“This story does deserve to be remembered and included in the narrative of Tulsa University, Muscogee Creek Nation History, and Indigenous Boarding School History,” – Midge Dillinger
Byline: Jerrad Moore/Multimedia Producer, Braden Harper/Reporter
TVLSE, Oklahoma – Indian Boarding Schools have become a solemn topic of conversation within the past few years. A recent Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs report 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 Indian Territory. 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 was not.
According to Muscogee (Creek) Nation Oral Historian Midge Dillinger, the school was initially founded by members of the Presbyterian Church and enrolled young Muscogee Women until 1894.
“It is the precursory educational institution for the University of Tulsa,” Dillinger said. “In my mind, this small, Indigenous Girls’ Boarding School is at the core of Tulsa University’s 128-year history and existence.”
Over the course of the following century, the tiny school changed. 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 its 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 huge deal, and it’s the truth,” Dillinger 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
Dr. Laura Stephens, a faculty professor of English and creative writing at T.U, would revisit this footnote in history. Dr. Stephens assembled a team of faculty and students to study at the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls for the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) in 2021. Of which, primary sources were found in T.U.’s special collections archives.
“The project is to research, learn about and honor the young women and girls,” Dr. Stephens said.
Dr. Stephens invited Dillinger to collaborate as a researcher and liaison to the MCN. When she was asked to collaborate on the project, Dillinger beamed at the opportunity to work with the research group.
“It is a fantastic opportunity to illuminate a significant yet diminished piece of Tulsa University History,” Dillinger 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.”
Dillinger and Dr. Stephens would be joined by Dr. Stephens’ colleague, fellow English Professor Dr. Sarah Beam. Inviting an MCN historian into T.U.’s archives was a profoundly symbolic gesture.
“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 T.U.’s McFarlin Library. It is characterized by a series of layered hallways and ornate study rooms—the T.U. Special Collections Archive Room sits in a temperature-controlled environment, its contents protected from the elements. The room is only accessible to department members and guests.
“When it comes to projects like this, Indigenous Peoples are not always allowed to be part of the research,” Dillinger said. “Over two years, we have had four to five graduate students volunteer their time.”
Two students included undergrad 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 comfort for families with 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 I don’t speak Choctaw because my great-grandparents went to residential or boarding schools,” Bailey said.
When discussing the details of boarding school operations, it is a topic that requires fragility. 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 backyard. Dillinger says 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,” Dillinger said.
When the research group initially dove into researching the boarding school, they were aware of the possibility that they might uncover horrors within its history.
“In full honesty, I had already mentally prepared myself for that right when I started because usually, many boarding schools at that time were just labeled as boarding schools but had ulterior motives,” Toyfoya said. “I knew full well that 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,” Dillinger said. “Specifically mission work, education and later in her life politics”
Robertson would serve as the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma. The research group could get a clear picture of what life was like attending the school from Robertson’s collection. According to Dillinger, these artifacts are essential to understanding Robertson’s work with the school and with Muscogee Political Leaders.
“Robertson may have been a little bit of a pack rat,” Dillinger said with a grin. “But that’s a good thing. Because now have this amazing archive, her collection, that contains all of these historical materials. This collection is significant 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, and the entire collection is comprised of 66 containers.
“It’s like you’re going through someone’s text messages and emails on their desktop,” Toyfoya said. “I’m going through this woman’s life, years of work, stuff she saved. Sometimes it’s silly things like little tickets to football games or brochures to meetings in Congress.”
One of the primary functions of research is making connections across the artifacts. According to Dr. Beam, the artifacts analyzed do not reveal a great deal about the individual students that attended the school. However, it provides a glimpse into their day-to-day activities.
“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 T.U. originated as a boarding school may not be considered common knowledge, it is information that has been available to the public. An acknowledgment of the school’s origins can currently be found on the official university website.
Today, T.U. is well known for its prestigious law program and sits on the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation in midtown Tulsa. However, the school has seen controversy over its modern Indigenous Education Programs due to the decision to eliminate some Indigenous Graduate Degrees. Some progress has been made to amend it. Last month it was announced by T.U. President Brad Carson that a “Masters in Indian Law” degree would return.
Boarding School Research moving forward
Proper Indian Boarding School Research has also garnered national attention. Two bills in Congress have been introduced; U.S. 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 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 descendants. It’s hard for them to heal from that.”
In the meantime, local efforts to research boarding schools continue. According to Dillinger, 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,” Dillinger said. “This project is moving forward with the hope that we can make some connections between these students and their living descendants.”
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. Stephens 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, Dillinger said there are plans to develop a website to share findings and allow others to engage with the project.
“This story does deserve to be remembered and included in the narrative of Tulsa University, Muscogee Creek Nation History, and Indigenous Boarding School History,” Dillinger said.
If you have relatives that attended the Presbyterian School of Indian Girls in Muskogee and would like to share your accounts, contact Midge Dillinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.