It was not the early settlers who founded the first school for the higher education of women west of the Mississippi, it was the Cherokee who recognized education for women as the road to equality. What is now known as Northeastern State University in Oklahoma was originally the Cherokee National Female Seminary, located in Park Hill, Oklahoma, established in 1851 in a classic, two-story brick building.
The seminary's first students varied in age, starting as young as 14. According to Joan Swallow Reiter's Old West: The Women, many of these young women were descended from intermarriages, though Reiter does not cite her source for this information. The women were expected to dress like white women. They were offered classes in Bible studies, mental arithmetic, philosophy, Latin, chemistry, and culture, in addition to at least an hour of housework daily.
The teachers for the seminary came from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. Two Cherokee leaders traveled to Massachusetts to interview the teachers when they were told that Mount Holyoke had a reputation for "rigorous academic training."
This is not as surprising as it might seem. In spite of the fact that the Cherokee were forced from their land and homes onto reservations and endured the same atrocities inflicted on other Indians by the federal government, the Cherokee tribe sought to acclimate itself to these changes, adopting the best qualities of white society, including education. In addition to the female seminary, they also established a male seminary nearby. They printed books and newspapers in their own language and offered tuition-free education.
The Cherokee alphabet is a fascinating story, as well. It was created by a Cherokee named Sequoyah, who was born around 1777 to a Cherokee mother and white father. He was lame, illiterate, and brilliant, according to Kenneth C. Davis, author of American History. During Sequoyah's time, Cherokee could not read or write in their own language, but he was exposed to the English language and writing through his father and fascinated by the printed word. He decided to create a system of writing for the Cherokee, a task he described as similar to "catching a wild animal and taming it." He eventually devised a script of 86 symbols representing the 86 syllables spoken by the Cherokee. It is so simple, so logical, that most people learn the system in two weeks or less.
It is also the "only system of writing invented independently by a single person and used by a nation," according to Davis. The first newspaper of the Cherokee nation, the Cherokee Phoenix, was written using Sequoyah's system of symbols. Davis also explains that the Cherokee tried to form a state named Sequoyah to honor the man who invented their system of writing. Instead, this state was named Oklahoma.
The Cherokee National Female Seminary in Oklahoma did not fare well, either. Five years after the school opened, it was forced to temporarily close due to financial troubles. It reopened after the American Civil War, then was destroyed by fire in 1887. The school was rebuilt at Tahlequah, Oklahoma Territory, which is the Cherokee tribal capital and did well until 1907 when Oklahoma became a state and absorbed the Cherokee education and political system into its own. The Cherokee National Female Seminary then became Oklahoma's Northeastern State University.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
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