Is Cherokee Bias Ingrained?
Today, we see bias and racism guiding the
Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Recently, the
Tribe ejected all members descended from the
Cherokee "Freedmen," people of color who had
been equal members of the tribe since 1866.
Most have some Cherokee blood, even though
the current leaders of the Cherokee Nation voted
to oust them.
Ironically, the Cherokee who redeveloped the Tribe after its 1838 Removal to the
Oklahoma Reservation, had a small amount of Cherokee blood. Chief John Ross was
only 1/8 Cherokee. Discrimination against full blood Cherokees kept many from
allowing their names placed on the Dawes Roll of 1906. This also excludes any of
their descendants. The Cherokee Nation says that Cherokees listed on Cherokee rolls,
other than the 1906 Dawes Roll, are not Cherokee enough to be admitted to the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
A look at the history of the Oklahoma Tribe shows that this bias was endemic to the
people who formed the Cherokee Nation after arriving in Oklahoma. Bias against
full-blood Cherokees, and darker skinned individuals was the norm.
Below is a photo of the Cherokee Female Seminary Drama Club who did a play called
"Blackface" in 1896.
The Cherokee Female Seminary
The Cherokee Female Seminary, a boarding school opened in 1851, was established by the
Cherokee Nation at Park Hill, Indian Territory, in order to provide high-quality education for
the young women of its tribe.
The curriculum was based on that of Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts,
and it offered no courses focusing on Cherokee culture. The seminary first opened in 1851, but
in 1887, it was destroyed by fire. Two years later, a larger, three-story seminary building was
erected on the outskirts of the Cherokee Nation's capital, Tahlequah (now Oklahoma).
A male seminary was built at the same time, three miles from the female seminary; it educated
Cherokee youth until it burned in 1910.
While the female seminary was indeed a positive influence on many of its pupils, there is much
evidence to suggest that the social atmosphere at the seminary was controlled by progressive,
educated, mixed-blood tribesmen, many of whom subscribed to the value system of the
upper-class antebellum South.
Most of the decisions regarding the establishment and running of the seminary were made by
the mixed-bloods of the tribe, and white men who had Cherokee spouses (who were also
The prime interest of these progressive tribal members was indeed education, but also the
proper "refinement" of their daughters so that they could serve as knowledgeable, but dutiful,
wives in the Cherokee Nation.
Another reason for the seminary was the acculturation of the poor, full-blood girls, but
apparently this idea did not come about until 1871, after the council was pressured by
disgruntled tribesmen to establish a "primary department" to provide education free of charge
to poorer full-blood children who could not afford the five-dollar-per-semester tuition. (From
1851 to 1856, tuition was free.)
The social aspects of the seminary are intriguing. Regardless of social, economic, and ancestral
backgrounds, all the girls (with the exception of a few white pupils and girls of other tribes)
identified themselves as Cherokees. Because of these socioeconomic differences, within the
seminary walls a definite class system evolved, creating tension much like that which existed
throughout the Cherokee Nation between the mixed-bloods and the fullbloods, between the
traditionalists and the progressives, and between those tribal members who were pro-slavery
and those who were not.
During the seminary's early years (1851-56), there was no tuition fee, but money undoubtedly
determined who entered the seminary. In the 1850s, according to the laws of the Cherokee
Nation, the only prerequisite for admittance was an acceptable score on the entrance
examination (except during the summer sessions, when all students paid) combined, perhaps,
with a first-come first serve priority. But daughters of politically prominent and affluent
families (Adair, Bushyhead, Hicks, McNair, Ross, Thompson, all with very little Cherokee blood,
many only 1/32 to 1/64 Cherokee were always enrolled).
These girls were from acculturated, educated households, and had already attended good public
schools, and had no difficulty passing the written examination. Most full-bloods who wanted to
enroll did not have the educational background that enabled them to pass the test. The schools
they attended in the distant reaches of the Cherokee Nation were not as well equipped as those
closer to the capital in Tahlequah, nor were there enough Cherokee-speaking teachers to help
them learn English.
In 1856, the seminary closed because of financial difficulties. After it reopened in 1872, the
enrollment situation changed somewhat, but money still gave students an advantage. Some
students who failed courses semester after semester were repeatedly granted re-admittance,
as long as they could pay the tuition.
M. Fry, Cherokee Female Seminary Years. 1988.
K.O. Ringland. Digest of the Education of the Cherokee Indians. 1939.
Wreath of Cherokee Rose Buds. v. 2, Anthropological Archives. 1855.
|Girls From the Cherokee Seminary Class of 1903
When I began to research this article, I noticed that the
photos of girls in the Seminary looked white, so I dug further.
This is what I found.