One Woman, One Moment: How A Cherokee Woman Changed The Course Of History For Native Americans

It was a buckskin dress that helped convey a message to the country more than a century ago. It was worn by a Cherokee woman, poet, and education advocate, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, when she met with President Calvin Coolidge in 1923.

Thursday, January 18th 2024, 8:29 pm



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This year marks 100 years since the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law after a Cherokee woman blazed a trail to Washington, D.C., to change the lives of American Indians across the country. 

It was a buckskin dress that helped convey a message to the country more than a century ago. It was worn by a Cherokee woman, poet, and education advocate, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, when she met with President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. 

“Aunt Ruth was Cherokee in heritage, but she had a heart for all of the tribes of the United States. So when she went to Washington in the 1920s, she knew that most Americans would recognize a Plains Indian outfit and they would know, ‘Oh, that's an Indian.’ She wore it on purpose to draw attention to the fact that she was Native American and she was here representing all Native Americans,” Mandy Muskrat, Ruth’s great niece, said. 

Ruth was a college student when she went to the White House as a member of the Committee of One Hundred, a group designed to advise on Native American policy. It was a time when Natives and women were openly discriminated against, but her grandson Andrew Tidrick said that only fueled Ruth's visit. 

“She [was] just a formidable woman and a powerful woman that set a standard or precedent, I think, for what Native people and native woman can do,” Tidrick said. 

Ruth presented President Coolidge with a beaded book and a profound speech. 

"We want to become citizens of the United States and to share in the building of this great nation that we love,” Jennifer Loren read from the speech. 

Loren is Ruth’s great-great niece. She read Ruth's words that still resonate today at an event last month honoring her. 

"We want also to preserve the best that is in our own civilization. We want to make our own unique contribution to the civilizations of the world--to bring our own gifts to the altar of that great spiritual and artistic unity which such a nation as America must have,” the speech read.

That speech and meeting helped change the course of history. Seven months later, President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting citizenship to all Native Americans. 

Her visit turned into a lifelong commitment as a leader for Native American education, health and rights. 

Some of the first meetings for the National Congress of American Indians, which is still in existence today, were around her kitchen table in the 1940s. 

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said if not for Ruth, “We may not have seen those reforms, and a lot of what we do today in terms of exerting our tribal sovereignty may not have been possible...Very much of the country saw the sun setting on the tribes that they were going to be part of history. She didn't see it that way, she saw a future... that future is being realized today.” 

Ruth's mark on history is now being preserved inside the Cherokee Nation’s National Research Center. 

“Our collection's really interesting because we have a museum collection and a manuscript collection,” Krystan Moser with the center, said. 

In December, on the centennial of Ruth's historic meeting, Chief Hoskin declared December 13th “Ruth Muskrat Bronson Day.” And to celebrate, her family added to the collection, gifting Ruth's dress and what's believed to be her original speech to the tribe. 

“It's a treasure. It's been a real treasure, and we've kept it safely in the house under constant safe temperature,” Ruth’s great-niece, Janet Gann, said. “It is bittersweet. My daughter said the night after I delivered it, she said, ‘I feel sad... but I feel glad.’ And I said, ‘I feel relief because I know it will be safe. It will be in a safe place,’” she said. 

And, in a place that will continue to move forward, Ruth's story and her mission of dignity and civil rights for Native people. 

“Now it's gonna go way beyond our family, and I think Ruth will get some of the credit she deserves in acknowledging what she did for our tribe and for all Native Americans,” Mandy said.

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