to Smith's First Known Native American Graduate
By Jan McCoy Ebbets
In 1892, Angel de Cora of Winnebago, Nebraska,
arrived at Smith as a student in the college's now-defunct School
of Art. She had the good fortune to study drawing and painting with the
well-known American landscape artist and Smith professor Dwight Tyron.
To help pay for her education, she worked as a night custodian in Hillyer's
Art Gallery. In 1896, she graduated and went on to become a well-known
Indian artist, much sought after as an illustrator of books and magazines
at the turn of the 20th century.
But further details of the life of the Smith's
first known Native American graduate went unrecorded -- until recently.
Photo courtesy Smith College
her second year at Smith, Yvonne Nicole Tiger '03, a women's
studies major, heard mention of Angel de Cora and found her photograph
in an admission
brochure on diversity. Upon further inquiry, Tiger found that, but for a few
photographs, de Cora had disappeared from the annals of Smith history. "I
was intrigued as well as angered," she says. Both reactions stemmed from
what Tiger calls a realization of the "invisibility of this Native woman,
living in a non-Indian world, who graduated from our college. There is nothing
at Smith that memorializes or honors her contributions to the art world."
"As a fellow Indian Smithie, I felt obligated to pay respect to her by
making sure that she no longer lingers in obscurity," explains Tiger, whose
tribal roots are Cherokee–Creek–Seminole.
Tiger subsequently spent
more than a year researching the life of de Cora, a Winnebago Indian. She received
an initial grant from John Connolly, professor
of philosophy and, at the time, Smith's acting president, to support her
project, which ultimately became an honors thesis that she completed in May.
"Researching Angel de Cora [was] challenging
and rewarding," Tiger
says in retrospect. "My thesis was one of the most valuable experiences
of my life. Not only that, but it forced me to reconsider the world in which
I live -- as an Indian woman at an elite college, and as an Indian woman
among the general population."
During the summer and fall of her senior
year, Tiger traveled to archives in
Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C., often running into what she
ends." At some locations she was denied access to any records without
permission from de Cora's family or her tribal nation (which she
eventually obtained). She also enlisted the help of Tracy Leavelle, a Woodrow
Fellow in the Humanities at the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, as her thesis
Likewise, she sought advice from Smith faculty and staff, including Nanci
Young, the Smith College archivist, and help from a historian with the
Nation in Nebraska.
Gradually the details of Angel de Cora's story
began to emerge from the letters, written accounts and tribal and government
school records Tiger examined.
A member of the Winnebago Tribal Nation, de Cora was raised on a reservation
in Nebraska until she was 12. She then was taken to an Indian boarding
school, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Virginia. Whether
consented to her enrollment in the Virginia school remains in dispute,
but sending Indian children to government-run, English language–only
boarding schools was a common practice believed necessary to assimilate
Indians to American culture.
Photo courtesy Smith College
writes in her thesis: "For an Indian woman at the turn of the century,
Angel de Cora's life was at once typical and unusual. Her life was typical
because like many Indian children across the country, she was taken from her
tribal community to a government boarding school for the purpose of assimilation.
Angel's life was unusual because she excelled in her boarding school education,
graduated from college, and became a professional Indian artist -- at a time
when few women became professionals, when Indians were not painting other Indians,
and when most Indians were doing neither. Her life was complex, especially for
a professional Indian woman at the turn of the century."
"What I hope to gain from writing my thesis is the visibility of this significant
Indian woman, who succeeded in the White world at a great personal cost to herself -- the
loss of her specific tribal identity," says Tiger, who this fall began
a four-year combined program of study toward a law degree and a master's
in Native history at Oklahoma University. "Her story should be allowed
to shine through, as there are no books written about her."
college archivist, laud's Tiger's efforts. "While
the Smith College Archives houses a rich collection of material, particularly
in the area of undergraduate life, there are many parts of Smith's history
that remain unknown and unnoticed," she points out. "For one story
told of an early alumna, another three go untold. It is through researchers like
Yvonne that we learn more about the institution. Through cooperatively collecting
materials and encouraging their use, we will continue to learn more about our
While visiting friends, Angel de Cora died
in Northampton at the age of 47 and was buried in a local cemetery without
a headstone or marker. She
influenza and pneumonia during her stay in the home of a White family who had
befriended her during her earlier years in Northampton; she was buried without
a marker in their family plot. Unfortunately, at the time, only blood relatives
were allowed a headstone. Now, some 85 years later, Tiger plans to organize
an effort to place a memorial stone at de Cora's western Massachusetts grave