A Remarkable Life – The Story of
Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson
Died: 12 June 1982, Tucson, Pima County, Arizona
The story of Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson is intertwined with the history of the Indian Territory where she was born. Her heritage – the land where she was born and its history – inspired her life’s work. The Indian Territory was an area of land known by a number of differing titles as its use and various Acts of Congress as well as treaties affected its boundaries, the laws governing its use, and the indigenous peoples of our country who would become its inhabitants.
History of the Indian Territory, in part:
The land encompassing the Indian Territory was originally a much larger tract of land “the British government set aside for indigenous tribes between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River in the time before the American Revolutionary War.” (SOURCE: https//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Territory)
Use of this area of land mirrored the concept of aboriginal peoples who were present in America at the time of European immigration and for thousands of years preceding that time as being “savages” or “barbarians” incapable of governing themselves, a danger to all settlers, and a scourge to be wiped out or, at minimum, isolated, defanged, and tightly controlled. Thus, these Native Americans were systematically ill treated by colonists and their governing countries, their land routinely taken from them by negotiating treaties (that were never honored), and their peoples prompted to move from their traditional homelands to the as yet unpopulated or sparsely populated territory “out West.”
After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States dealt with the Native Americans in varying ways – dependent upon the allegiances shown by each tribe during that war. Those who aligned themselves with the Brits became the target of vengeance. However, those tribes who had fought alongside the rebellious colonists were, likewise, mistreated. For, in fact, few of the European immigrants were willing to permit the indigenous tribes to continue life as usual.
The solution for the problem of “how to deal with the Indians” became that of “Indian Removal” – the systematic stripping of each tribe’s land, their farms, livestock, and goods and various means of forcing their removal to the Indian Territory. The United States took control of the ownership of lands by legislating the need for governmental approval of any sale thereof. From the time of the Revolution until 1834, this was accomplished by Acts of Congress. Five such Acts were passed between 1790 and 1802, and then the almost identically worded Act passed in 1834:
The 1834 Act, currently codified at 25 U.S.C. § 177, provides: No purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of land, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indian nation or tribe of Indians, shall be of any validity in law or equity, unless the same be made by treaty or convention entered into pursuant to the constitution.
The first of these Acts passed in 1790 prompted this promise from President George Washington to the Seneca Nation of New York:
“I am not uninformed that the six Nations have been led into some difficulties with respect to the sale of their lands since the peace. But I must inform you that these evils arose before the present government of the United States was established, when the separate States and individuals under their authority, undertook to treat with the Indian tribes respecting the sale of their lands. But the case is now entirely altered. The general Government only has the power, to treat with the Indian Nations, and any treaty formed and held without its authority will not be binding. Here then is the security for the remainder of your lands. No State nor person can purchase your lands, unless at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States. The general government will never consent to your being defrauded. But it will protect you in all your just rights.”
This promise, as would almost every single future assurance by the United States government to the various tribes of Native Americans, would not be honored.
Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson’s family history:
Ruth Muskrat was the fourth child of seven children, and second daughter of four daughters of James Ezekiel Muskrat (b. 2 Jul 1856, Delaware District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory and d. 15 Jun 1944, Grove, Delaware County, Oklahoma, United States) and his wife Ida Lenore Kelly (b. 31 Mar 1870, Vernon County, Missouri and d. 23 Jun 1956, Grove, Delaware County, Oklahoma). Of this union, the seven children were: Maud Dorcas Elizabeth “Maudie” (1890-1970); Jacob Claude “Jake” (1892-1939); Harvey Robert (1895-1980); Ruth Margaret (1897-1982); Ruby Jewel (1900-1987); Thelma (1902-2005); and Truman (1904-1907).
Photograph of James Ezekiel Muskrat and wife Ida Lenora Kelly Muskrat, taken about 1887.
Ruth’s great-great-grandfather was known as Wa-sa-tee or Wu-so-di, also called Muskrat (Muskrat, in the original Cherokee or Tsalagi syllabary created by Sequoia, was spelled se-la-gi-s-qua or se-la-qui-s-gi). He is believed to have been born in the lands of the Eastern Cherokee, now known as the State of Georgia. When gold was discovered on the lands occupied by the Eastern Cherokee, there was immediately a move to take the land and cheat the Cherokee of what was rightfully theirs. Thus, the forcible removal of all households known by various Census enumerations to be headed by a Native American male, whether or not the wife was Cherokee or White. (Interestingly, those households headed by White males with Cherokee wives and mixed blood children were permitted to stay; thus, forming the initial population of the Eastern Cherokee.
This event would have long-lasting repercussions for the Cherokee. The disagreement as to strategic planning that arose between tribal members faced with the prospect of being forced from their tribal lands led, eventually, to an internal civil war and the Muskrat families were right in the midst of it all.
On one of the many Indian census enumeration that occurred through the decades, the Drennen Roll taken 1851, the family of Jackson Muskrat (Group number 131, former Dawes family identification number 4270), appears on the same page, opposite column as the family of the very famous Cherokee, Stand Watie, (Group number 123.) For those steeped in Cherokee history, the name of Stand Watie signals the stuff of legends, along with such names as John Ross and Ned Christie.
Stand Watie and John Ross supported opposing strategies for dealing with the United States government’s intent to forcibly remove the Eastern Cherokee from their homes. Watie felt it was expedient to negotiate and secure treaty considerations that would provide legal standing for the tribe. John Ross wished to refuse to negotiate and confront the government forces directly. Ultimately, many of the Cherokee families sided with Watie and ceded their lands (the Treaty of New Echota signed in 1835). They were paid ridiculously small amounts and the future considerations failed to equal the value of the properties ceded. This resulted in a split in the tribe and lingering hatred. Those Cherokee who sided with John Ross refused to ratify the Treaty. Watie and his group removed peaceably to the Indian Territory, joining with those who had relocated in 1820 (known as the “Old Settlers”). In 1838, the government forcibly removed those remaining in a journey fraught with horrors, known as the “Trail of Tears.” This group of Cherokee were forced from their homes and permitted to take only a few items of their household treasures with them. Their farms, homes, barns, livestock, household goods, monies were left behind. They were forced to walk without regard for their age (very young or very old), their health, or their abilities. They were provided inadequate food and water and no suitable cold weather gear. Many starved, froze to death, or fell prey to fatal illness. More than 4,000 died.
In 1839, a group of those opposing the Treaty mounted an assassination attempt and managed to kill all the leaders who supported the Treaty except for Stand Watie. In 1842, Stand encountered one of the men who had killed his uncle. Watie killed him. In 1845, Stand’s brother Thomas was killed in retaliation. (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stand_Watie)
The Civil War renewed the festering hostilities when Stand Watie joined the Confederacy and John Ross fought with the Union. (Stand Watie was one of only two Native Americans to attain the rank of General during that war, and he was the only Native American Brigadier General.) Post-War, the government was faced with a request by Stand Watie, who had served as Principal Chief during the hostilities, to affirm his position and work to mend peacefully the fracture between the warring Cherokee factions. The government chose to support John Ross since he had fought for the Union. Watie was defeated, Ross was named Principal Chief, and the controversies merely lay dormant and not finally settled.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson’s grandfather, Jacob Ezekiel Muskrat, fought with Stand Watie’s Confederate troops. (U. S. Confederate Service Records, 1861-1865: Name: J Muskrat Military Unit: First Cherokee Mounted Volunteers (Watie's Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Volunteers; 2d Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles, Arkansas; 1st Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles or Riflemen)
Ruth Muskrat Bronson’s Personal History:
Jacob Ezekiel “Di-ti-sky” Muskrat, in Confederate
uniform.] Ruth's great grandfather fought in Stand Watie's Confederate
regiment. First Cherokee Mounted Volunteers (Watie's Regiment, Cherokee
Mounted Volunteers; 2d Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles, Arkansas; 1st
Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles or Riflemen
Ruth was born in White Water, Delaware District, Indian Territory (now Grove, Delaware County, Oklahoma) on 3 October 1897. The 1900 US Census for District 0016, Township 24, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory shows Ruth’s father to be farming, born in Indian Territory, her mother keeping house and born in Missouri. Her younger sister Ruby just four months of age.
The next Census, enumerated 1st September 1902 was one of the routine Native American Enrollments which documented her to be “Cherokee by blood,” Census Card number 4137, and assigned Dawes roll number 24438.
Ruth was fortunate in being born in the Cherokee Nation for this tribe valued education. The elders, recognizing the value of the missionary schools established in the 1820’s, wrote into their Constitution the funding and organization of a school system. According to the website http://www.cityofgroveok.gov/community/page/city-grove-history: “By 1845, the Cherokee National Council had three Indian schools operating in the Delaware District.”
The first public school was built in 1904. Every few years the town’s council managed to add to the school and improve its facilities. This provided an excellent grounding in the basics: math, English, literature, an introduction to the arts, and fuel for the hungry and eager mind of Ruth Muskrat! For Ruth was geared to learn, to achieve, to improve, and to hone her skills.
By 1911, her elementary, middle and high school education had been completed successfully and Ruth had moved on to her first level of higher education. At age fourteen, she was an avid and popular student at the University Preparatory School at Tonkawa, Oklahoma. In 1916, Ruth took first prize in the Poetry Contest with a poem that would speak to the love she held for her tribe:
Ruth Muskrat, ‘17 First Prize in Poetry Contest
With the droning hum
Of the low tom-tom,
And the steady beat of the many feet,
With the wild weird cry
Of the owl nearby
Came the night of the warrior’s dance.
With dark bronze faces,
And gorgeous laces,
With body straight and stately gait,
With black hair streaming,
And black eyes gleaming,
Came the warriors to the dance.
The moonlight beams,
The camp fire gleams,
The tall trees sigh as the wind rushes by;
The squaws smile in pride.
At their slow solemn stride,
As the warriors march in the dance.
There is happiness there,
Joy fills the air,
They have forgot their hapless lot,
They are kings once more,
As in days of yore,
As they swing to the warriors dance.
Another of her literary efforts was an ode to the new State of Oklahoma, which she entitled, “Oklahoma as a Background for Literature.” This essay speaks of her love of the land, its diversity of topography, wildlife, the numerous waterways – lakes, creeks, and streams – and the inspiration this beauty provides to writers. One can get lost merely researching this young woman’s literary works; for at the young age of nineteen, Ruth had already found her voice.
Ruth had a well-rounded personality. Her school record is filled with her achievements: poetess, author, Vice-President of her YWCA and an active member involved in donating Christmas gifts to needy children, traveling as a delegate to assist in formulating activities and the direction for the organization in the following year. She also served as President of the Sorosis sorority in the same year.
Through her work for the Young Women’s Christian Association, Ruth was chosen to spend a summer working with Mescalero Apache youth in New Mexico. She had two years’ student teaching under her belt by this time and was a vocal and enthusiastic advocate for not merely memorializing the native culture, but a devotion to nurturing and maintaining that culture in a harmonious blend with modern ways. This would become Ruth’s life’s work: advocacy for the rights of Indians to be Indians, yet to become flexible and knowledgeable of every advance in education, philosophy, or methodology in all aspects of life.
Having exhibited her ability to absorb knowledge and utilize that knowledge in innovative ways, Ruth received a scholarship for the University of Kansas, where she attended for three semesters, before accepting a scholarship for the University of Oklahoma. At Lawrence, she was a member of the Pen and Scroll Club, a literary organization. Her time at university was well spent. She forged ahead, hungry for more knowledge and solidifying her philosophy concerning her beloved Indian culture. Ruth’s successes with the Apache youth prompted the YWCA to select her in the Fall of 1922 to be their envoy and representative of the North American Indian at a conference held in Peiping, China.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson - AP News article re Trip to China for YWCA 31 Mar 1922, p5-1
Upon her return from China, she was granted yet another scholarship – this time to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, which she attended from 1923 until her graduation in 1925. She is recognized as one of the school’s most honored and distinguished alumna. From the book, Heritage of the Hills – A Delaware County History, comes the following:
During her junior year at Mount Holyoke, she was chosen to present President Coolidge with a copy of a book entitled "The Red Man in the United States" by G.E. Lindquist. The book is the story of the Red Man's struggles, tragedies, victories and developments. The beaded book cover symbolizes the story of the old type Indian and the new. It was beaded by a Cheyenne woman Na-Nah-Na whose name means Fish Woman. The buckskin costume Ruth wore was fashioned by Fish Woman in Oklahoma under the direction of Rose Kincaide, Supertintendent of Mohonn Lodge at Colony, established to encourage Indian crafts. Alice Antelope made the beaded moccasins. Alice Lester, a Mescalero-Apache, wove the head band. There was also a book mark made of tiny arrowheads, a proud gift of Jim Wilson of Tahlequah.
The presentation was made with such force and clarity that the Chief Executive invited her to take lunch with him and Mrs. Coolidge.
Mount Holyoke chose to honor Ruth in 2016 as one of their most competent alumna, one who best utilized the knowledge and skills gained through her time at that institution of learning. The following excerpt was published on their website and may best verbalize one of Ruth’s crowning achievements:
For the upcoming Indigenous Peoples Day, the Archives and Special Collections has decided to feature Ruth Muskrat, a Cherokee Indian-Irish student from the class of 1925. (An excerpt):
At the age of ten, she witnessed an Oklahoma statehood movement that dissolved Cherokee national institutions, divided up the Cherokee estate, and replaced Cherokee citizenship with United States citizenship. This experience would solidify her philosophy of Indian cultural survival–she insisted that American Indians had a legitimate, legal claim to both a tribal identity and an American identity. She strongly believed in cultivating a new generation of Indian leaders and that viable solutions to Indian problems could only be found by Indians themselves. She presented her philosophy of Indian leadership to a prominent Committee of Indian rights activists known as the Committee of One Hundred during their meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. (SOURCE: Mount Holyoke College archives: http://mhc-asc.tumblr.com/)
Portrait of Ruth Muskrat in Cherokee Indian attire: Five College Compass Digital Collections: circa 1923-1925
The trip, which also included stops in "Hawaii, Manchuria, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong" brought Muskrat to the attention of the international press and awoke in her a desire for racial equality. The following year, she delivered an appeal to the United States government for better educational facilities for Native Americans. The presentation was part of a gathering of Native American leaders, known as the "Committee of One Hundred" to advise the president on American Indian policy. Muskrat advocated for Indians to be involved in solving their own problems. Moved by her speech, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, invited Muskrat to lunch with them.
President Calvin Coolidge presented with a book written by G. E. E. Linquist titled “The Red Man In The United States” (1919). Ruth Muskrat Bronson (center) making the presentation to President Calvin Coolidge on behalf of “The Committee of One Hundred” with Rev. Sherman Coolidge (right), December, 1923. // Credit: Public Domain RuthwPresidentCalvinCoolidge-Dec-1923
Ruth Muskrat with President Calvin Coolidge Dec 1923
Upon graduation from Mount Holyoke, Ruth accepted a position at Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, where she taught English and Literature and served one year as Registrar. At the end of her first year there, she was awarded the Henry G. Morgenthau $1,000 award for the senior who had accomplished the most their first year out of college. (SOURCE: Heritage of the Hills, ibid)
Ruth’s distinguished career is detailed in Wikipedia. It is the summation of this remarkable woman’s remarkable life: After marrying John F. Bronson in 1928, they adopted a native girl. This is the only child of their union. Ruth continued to be active in her career, steadily gaining more recognition for her outstanding talents and her passion for the causes she championed. When the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) created a new program “to improve educational opportunities for Native Americans,” Bronson was appointed its first Guidance and Placement Officer. From 1931 to 1943, Ruth served in this capacity at the BIA. During her tenure she received numerous awards. In 1937, the Indian Achievement Medal of the Indian Council Fire, first nominated for the award in its inaugural year (1933), she was only the second woman to receive the award.
"Ruth Muskrat, ’25. Holyoke alumna who has been
appointed as a Guidance and Placement Officer on the Bureau of Indian
Affairs with a territory of eight mid-West states."
Along with the numerous poems published by Ruth, she also wrote and published a number of books and articles, including her most famous Indians are People Too (1944), The Church in Indian Life (1945) and Shall We Repeat Indian History in Alaska? (1947).
Ruth Muskrat Bronson - 1947
“In 1945, Bronson began working with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and soon emerged as a leader. She was appointed as the executive secretary of the organization and spent a decade monitoring legislative issues. She established the NCAI's legislative news service and spoke at various tribal meetings throughout the country, promoting Native American progress. Some of the issues Bronson was involved with at the NCAI were the debates over native water rights along the Colorado River, native rights in the Territory of Alaska, and medical care for American Indians. After ten years of serving as executive secretary, in 1955, Bronson was elected as treasurer of the NCAI , but she was tired of the contentiousness of national politics and began focusing more on ways to work with local communities.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson - Exec Secretary, National Congress of American Indians, founded 1944
In 1957, Bronson moved to Arizona and became a health education specialist at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation for the Indian Health Service. During the same period, she served as a vice president of the philanthropic ARROW Organization. She managed the education loan and scholarship fund of the organization, as well as advising tribes on community development. In 1962, Bronson was awarded the Oveta Culp Hobby Service Award from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for her work serving Native Americans and retired from government service, moving to Tucson. In 1963, Bronson became the national program chairman of the Community Development Foundation’s American Indian section. The organization operated under the umbrella of the Save the Children Federation. After a stroke in 1972, Bronson slowed, but did not stop her activism for Native Americans to be allowed to determine their own development and leadership programs. In 1978, Bronson was one of the recipients of the National Indian Child Conference's merit award for commitment to improving children's quality of life.”
On 12 June 1982, Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson departed this life to return to the spiritual world of her ancestors. She was in a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona, when she passed beyond the veil. Newspapers around the world carried the news of this passionate advocate’s death, one of them being The New York Times. A link for the obituary published by The Times on 24 June 1982 follows: http://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/24/obituaries/ruth-muskrat-bronson-84-a-specialist-in-indian-affairs.html
Researched and Compiled by Melinda Cohenour