NEH Landmarks of American History Grant: “Wiping Away the Tears: Renewing Cherokee Culture and American History through the Cherokee Heritage Center and the Trail of Tears”

Landmarks of American History

January 15, 2005 -- The Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) Liberal Arts Institute at Saint Mary’s College of California, in cooperation with the Cherokee Heritage Center (CHC) in Tahlequah Oklahoma, announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded ACTC a grant of $ 152,586 in support of ACTC’s project: Wiping Away the Tears: Renewing Cherokee Culture and American History through the Cherokee Heritage Center and the Trail of Tears. The ACTC/CHC project is a workshop, under the NEH program, Landmarks of American History, that will be held at the Center, the U.S. Park Service-designated terminus of the Trail of Tears. Both a painful and hopeful story of Cherokee-American history, “Wiping Away the Tears” will bring some of the Cherokee’s and America’s best scholars and discussion facilitators to selected high school teachers in two, one-week sessions, running from July 18th-July 22nd or July 25-July 29th, 2005. Scott Lee, the ACTC Executive Director and author of the grant remarked, “we are gratified that the NEH Education Division and reviewers have supported this important project in Cherokee and American history.”

“Wiping Away the Tears” is one of only 15 such projects funded by NEH this year. The project had its origins when Earl Shorris spoke at the 9th ACTC Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, about his national core text effort, the Clemente Humanities Courses for the poor and underprivileged. Shorris had worked with (the late Indian activist) Howard Meredith, his wife, Mary Ellen Meredith, and Anita May, of the Oklahoma Humanities Council, to build a “Cherokee Humanities Course.” Shorris put Lee in contact with Mary Ellen Meredith, Chairman of the Cherokee National Historical Society, Director of the Center, Richard Fields, and his staff. Working with Meredith and with scholars associated with the Center and with ACTC, Lee wrote the grant to fill a need for sound, liberal arts, core text history education on the tragic, yet hopeful, story of the Trail of Tears and the subsequent cultural recovery of the Cherokee through liberal education and the establishment of the Center.

The Trail of Tears was the forced, organized emigration march of the Cherokee Nation from the Southeastern United States to the Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma) during the years 1838-39. Grounded in an ages-old, autonomous culture that had retained its distinctive identity while readily adapting to 18th and 19th Century introductions of Western cultural traditions, the Cherokee were a constitutionally-organized, propertied, and highly literate people who – after removal -- relied upon the development of liberal, humanistic education to restore and renew themselves. Despite the disaster of the Trail of Tears and the political fratricide that followed it, the Cherokee Nation established a public school system in 1841, made the public education system compulsory, and, before 1907 statehood for Oklahoma, graduated more students from college than in Texas and Arkansas combined. On May 7th, 1851 the Cherokee opened the first Women’s Seminary west of the Mississippi with a liberal arts curriculum based in that of Mount Holyoke. The Cherokee Cultural Heritage Center incorporates in its physical layout the remaining fire-scarred columns of the Women’s Seminary – a symbol of the effort by the Center to reach out to the majority culture through education. Indeed, the Seminary historically ties the Cherokee to the secular world of Oklahoma, for the rebuilt Seminary became the foundation of Northeastern State University, in Tahlequah.

Over time, the Trail of Tears has become a kind of two-way lens whereby the Cherokee and all Americans are enabled not only to re-examine past events leading up to the exodus, but to develop – through historiography, art, and cultural institutions – a vision for the future which embraces the best of Cherokee life in a pluralistic, American society. Readings will include recorded myths of the Cherokee, Native American and Cherokee public addresses, letters, and legal documents prior to removal, their own Enlightenment-informed constitution, Biblical and philosophical texts and ideas which European settlers brought to North America, observations by acute observers on the state of Indian life in the new nation and during the Trail of Tears, editorials on the wisdom surrounding removal, letters and diaries written during the removal, personal accounts of the aftermath of the removal and the recovery and renewal through building the Women’s Seminary, historical reminiscences of the Women’s Seminary, and novels, poems, and plays of 20th Century Cherokee. In addition to readings, the participating high school teachers will enjoy the performance of the Trail of Tears drama, examine Cherokee modern art work and view the Trail of Tears and other historical exhibits as part of the workshop activities. Lecturers, discussion groups, and workshop projects will deeply probe the complex relations between history and culture. ACTC core text teachers will be joining CHC staff in facilitating discussions.

Lee commented that “the unique resources of the ACTC Liberal Arts Institute at Saint Mary’s College in California have joined forces with similar unique resources of the Cherokee Heritage Center to bring to American high school teachers a richer, humanistic history of the Cherokee-American past than any textbook can hope to offer. We are proud to be associated with the CHC in this national project and we look forward to welcoming high school teachers from across the nation to this workshop.” This project marks the second NEH grant that the ACTC Liberal Arts Institute has won since its piloting in 2002-2003 at the University of Dallas.