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Image and Reality


Ruth posing in the buckskin dress that she wore at her meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Courtesy of MHC Archives.

Cherokee traditional 'Tear' Dress.(39)


Appearance is not Everything: To the unsuspecting eye, the buckskin dress that Ruth is most famously known for wearing before and during her excursion to Washington D.C., is not what a Cherokee Indian would have been found wearing in their prior Georgian homeland hundreds of years ago, or even presently in Oklahoma Indian Territory. The dress that Ruth wore for her introduction to President Calvin Coolidge was a called, in an article published after her presentation by the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, a "symbol… of traditional craftsmanship of her race...made of buckskin and covered in ornate beaded designs."(21) The dress, described like the beaded cover of The Red Man in the United States, the book given to President Coolidge in 1923, were not actually crafted by Cherokees at all, but rather Cheyenne and Apache Indians.(22) According to the Cherokee Heritage Center, "elaborately beaded buckskin and feathered costumes were not the style of the Cherokee"(23) Traditional Cherokee women's' dresses were actually fashioned after white settlers' clothing in colonial Georgia. The Cherokee dresses were called Tear Dresses, named after their experience on the Trail of Tears in 1838, and made from cotton and hardly ever beaded. Ruth's choice of attire played into white Americans' conceptions of what an Indian should look like. The response to her image as a traditional Indian was seen in the articles published in conjunction with Ruth's trip to Washington.

Perception versus Reality: The language and diction that appears within the text of the story or in the headline in other articles published following Ruth's presentation, demonstrated a white American sentiment of the time. Phrases and tittles like "Indian Race,"(24)"An Indian Girl in the White House,"(25) and "Assimilation with White Race Forecast for Indian Woman"(26) show how those belonging to a different race, in the eyes of some white Americans, meant that they were drastically different and were in need of white cultural assimilation. These show that all of the Indians in the United States were thought of as one race, when in reality they are each their own separate entities with drastically different languages, cultures and national heritages. By choosing to wear a relic of multiple tribes Ruth played off of both sides of the assimilation coin the first side by playing into white culture's stereotype of Indian dress, while at the same time preaching the opposite message to the leader of the white american civilization. Ruth was not looking for a pan Indianism, but rather she wanted to let indians practice their own culture and heritage without white intervention, but she also realized that the effects of that intervention were by far, not all bad.

Success in Combating Cultural Assimilation: Ruth’s voice, amplified by the implications of her multi-tribal dress, now spoke for a larger group of Indians including tribes outside of the Cherokee Nation. Her image and ideas were no longer just a Cherokee archetype and as her work after Mount Holyoke College demonstrated, she continued to straddle the fence on ideas of assimilation and salvation of culture.


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This page was created by Melissa Joyce'08 in History 283, Spring Semester 2006 -