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Mount Holyoke's Cherokee Connection

From Assimilation to Cultural Revival


The Cherokee Female Seminary built in 1847 at the Park Hill Mission Station, Oklahoma. Courtesy of University Archives, Northeastern State University,
Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Ruth Muskrat, Class of 1925 dressed in college attire. Courtesy of MHC Archives.

Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Courtesy of MHC Archives

The Connection Begins:The connection between Mount Holyoke College and the Cherokee Nation officially began in 1850 when two highly respected tribal leaders, with guidance from their Christian missionary counterparts, traveled to South Hadley in order to survey the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for its use as an example for their implementation of a similar institution in Park Hill Mission Station in Oklahoma. At that time eagerness for assimilation, especially among the wealthy Cherokees, looked like the best option for continuing prosperity within the rapidly advancing white American world. The Cherokee Female Seminary offered education and piece of mind for the Cherokee Nation. The school was established by the Cherokees and for Cherokees, unlike those set up by the federal government, whose institutions left even less room for appreciation of Cherokee culture.

A Cherokee Student at Mount Holyoke: Some eighty years later, Ruth Muskrat, an already distinguished Cherokee woman, received a full scholarship to Mount Holyoke College and continued living a life which engaged two different cultures, one of her Cherokee ancestors and one of white assimilation. She used her cultural position to gain support for her cause of solidarity while at Mount Holyoke. After graduating, she taught at an Indian high school and later served on the American Board of Indian Affairs, attempting to preserve her culture while simultaneously encouraging Indian youth to reach towards goals of higher education.

The Legacy Continues:The Cherokee connection continued into the 1980s when the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, came to Mount Holyoke College as a participant in the Weissman Center for Leadership’s ‘Women in Charge: Public and Private Faces’. In her talk, ‘The Changing Role of the American Indian Woman,’ she discussed the challenges of fostering progress and participating in economics while retaining Cherokee culture and heritage.Each of these figures: the Cherokee Female Seminary, Ruth Muskrat, and Wilma Mankiller, played an important role in demonstrating that the Cherokees’ first desired assimilation and acceptance among white Americans. The Cherokees then realized the strength of their position and that sentiment slowly turned to a push for the rejuvenation of a cultural heritage through education and independence. These advances continued, aspiring towards a successful Cherokee Nation embodying traditional culture and modern development within a solid and complex identity.

View a timeline of the connections between Mount Holyoke College and the Cherokee Nation



Atlas Home Page Timeline The Cherokee Female Seminary Ruth Muskrat Wilma Mankiller
This page was created by Melissa Joyce '08 in History 283, Spring Semester 2006 -