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  • “This Is the Nation’s Heart-String”Formal Education and the Cherokee Diaspora during the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
  • Gregory D. Smithers (bio)

On March 10, 1881, the Cherokee Orphan Asylum Press published an editorial by Walter Adair Duncan. Duncan, the superintendent of the Cherokee Orphan Asylum between 1872 and 1884 and one of the leading Cherokee intellectuals of his era, offered heartfelt praise for the Cherokee Nation’s system of public education.1 At the time of Duncan’s editorial, the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory operated over one hundred day schools, a Cherokee male and Cherokee female seminary, and an orphanage.2 Duncan insisted that due to these institutions “no people in the world are better situated than the Cherokees.” He added that the true value of formal education lay in how it gave meaning to “national life.” As Duncan stated this point, “This [formal education] is the nation’s heart-string. It is the jeweled chord that binds the people together into a national whole, attaching them to one another, to home and to the land in which they were born.”3

Declarations of this nature highlighted two important realities for Cherokee people at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century. First, the Cherokees were a scattered people, exiled from their southeastern homeland by the forces of settler colonialism that culminated with the United States’ violent removal of Cherokee people to Indian Territory in 1838 and 1839. In the decades following removal, the Cherokees rebuilt their lives in the trans-Mississippi West, and throughout North America (and sometimes beyond). The exiled and scattered nature of the Cherokees, hallmarks of a diasporic people, saw [End Page 28] Cherokee leaders in Indian Territory value education as a means of connecting widely dispersed Cherokee individuals, families, and communities. Thus the second critical reality of the Cherokee people: its leaders—men like William Adair Duncan—valued formal education as a means of reimagining Cherokee identity: a nationalistic Cherokee identity that connected a diasporic people to a political homeland in Indian Territory.4

Historians of the Cherokee people—and Native Americans more generally—rarely view indigenous histories through the lens of diaspora. This is certainly true of the historical scholarship about the Cherokee people and the education system they developed. Scholars such as Devon Mihesuah and Marilyn Holt have focused on how the exiled Cherokees in Indian Territory, like the neighboring Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw, founded their own educational institutions in the trans-Mississippi West in the decades following the forced removals of the 1830s.5 For leading proponents of public education in the Cherokee Nation, the National Council’s support of a formal system of education played a vital role in raising “intelligent Cherokee children, trained for useful occupations, who love their country.”6

The expression of such nationalistic sentiments among the diasporic Cherokees in Indian Territory reached their highest pitch during the 1880s as Euro-American “sooners” and “boomers” carved out homesteads on the “Unassigned Lands” of Indian Territory. The growing populations of Euro-Americans in and around Indian Territory reinforced political calls for the termination of Native sovereignty and communal landholdings, and the divvying up of that land in individual allotments. The Dawes and Curtis Acts (1887 and 1898, respectively) ultimately paved the way for these shifts in American Indian policy to become a reality. For the Cherokees, severalty and allotment brought an end to Cherokee-run government, and, significantly, the loss of control over the public system of education deemed the “heart-string” of a dispersed people and a source of nationalistic pride in their trans-Mississippi homeland. Thus, by 1900 the Cherokee people’s institutions of education came under the control of “a Superintendent for the territory and a tribe supervisor, appointed by the US Government.”7 Unlike leaders of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory who set out to use education to inspire children with a nationalistic love for the Cherokee Nation, federal government officials aimed to erode such feelings and to instead use education to assimilate American Indians to white society by redirecting their nationalistic affections toward the United States.8

The Cherokee Nation’s loss of control over their own...


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pp. 28-55
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