Names to faces: Uncovering The University of Tulsa’s Indigenous history -

Names to faces: Uncovering The University of Tulsa’s Indigenous history

woman wearing a black jacket and black face mask standing in front of shelves
Laura Stevens with the Alice Robertson Collection at McFarlin Library

Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens is currently leading a small team of students on a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) project dedicated to investigating The University of Tulsa’s predecessor institution, the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. Outside of a short acknowledgment on TU’s website, very little is known about the school. Founded in 1892 in Muskogee, it was later renamed Henry Kendall College in 1894 and relocated to Tulsa in 1907.

“While I was on a research visit to the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada, in the fall of 2019, I was given the opportunity to meet some of the survivors of one of the oldest residential schools in North America and learn of their trauma and resilience,” Stevens recalled. “I kept thinking about the Native girls and young women who attended the school that eventually became TU and how little we know about them. This TURC project developed from that wish to name them, to honor them, to learn and publish their histories and lives.”

Archival quest

McFarlin Library’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives contains the documents of Alice Robertson, which are, at present, the main sources Stevens and her team are drawing on for their research. Robertson was deeply involved with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in her lifetime. Her family sponsored and built the school on their land in what was then known as Indian Territory. Robertson became director of the school in 1885 and, in 1920, was one of the first women elected to Congress.

a black-and-white photo showing a group of Native American schoolgirls and their teacher
Students at the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls with Alice Robertson (McFarlin Library Department of Special Collections and University Archives)

The main goal of the project is to identify each of the students who attended the school. “We’re trying to put names to faces,” said Midge Dellinger, an oral historian for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who has been working alongside Stevens and the TU students on the project. “There are pictures from the school featuring Alice Robertson and the students, and the only person who will be listed in the photo is Robertson. It’s like trying to put a puzzle together.”

A collaborative enterprise

Working with Stevens on this TURC project are undergraduates Alexandria Tafoya, Elizabeth Bailey and Nevin Subramanian.

For Bailey, the project is more than just uncovering history: “As a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, this project is incredibly personal to me because my ancestors were also encouraged to attend mission schools and assimilate to the White Man’s standards. I want to honor these women and the Muscogee Nation whose trauma allows me to be here at this university.”

Tafoya is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and, like Bailey, her family history also involves mission schools like the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. She was inspired to join this project due to her desire to make amends for the wrongdoings that were committed. “I want to help bring reparations for these girls and their families. This is a part of TU’s history that is not widely known, and it is something that needs to be revisited and shared.”

black and white photo of a building captioned Presbyterian Mission School, Muskogee
The Presbyterian School for Indian Girls (Alice Robertson Collection, McFarlin Library Department of Special Collections and University Archives)

As the chair of TU’s Diversity and Educational Programming initiative and the lead intern for the Chevron Multicultural Research Center, Subramanian has always had a desire to learn more about the untold history of Native American cultures and stories. His experiences working alongside the TU Indigenous Society drove him to become a part of the project. He believes the hard work of the project pays off as soon as a new discovery is made.

“It’s always special when you find a student’s name,” Subramanian said. “While we are unfolding the history of each girl, we are digging deeper into understanding their story, experience and culture.”

The collaborative approach Stevens and the students are taking is one that does not often occur when it comes to recounting Indigenous history. Drawing on her experience as an oral historian, Dellinger noted that “historians have written about Tribal nations and their peoples without involving them. This creates an inaccurate narrative about the country because it has not been told in a genuine and authentic way. The work Dr. Stevens and these students are doing with the Muscogee Nation is very much appreciated.”

Stevens is grateful for everyone who has put in the effort to make her project possible: “I cannot overstate my appreciation for my student co-researchers, whose engagement with this project has been amazing, or to Midge Dellinger and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department. My students and I are so thankful that the scholars of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation would share with us their knowledge of Muscogee language and history, joining with us in our efforts to tell this story.”

Sharing knowledge, next steps

Zoom screen with five people
Panelists at the SEA conference: Top row: Laura Stevens; Middle row: Midge Dellinger, Alexandria Tafoya; Bottom row: Nevin Subramanian, Elizabeth Bailey

On March 6, Stevens and the students presented their findings during a panel at the 12th Biennial Conference of the Society of Early Americanists (SEA). Dellinger heaped praise on the experience: “The students did a great job with their presentations. They are all in this for the right reasons and are trying to make differences that need to be made.”

Presenting their preliminary findings at the SEA conference is only the beginning of this project. Stevens plans to continue and expand upon this TURC project in the coming semesters with new students to bring more insight into the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. “Ultimately, our goal is to find the names of each of the girls who attended so we can connect Indigenous peoples with their ancestors,” commented Stevens. “We know it will not be an easy task, but it is one that will be well worth it in the end.”

If you are a student interested in researching the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, or if you have information you would like to share about the people who attended TU’s predecessor institution, contact Professor Stevens at for more information.