TVLSE, Oklahoma – Indian Boarding Schools have become a solemn topic of conversation within the past few years. Although the existence of the schools was well known, the extent of the abuse and trauma experienced by Indigenous Students at some of these schools were not. A recent report by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs last May identified over 400 Indian Boarding Schools in operation between 1819 and 1969. One of those schools included the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, established in 1882 in what was called Indian Territory.
According to Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department Oral Historian Midge Dellinger, the school was originally founded by members of the Prebyterian Church and enrolled young Muscogee Women until 1894.
“It is the precursory, educational institution for the University of Tulsa,” Dellinger said. “In my mind this small, Indigenous Girls’ Boarding School is in actuality at the core of Tulsa University’s 128 year history and existence.”
Over the course of the following century the tiny school underwent changes. Originally it was located in what is now present-day Muskogee. It would later become a charter school, renamed Henry Kendall College. At the inception of statehood in 1907 Henry Kendall College packed their school bags and relocated north. It would undergo one last name change to reflect the city it now resides in: Tulsa.
“From an Indigenous Perspective this is a really big deal and it’s the truth,” Dellinger said. “So many people don’t know this history because it has not been given its proper place in the history of the University of Tulsa”
TURC and MCN collaboration
This footnote in history would be revisited by Dr. Laura Stevens, Department Chairperson, and Chapman Professor of English at TU. Dr. Stevens assembled a team of faculty and students to study the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls for the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) in 2020. Of which, primary sources were found in TU’s own special collections archives.
“The project is to research, learn about and honor the young women and girls,” Dr. Stevens said.
Dr. Stevens would invite Dellinger to collaborate as a researcher and liaison to the MCN.
“It is a fantastic opportunity to illuminate a significant, yet diminished piece of Tulsa University history,” Dellinger said. “This project is meaningful because in this country we have a long standing and very colonized white settler U.S. historical narrative, and seemingly pushed down into the dredges of this narrative are the silenced voices and histories of everyone else.”
Dellinger and Dr. Stevens would be joined by Dr. Stevens’ colleague, Applied Assistant Professor of English at TU Dr. Sara Beam.
“By having a conversation over these artifacts and opening up access to them is to build a relationship again or emphasis that we do and should have a relationship with Muscogee Nation,” Dr. Beam said. “It’s the prime setting for rich academic engagement, community conversation and influence toward change.”
Artifacts and primary resources from the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls are found at TU’s McFarlin Library. It is characterized by a series of layered hallways and ornate study rooms. The TU Special Collections Archive Room sits in a temperature controlled environment, its contents protected from the elements. The room is only accessible by department members and invited guests.
“When it comes to projects like this, Indigenous Peoples are not always given the opportunity to be part of the research,” Dellinger said. “Over the course of two years we have had four to five graduate students that have volunteered their time.”
Two of those students included undergraduate researchers Elizabeth Bailey (Cherokee & Choctaw Nations) and Alexandria Toyfoya (Cherokee Nation). Both hold the subject matter with the utmost respect and reverence because they have relatives that once attended residential schools.
“It very deeply, and emotionally affected me,” Toyfoya said. “I want to provide that sense of comfort for families who did have family members who went to that school.”
Toyfoya and Bailey primarily worked in special collections. Their main task was identifying students that attended the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls.
“It’s a rather emotional type of research, especially being native and knowing the reason I don’t speak Choctaw is because my great-grandparents went to residential or boarding schools,” Bailey said.
Day to day operations
When discussing the details of boarding school operations, it is a topic that requires tact. While some former boarding school students have reported positive accounts, others have reported abuse, violence and forced cultural assimilation. Some former boarding schools have made headlines for mass graves discovered in their own backyard. Dellinger reports the operations at the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls were a genuine effort to educate.
“Nothing has come to the surface to indicate that the students at this school, the girls at this school were mistreated or abused in any way,” Dellinger said.
When the research group initially dove into researching the boarding school, they were well aware of the possibility they might uncover horrors within its history.
“In full honesty I had already mentally prepared myself for that right when I started because usually a lot of boarding schools at that time were just labeled as boarding schools but had ulterior motives,” Toyfoya said. “I knew fully well if I entered this project I had to be prepared for the worst.”
According to the research group, an integral part of the school’s operations was a missionary teacher named Alice Robertson. Born in 1854 to non-Native settlers, Robertson’s contributions to Indigenous Education could be attributed to her upbringing within the Muscogee Reservation.
“Roberston lived a very colorful life. She was involved in a lot of different things,” Dellinger said. “Specifically missionwork, education and later in her life politics.”
Robertson would go on to serve as the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma. From Robertson’s collection, the research group was able to get a clear picture of what life was like attending the school. According to Dellinger, these artifacts are important to understanding Robertson’s work with the school, as well as her work with Muscogee Political Leaders.
“Robertson may have been a little bit of a pack rat,” Dellinger said with a grin. “But that’s a good thing right? Because now we have this amazing archive, her collection that contains all of these historical materials. This collection is really important to the Muscogee Creek Nation.”
The analyzed artifacts included photographs, paper homework assignments and advertisement brochures. According to Dr. Beam, the group analyzed somewhere between 13-20 bins of documents, the entire collection is comprised of 66 bins.
“It’s like you’re going through someone’s personal text messages and emails on their desktop,” Toyfoya said. “I’m literally going through this woman’s life, years of her work, stuff she saved. Sometimes it’s silly things like little tickets to football games, or brochures to meetings in Congress.”
According to Dr. Beam, the artifacts analyzed do not reveal a great deal about the individual students that attended the school. It does however provide a glimpse into their day to day activities. One of the primary functions of research is making connections across the artifacts.
“We’re pulling names as much as we can and creating a giant spreadsheet and cross referencing across documents and time periods,” Dr. Beam said.
Although the fact that TU originated as a boarding school may not be considered common knowledge, it is information that has been available to the public. An acknowledgement of the school’s origins can currently be found on the official university website.
Indian Boarding School Research moving forward
Proper Indian Boarding School Research has also garnered national attention. Two bills in Congress have been introduced; US Senate Bill S. 2907 and House Bill H.R 5444. Both would establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies. The Biden Administration has stated it supports legislation on Indian Boarding School Research.
“It’s really been ignored for way too long, it’s still being ignored. A lot of this stuff is difficult to discuss and talk about,” Toyfoya said. “It’s hard for the victims of the schools and their descendents. It’s hard for them to heal from that.”
In the meantime local efforts to research boarding schools continue. According to Dellinger, the Presbyterian Boarding School for Indian Girls research project is still ongoing. The purpose of the project is to spread knowledge that was previously not well known.
“At the core of this project’s mission is to identify the students by their names, and tribal affiliation so that we can give these students the proper recognition and honor that they deserve,” Dellinger said. “This project is moving forward with the hope that we can make some connections between these students and their living descendents.”
The project is more than just an academic endeavor, it’s a quest to make genuine connections from the past to the present.
“As we learn more and as our project we hope grows, we can on the one hand give some information about ancestors to members of the Muscogee Creek Nation and probably members of other neighboring nations,” Dr. Stevens said.
At this stage in the research Dr. Beam said they are ready to take oral accounts from those who may know more about the school.
“Some signals someone might look for might be that a relative attended a boarding school for girls in Muskogee between 1885-1895. They might have heard it referred to as the Presbyterian School or the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. They might have also heard it referred to as the Minerva Home,” Dr. Beam said.
To pragmatically achieve their goal of making these connections, Dellinger said there are plans to develop a website to share findings and allow others to engage with the project.
If you have relatives that attended the Presbyterian School of Indian Girls in Muskogee and would like to share your accounts, contact Midge Dellinger at DDellinger@muscogeenation.com.
(This story has been revised due to previous spelling and grammatical errors.)