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Paying Tribute 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 Archives

In 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 calls "dead 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 Wilson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, as her thesis adviser. Likewise, she sought advice from Smith faculty and staff, including Nanci Young, the Smith College archivist, and help from a historian with the Winnebago Tribal 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 her parents 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 Archives

Tiger 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."

Nanci Young, 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 past."

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 had developed 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 site.

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