New faculty: Patricia Dawson

Patricia Dawson, new faculty in history at Mount Holyoke College, researches history through an Indigenous lens, looking at material culture.

For Patricia Dawson, researching and teaching history is more than a profession — it’s a part of her culture and her DNA. Dawson is the great-great-great-grandniece of Rachel Caroline Eaton, a historian who was the first Native American woman to earn a Ph.D., which she received from the University of Chicago in 1919.

As a child, she listened as her elder relatives passed down stories about their family and culture. “In Cherokee culture, women are often the ones to tell the histories,” she said. “I think that is where a lot of my love for history came about as well as [my awareness of] the importance of telling those stories to future generations.”

Dawson’s research mainly focuses on Cherokee women, and she believes the work she does to be a commission from her elders. Part of her responsibility to her community is to ensure the history of these women is archived and remains part of present historical content.

One of the ways she does this is by researching history through an Indigenous lens, looking at material culture. Material culture goes beyond studying written documents. In Cherokee history, textiles, clothing and beadwork reveal stories that are deeper than just artistic expression. Women were and remain at the forefront of this style of storytelling, and many Cherokee women are responsible for making the material culture she analyzes.

One Cherokee concept that informs Dawson’s work is ᏚᏳᎪᏛ, or duyukdv, which translates to the right path or having a straight heart and is used in Cherokee diplomacy. This phrase is the title of her doctoral dissertation, which she is currently expanding into a book. The book explores the story of Cherokee history through clothing — in particular, the use of clothing as tools to express identity, resistance and diplomacy.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Cherokee women were transforming their economy through cotton cloth production, and they did it in a much more humane way than the slave labor camps that came after,” she said. “If we look at what the Cherokee were doing, we can see a much better way of practicing agriculture in the economy, one that also centers women, which I think tells a powerful story of the south and southeast.”

Teaching at Mount Holyoke aligns with Dawson’s affinity for sharing stories and being part of a diverse atmosphere that affirms women.

“Cherokee is a matrilineal culture, meaning you belong to the nation. You belong to your mother’s clan. There’s a long history of women teaching the next generation of women,” she said. “The idea of a women’s college that is gender diverse really appealed to me for that reason, because I wanted to at least try to replicate some of the education that I grew up with.”

This semester Dawson will teach History of Turtle Island: Introduction to Native North America and is looking forward to helping her students think about the future and how they can contribute to the next generation.

“In a lot of native cultures, there’s this idea of seven generations thinking, to think about seven generations in the past and seven generations in the future,” she said. “To help students as they’re thinking about not only who they are becoming and what they are doing but also how they are also going to be shaping the future for coming generations is exciting.”

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