Our Search to Name the Native Women of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls

Elizabeth Bailey (Cherokee Nation, Choctaw)

Sara N. Beam

Midge Dellinger (Muscogee (Creek) Nation) 

Laura M. Stevens

Nevin Shane Subramanian

We are collaborative participants in an archival research project begun during the shut-down phase of the pandemic. Our authorial group includes two faculty at the University of Tulsa (TU), one current undergraduate student, one recent graduate, and an oral historian for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department. Four additional students have been part of or have just joined the group. Our task is to name and tell the stories of the Indigenous young women who attended the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls (PSIG), a residential school founded in 1882 by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, in Muskogee, Indian Territory. This school, which admitted its first students in 1885, was chartered in 1894 as Henry Kendall College, and in 1907, moved to the city of Tulsa, becoming TU in 1921. It was part of a network of settler-colonial missionary and educational projects across the United States, with administrators corresponding with each other, and with instructors and students sometimes moving between schools. Alice Robertson, the white child of missionaries to the Mvskoke (Muscogee) people, who was born in the Tullahassee Mission within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s post-removal boundaries, became the school’s founding director after working at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In comparison with more famous (and notorious) residential schools such as the Carlisle School, which over 10,000 Native children attended between 1879 and 1918, PSIG operated on a much smaller scale. Records indicate a student body of between fifteen and thirty in a given year, with students drawn primarily from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation but also from other nations forcibly removed to Indian Territory. We have to date found reference to forty-seven individuals described as students at or alumnae of the school. 

While later stages of our project will entail interviews with descendants of the school’s students along with research in federal and tribal archives, the first stage is focused on the Papers of the Worcester and Robertson Families, housed in TU’s McFarlin Library Special Collections. These papers, which fill sixty-six boxes and seventy-one linear feet, contain the records of a multi-generational missionary family, with a large portion of the documents written by or to Alice Robertson. An inherent irony of our research is that it brings us into frequent, direct, and troubled contemplation of the intersectional contexts of women’s writing and history. Most of our work so far has entailed combing through the prolific writings of a white woman who rose to national prominence as the second woman elected to the United States Congress (and incidentally a staunch opponent of women’s suffrage), in order to find any traces of the Native women ostensibly at the center of her educational work. Robertson refers to her students often, she expresses fondness for them, and her papers contain photographs of her with the students, but she rarely names or describes them with specificity. This juxtaposition of presence and absence is not unusual within the fundraising literature of Protestant missions, which often feature Native peoples as the sentimentalized objects of Christian charity, while erasing them as fully realized individuals with their own ideas, desires, and goals. 

Papers of the Robertson and Worcester families, 1815-1932, 1931-001. The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives.

Documentary and rare book research is traditionally a solitary enterprise, pursued in the quiet of rare book libraries and archives, or, in our more recent digital age, from the computer screen of one’s office or home. Our work on this project to date has both mitigated and intensified a sense of solitude for each of us during the pandemic. This project was conceptualized amidst the physical isolation that defined so much of our world in 2020. An improvised mix of video meetings, email conversations, phone calls, and joint writing activities fostered both peer and mentoring relationships in this environment, and in their own way these adaptations made us more creative in our approach to our topic. At the same time, we have had to acknowledge repeatedly that only so much collaboration and learning can take place when we’re physically separated, with a dense mix of excitement, frustration, and farce framing experiences like remote instruction over Facetime of an undergraduate working with nineteenth-century manuscripts for the first time. This unavoidable fragmentation of our collective enterprise poignantly resonates with the loneliness and alienation that we know marked so much of settler colonial educational initiatives for Native children and their families.

This history of the school is tightly intertwined with histories of land theft (including removal from ancestral homelands and the ensuing generational trauma experienced by Indigenous people), settler-colonial aggression, and the forced assimilation of Indigenous people involving the erasure of their cultures and identities. A timeline of Oklahoma history makes this intertwining clear, with the school chartered just before passage of the Dawes Act (which undermined Indigenous sovereignty through several measures, especially breaking up tribal land into individual allotments), with the school rechartered as Henry Kendall College the year after the Muscogee (Creek) Nation lost its excepted status under Dawes, and with the college moved to Tulsa in the year Oklahoma acquired statehood. Sifting through the archive requires contemplation of a rhetoric of civilizing savages, with a hierarchy of outcomes frankly envisioned for the students based on their complexion and blood quantum.

This kind of work has been hard for the project’s student researchers, most of whom are themselves enrolled members of Oklahoma-based nations. Even as they are learning the labor of archival research (deciphering handwriting, navigating finding aids, handling fragile documents, sorting through mounds of irrelevant material), they are confronting an insidious mix of condescension and cultural aggression that white missionaries directed at their own ancestors. The result is an intermittent reiteration of trauma. The conditions of the pandemic have made this kind of work even more stressful because of its necessary isolation, with Special Collections at first allowing only one researcher in the reading room at a time, and the group meeting only online. The collaboration has thus been an experience more of compartmentalized labor than an organically unified effort, and we look forward to a future when the group can gather together. 

The story of the school is not just one of colonial oppression and Indigenous victimhood, however. By the time of the school’s founding the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had been practicing their own ideas of educational sovereignty. It is telling that the Muscogee Examiners Board, an office of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Board of Education, had to certify Robertson before she was allowed to teach in the school. The archive also contains a plethora of Muscogee (Creek) Nation history, including a good number of documents written entirely in Mvskoke or in a mix of Mvskoke and English. The archive’s story is in part one of intercultural connections, showing how Robertson’s life became immersed in nineteenth-century Mvskoke ancestors’ lives and historical happenings within the Nation, with many letters between her and Mvskoke leadership. Students make appearances in the archive as individuals and occasionally as writers. The image below is a photograph of an honorifics exercise signed by “Lucy.” This particular image strikes us as representative of our entire project. A young woman has left this evidence of her presence, her education, her effort, her intelligence, her hand holding a pencil and moving it across this page. It is also evidence of a young Native woman’s acquisition of Anglophone literacy and assimilation to the rituals of an invading culture. Can we find her face in one of the class photos? Can we tell the story of her life, perhaps connect with her descendants? As we search for information about the students, we struggle to uncover their erasure, while consciously wrestling with the notion of education as both threatening and enabling cultural survival. 

Papers of the Robertson and Worcester families, 1815-1932, 1931-001. The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives.

This project isn’t solely based on grasping facts but also on acknowledging the deep histories and truths that lay at their foundations. As we work, we each find ourselves, from our various subject positions, contemplating the larger significance of our efforts within the still-unfolding history of settler-colonialism and Indigenous survivance. Collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are critical to truth-finding and the hope of reconciliation for those historically erased from the world we all live in. Before the fall of 2020, the story of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls and its Indigenous students remained silent, sitting on the shelves. Our work is proceeding with the approval of TU’s administration, with our university’s president Brad Carson supporting us as a commentator on a recent conference panel presentation. In giving this story life, we seek to tell truths and right wrongs in a collective and respectful manner. Working directly with a liaison from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department has afforded the students and faculty involved with the project an increased level of connection to and understanding of Mvskoke peoples, language, and history. At the same time, we have learned that while the story of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls is a significant piece of Mvskoke history, documents supporting its existence are very hard to find within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Library and Archives. It is thus a diminished story within the Mvskoke historical narrative and record. Because of collaborative efforts between TU and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a complete index of the collection has been shared with the Muscogee (Creek) National Library and Archives for use by staff and citizens. We proceed in our work with the awareness that this archive’s meaning does not belong to TU. This realization enriches our understanding of what it means to live, teach, and learn on Mvskoke land. It also deepens our conviction that this work cannot be done without developing lifelong relationships. 

Limited access to the archive—with occasional closures of Special Collections due to Covid-19 exposures—reminds us that these materials are precious. The slow pace at which the pandemic has forced us to work renders us aware of how delicate the lives of elders and infants are, indeed how fragile the documents of history and the threads of historical narrative are. The project moves on, slowly but assuredly, as we seek to bring these overlooked young women into the light of public awareness, learning and telling their stories. 

A note on terminology:

“Mvskoke” is one of the traditional, non-Anglicized spellings of the more widely known “Muscogee.” We use it here to describe the language, people, and culture. 

“Muscogee (Creek) Nation” is the constitutional name of the Muscogee government and nation. We use it here to describe the government or specific offices.

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