- Family and Nation:Cherokee Orphan Care, 1835–1903
On November 17, 1903, fifteen miles from the nearest railway station and fifty miles northwest of the capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, a fire engulfed the Cherokee Orphan Asylum. The inferno threatened the lives of the 149 resident orphans, many of whom were feverish and bedridden from measles. Despite the dire possibilities, every person in the building survived. The stately three-story structure built on the banks of the Grand River in Salina had housed Cherokee orphans for thirty-one years. After the fire the Cherokee Nation relocated the homeless children to the nation's Insane Asylum in Tahlequah, where Sequoyah School stands today.1 The fire occurred as allotment threatened Cherokee sovereignty, tribal landholdings, and Cherokee-controlled political, legal, and social institutions, including the orphan asylum. The assumption of orphan care by the nation coincided with the development of political and social institutions in the years after Cherokee removal from the Southeast just as the destruction of the orphanage paralleled the demise of the late-nineteenth-century Cherokee Nation. The orphan asylum demonstrated the nation's ability to transform ancient familial responsibilities into modern social institutions in a way that adhered to Cherokee cultural values while meeting the needs of the modern world.
Superficially, the Cherokee Orphan Asylum fits a pattern of orphan care that emerged in non-Indian communities. The first North American orphan asylum opened in New Orleans in 1739, but the growth of orphan asylums exploded in the period after the Civil War.2 Civil War deaths, particularly of soldiers, forced states, communities, and organizations to rethink their responsibilities to orphans and half-orphans (children with only one living parent). Mothers faced a precarious employment [End Page 312] situation, and domestic service, one of few opportunities for poor women, often required live-in arrangements that kept mothers away from their children.3 Homes for the orphans of soldiers emerged to aid the large number of children left half-orphaned by war. Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration exacerbated the problem of even two-parent families, many of whom became incapable of providing for their children as a result of dislocation and poverty. From the 1830s to the 1880s orphan asylums constituted the most popular means to care for children whose parents could not raise them, whether as a result of death or circumstances. Trustees, reformers, and social workers aimed to create "homelike" institutions based on the middle-class "cult of domesticity," which privileged the importance of the domestic sphere and the role of mothers in establishing a proper environment in which children could develop into productive citizens.4 Because most orphanages were private and responded to the specific needs of religious and ethnic groups, no two asylums were alike in form or practice.5 The Cherokee Orphan Asylum, established by the Cherokee Nation in 1872, came out of similar historical circumstances, but the cultural and political base from which it emerged was uniquely Cherokee.
Before removal in the 1830s Cherokees lived in the valleys of the southern Appalachian Mountains, where they constructed towns and organized themselves socially by a clan system. Clans were large extended families that traced their kinship to an ancient ancestor. Towns had members from all clans, and clans provided the mechanism for town government and ceremonial life, since clan members participated in both as distinct entities. Clans were matrilineal; that is, they traced their kinship through women. The permanent residents of a household were women of the same clan. Unmarried brothers and sons lived with their mothers and sisters, and, when married, they moved into their wife's house but maintained their mother's clan, irrespective of their wife's clan. A woman's brother, or her maternal uncle if she had no brothers, held the most important male role in children's lives, the equivalent of fathers in European American society. Uncles were clan kin, fathers were not.
Clans organized virtually every aspect of Cherokee life—where one lived, whom one married, where one sat in ceremonies, the prayers one said, and the relationship one had with all other people. Cherokees depended on clans to protect them, exact retribution...