Into the Light: Researchers identify, honor students from Presbyterian School for Indian Girls - The University of Tulsa
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Into the Light: Researchers identify, honor students from Presbyterian School for Indian Girls

The University of Tulsa traces its roots to the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls (PSIG), a small boarding school that opened in 1882 in Muskogee, Indian Territory. Between 1819 through the 1970s, the United States implemented policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the nation to culturally assimilate Native children.

In 1894, PSIG was renamed Henry Kendall College and, in 1907, relocated to Tulsa where it later was rechartered as The University of Tulsa. Until recently, little was known about students who attended the school.

In July 2020, Chapman Professor of English Laura M. Stevens set out to learn more about the students and their experiences at TU’s predecessor institution by launching the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls Project. All work is done in partnership with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department.

“It had been on my mind for years that we didn’t know who the students at the school were or what their experiences at the school were like. Finally, during the peak of the pandemic, I decided to see if any students wanted to start working with me to solve this puzzle,” Stevens said. “I’m excited to see the project reach this milestone of actually publishing biographies, and I’m delighted that we are better positioned now to restore these women to a place of honor in the university’s history.”

Today’s PSIG Project team is composed of Stevens, Ph.D. and past president of the Society of Early Americanists; co-principal investigator Sara N. Beam, Ph.D. and applied associate professor of English; Midge Dellinger, Muscogee (Creek) Nation oral historian, project co-investigator, and tribal liaison; Abby Rush (Hidatsa/Apsáalooke), English master’s student; Cecilia Gutierrez, senior with majors in religion & philosophy and history; and Abby and Hannah Ridley (Cherokee Nation), first-year students who are both double majoring in English & creative writing and psychology. Other students from Oklahoma’s Cherokee and Choctaw Nations have participated in the research over the years.

This project is unique in that a modern university is turning a critical eye inward to unearth a long-forgotten piece of the school’s history. The University of Tulsa has provided funding for graduate and undergraduate students to pursue this humanities-based research opportunity and welcomed the participation of tribal leaders.

“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 said. “When it comes to projects like this, Indigenous peoples are not always allowed to be part of the research.”

In February 2024, the team published the first three biographies of students who attended the school and two others who attended affiliated institutions. Here is a brief summary of the first three with links to more information:

Susan (Hampton) Tiger was born in 1870 near Okmulgee, Indian Territory. Susan’s guardian, a local judge, was married to Augusta Moore, the sister of Alice Robertson, the director of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, and it was through this connection she became a student at the school. She went on to teach at several native schools in the Okmulgee area and later married the eldest son of former Muscogee (Creek) Chief Motey Tiger.

Anna (Peterson) Shortall, born in 1876, attended the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls as one of the only non-Native students after the school began to admit white students. She later embarked on a lifelong career in education and, in 1924, enrolled in the recently christened University of Tulsa, taking courses in child psychology, classroom management, and principles of education before graduating in 1928.

Nellie (Riley) Woodward, born in 1875, was one of the first students to enroll in the new school, brought there by her uncle. She found school challenging – since English was not her first language – before being taken under the wing of an older student who helped her improve her speaking and reading skills. In her adult life, Woodward was active in Native church and women’s groups. Between 1909 and 1925, her husband, Herbert, sold portions of land to the city of Tulsa that would eventually become Woodward Park and Utica Square shopping center.

Robertson pictured with the student body.

The first director of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls was Alice Mary Robertson. Born in 1854 to William Schenck Robertson and Anna Eliza Worcester Robertson, she would eventually become the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma.

Alice Robertson’s family papers are the focus of the PSIG Project’s first stage of research.

The Robertson and Worcester family papers fill more than 66 boxes in The University of Tulsa’s Special Collections. They contain a variety of documents and information on Presbyterian mission schools, general missionary outreach, and Muscogee (Creek) Nation history.

Stevens and the research team will continue sifting through Special Collections and gathering information from various online and on-site archives, including the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Indian Pioneer Papers, state and parish records, and others. The goal is to write short biographies of every PSIG student identified and keep the young women who attended the school (or other mission schools in the same network) at the forefront of this history.

The project seeks to learn who they were, what their experiences were like at the school, and how their lives unfolded. Above all, the team wants to honor their memory. In that spirit, these women will remain central to the project.

While there are accounts of students having generally positive experiences, the existence of Native boarding schools exemplifies the impact of colonialism on Indigenous peoples.

The effects were multiple and vast, including loss of language, land, and culture, with ongoing repercussions still being felt today. As such, the project does not shy away from the trauma of colonialism when directly manifested in documents uncovered by research, but the overarching goal remains to keep the PSIG students front and center, shining a light on their lives, which are profound and nuanced.

The customs of the time make uncovering these stories challenging. For example, when a woman married in 19th- and early 20th-century in the United States, her life events were often recorded under husband’s name – her first and last names literally replaced.

But that does not mean the young women of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls do not have stories to tell. Indeed, every woman who attended PSIG, or schools affiliated with PSIG, has her own story.

“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 descendants.”

To learn more about the project and the PSIG students, please visit psigproject.org.