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Wilma's Talk at MHC

"What would have happened if Custer had been a woman?"(36)

Cherokee Roots: Wilma visited Mount Holyoke College on February 20th, 1987 to speak on behalf of her people as a part of the Weissman Center for Leadership’s symposium on “Woman in Charge.” During her talk she highlighted many important issues prevalent to the Cherokee Nation today, with its educational roots thousands of miles away in the small New England town of South Hadley.

Mount Holyoke College played a significant role in Cherokee history in Oklahoma according to Wilma who envisioned the Cherokee people firmly planted in their own culture while at the same time recognizing the importance of progress, education, and economic development that white culture and missionaries helped bring to the Tribe. In the twentieth century however, it was important to retain the language, culture, and heritage of the Cherokee Nation comprised of 75,000 members at the beginning of her chiefdom, 1,000 of which were still literate, and among which practiced the tribal religion.

Cultural Assimilation: Wilma recognized the benefits of an ongoing assimilation in a sense, but she also talked about how the 1909 Oklahoma statehood was a devastating blow to the Cherokee Nation as it redistributed land in allotments to tribal members imposing a new social problem. The change in structure of the government caused the Nation to withhold electing a chair in the past century, which the Cherokees adapted to. Wilma expressed the importance of education, just like at the Cherokee Female Seminary, and just as Ruth Muskrat did at Mount Holyoke College.

Some of the cultural assimilation of the seminaries and other outside parties had negative effects on the roles that women played in Cherokee society. Prior to the Cherokee involvement with missionaries and other white people in Georgia, women played a significant role in choosing young men to become chief. Although chiefs were always men, there were separate councils where women played influential roles. These women became referred to as ‘beloved women’ and the men sought their advice on important matters. Wilma went as far as to say it was a “petticoat government.” With the increase in white cultural assimilation, womens' roles evolved and changed because Cherokee saw American women in a secondary and inferior role and adopted this vision. As rejuvenation in their culture became more apparent the vision again began to change. According to Wilma, women are treated better now in the Cherokee Tribe, than they are world wide. As Wilma ran for Chief she encountered a demonstration of traditional culture; those members of the Cherokee Tribe who had gone back to their heritage and turned away from cultural assimilation supported the fact that she, a woman, was running for principal chief, reverting back to a day when women were a revered part of the tribe.

Education in the Cherokee Nation: Her success has led to young girls asserting that they too wanted to be Chief of the Cherokee Nation when they grew up, a sentiment that according to Wilma, had not been heard just five years before her election. In her position, Wilma wanted to continue to debunk stereotypes creating awareness surrounding the fact that there is no one person who represents a people and that there should be no iconic figure that walks around in buckskin. Although education was still an issue, Wilma acknowledged that of the fourteen counties in Oklahoma that the Cherokee Nation resides, there are regular rural schools and the Nation operates one boarding high school, in keeping with the Cherokee Female Seminary thinking: built by the Cherokees, for the Cherokees. The special political position that the Cherokee Nation holds currently, a nation within a nation, allows them to revitalize their own culture while at the same time sit on the economic fence, utilizing assimilation as a method of economic progress.(37)


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