  Several Native American alumni have pursued careers in tribal law.[4]

[1] Echo, March 23, 1963, p. 7, March 15, 1965, p. 4, May 6, 1966, p. 3-4.

[2] “About Academics: The Colby Plan,”, accessed November 4, 2012; “Native Studies [At St. Thomas University],”, accessed November 3, 2012.

[3] Oracle, 1973, p. 156; Henry Sockbeson ‘73, email, February 24, 2012.

[4] Gale Courey Toensing, “A Modern Day Warrior,” Indian Country Today Media Network, October 3, 2008,, accessed November 13, 2012.


See also Unsettled: Triumph and Tragedy in Maine’s Indian Country. Portland Press Herald. 2014