Ghostly tales have surrounded Seminary Hall for decades.
The legendary Florence Wilson, longtime principal of the Cherokee Female Seminary, is the emphasis for many of these stories. For several years, Northeastern State University graduate students have led spook-seekers through the lantern-lit halls, telling about sightings of Florence and other spectral spirits.
So the Cherokee Female Seminary was a natural selection for the setting of “The Revenant,” Sonia Gensler’s first novel, published in June.
Gensler didn’t choose to center her story around Wilson, however.
“I wanted a story based on the student population, rather than teachers,” she said Thursday.
Gensler was one of five speakers during the opening session of the annual State of Sequoyah Conference at NSU, hosted by the State of Sequoyah Commission.
For her protagonist, she created Willie Hammond, a 17-year-old student at the Columbia Athenaeum in Tennessee. Summoned home to labor on the family farm, she instead steals the identity of classmate Angelina McClure. Angelina has taken a job teaching at the Cherokee Female Seminary, but instead planned to get married.
Willie found it the perfect escape. After all, how difficult could it be to teach the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic to a group of backwoods Cherokee girls?
Imagine Willie’s surprise when she found the girls to be her contemporaries in age, and much more sophisticated than she had imagined. She learned some were wealthy young women from “good” Cherokee families, who lorded it over the less sophisticated fullbloods from the country. The plot begins to thicken when she finds she is assigned to a room previously occupied by a student who had drowned, and begins to hear strange noises in the night.
Could it be the drowned girl, trying to return to tell her something?
Gensler said she learned a lot about the culture of the Cherokee Nation in the late 19th Century, and especially the Cherokee Female Seminary, when doing her research. Although writing fiction, she wanted to make the story as historically accurate as possible.
She chose the Cherokee Female Seminary after a friend showed her Seminary Hall during a visit to Tahlequah. Gensler marveled at the Victorian castle-like structure and was even more impressed as she learned its history.
“The 19th Century was an exciting time for female education because educators were finally beginning to realize that girls could handle the same type of subjects boys did,” she said.
And, “girls’ schools are inherently full of drama,” she added.
Gensler’s concept of Indian boarding schools was that of the federal model — one where children were taken from their families and forcibly acculturated into white ways of life.
And while she studied the Trail of Tears in her history courses, the Cherokee Nation wasn’t mentioned after that tragedy of the 1830s. She was surprised to discover how the nation had prospered, struggled, and survived until statehood.
During her presentation, she showed photos of the federal schools, where frowning students posed stiffly, their teachers sitting to one side.
She contrasted those photos with those of students at the Cherokee seminaries, ranging from the uniformed girls taking their daily walk, two by two, to more informal shots.
“They are smiling, they are fashionable, they are individuals,” she said of one photo, which showed several young women posing, presumably by the bridge now spanning the creek on Muskogee Avenue.
Another photo portrayed the class of 1892.
“Elegance, pride, diversity,” Gensler described these graduates. “That was interesting to me and I wanted to know more.”
A photo of a male seminary group showed the boys posing informally, with their teachers sitting among them.
While the original 1851 buildings were fine examples of mid-19th Century architecture, new Female Seminary, built after the 1887 fire at Park Hill, was magnificent for its day.
“It had indoor plumbing, steam heat, elaborate washrooms and toilets,” Gensler said.
The girls shown in the photos, in front of what was to become Seminary Hall, were equally elegant.
Another photo showed a group of girls holding formal and rather awkward poses, garlands of flowers draped around them, in what was probably a presentation of a Shakespeare play.
Yet another photo also shows a group of students together in 1892.
“I thought, ‘These girls have some good secrets, and I want to make some up for them,’” Gensler said.
She also researched the academic and social life of male and female seminary students. This research bears fruit with her descriptions of daily life in “The Revenant.”
The girls rose at 5:30 a.m., and lights were out at 9 p.m. They had classes from 8:30 a.m. to 4:05 p.m., studying such subjects as Latin, physics, history and penmanship.
“I sometimes feel we need to get that subject back,” Gensler said of the latter.
She said Wilson “was a math geek. She would solve complicated math problems in her head, rather than reading a novel.”
And, as if the inimitable Wilson weren’t scary enough, she’d make students perform similar feats in front of her.
While many girls attended the academy, relatively few graduated.
The 1896 enrollment roster listed 30 freshmen, 21 sophomores, 11 juniors, and only seven seniors.
Students at both seminaries spent much of their time studying, walking or performing military drills, and attending chapel.
“They did get to have some fun with church activities and literary societies,” Gensler said.
They also got to socialize during picnics, literary and musical performances. But normally, contact between the male and female seminarians was closely chaperoned, as described in several scenes from “The Revenant.”
“There were stories about girls who suddenly announced they had a brother coming to visit,” Gensler said.
Naturally, the “brothers” were boyfriends or prospective suitors. Tales of Wilson relate that she was relentless in ferreting out such unbrotherly impostors.
While the curriculum was varied and demanding, “nowhere was there any indication that they learned tribal history or studied the Cherokee language in school,” Gensler said.
However, the students were kept informed of tribal matters and attended political events.
Bad behavior brought demerits. Only two girls were expelled from the Female Seminary — one after she was caught kissing a (male) cook, another for trying to set the building on fire.
Once, some students were caught smoking cigars.
“They were so sick from that experience the teachers figured that was punishment enough,” Gensler said.
She enjoyed delving into history, and now gives presentations on it to history classes around Oklahoma.
“That was my journey of learning about the Cherokee Female Seminary, and I want to take that into the classrooms,” she said.
And “The Revenant” may lead to tales of new ghosts haunting Seminary Hall. Perhaps, during this fall’s annual ghost tours, these specters will make their presence known.
Sonia Gensler, author of “The Revenant,” spoke about her research during the State of Sequoyah Conference Thursday.
Ghostly tales have surrounded Seminary Hall for decades.
Tahlequah Public Schools Foundation awards $30K
Tahlequah Public Schools Foundation recently awarded more than $30,000 to TPS teachers for education projects.
Tibbets: Art an important cultural element
The incomparable beauty of nature inspires Dennis Tibbits to paint.
“I believe my love of the Illinois River, especially the Barren Fork, has greatly influenced the type of material I prefer doing,” said Tibbits.
His love of landscapes – “riverscapes,” as he calls them – began about the same time he started floating the river in the 1970s as a student at Northeastern State University.
Tibbits, an instructor and clinical supervisor of Speech and Language Pathology at NSU, graduated from Stilwell High School in 1971. He earned a bachelor’s degree from NSU in 1975 and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas in 1976, both in speech-language pathology. He came full-circle when he took a teaching job at NSU in 2007, after doing clinical speech pathology for more than 30 years.
In the early ‘70s, he did his first oil paintings and three of them hang in his house today.
Senior Citizens dance makes mark in history
It was nearly 14 years ago when Charles Scott and Dorothy Crawford were sitting across the table from each other having lunch at the Tahlequah Senior Citizens Center, when Charles spoke up and said, “I think I’ll go see the mayor and city council and get a senior citizens dance started.”
Bright colors in for spring fashion
The occasional snowflake may still be floating down from the sky, but bright colors and textures are making local boutiques and stores look like spring has already arrived.
Bright colors, loose-weave accessories in scarves, jackets and vests and dresses are beginning to replace winter items in display windows and on the racks.
Neon and leopard prints are always on hand at Obsession Boutique, said owner Amanda Harris.
Floral and tribal prints, corals, melon and mint green and sequins for bling are beginning to brighten the store on cute sundresses, skinny jeans, leggings, and jeggings, said Harris.
- Polar Plunge raises thousands for Special Olympics More than 110 participants from local schools and organizations took part in Saturday’s Polar Plunge for the Special Olympics at Arrowhead Resort on the Illinois River. They raised a total of $15,400 for the athletes to buy uniforms and help with travel and lodging for the Oklahoma Special Olympics in May. Participating were groups from Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah Police Department, Tahlequah Public Schools, and others.
Ross shares gospel in variety of settings
Pastor Sean Ross uses a variety of classes to teach the word of God to his congregation, whether at church, a nursing home or elsewhere.
“Our church is small and precious. We enjoy singing the old hymns, as well as new praise. We are looking to grow in the Lord and in his favor,” Ross said.
Light Workers heal human energy
Light Workers are healers, but not in the traditional medical sense. They heal human energy.
Tinsley’s family an inspiration for teaching
Lessons from life on the farm are teaching tools for Greenwood’s newest Teacher of the Year.
Second-grade teacher Kym Tinsley’s family is important. In the summer, she works on Canyon Ridge Farm, owned by her parents.
“I use the experiences from the farm life in my classroom on a daily basis, through writing, reading, and math,” she said.
She has a happy, colorful and friendly classroom. She recently greeted two children at the classroom door with a smile. As she interacted with them, asking questions about a story, they searched for clues and find answers.
Tinsley rewarded each girl with a compliment, based on their answers and asked more questions. The girls searched for answers once more.
For Tinsley, children are definitely the best part of teaching,
Grass fire erupts near Welling
Members of the Tahlequah and Welling fire departments knocked down a grass fire on Saturday, Feb. 15 on Bright Star Drive. The blaze threatened buildings and blackened several acres before firefighters were able to contain it.
Works o' art
Elizabeth Price views a display of clay pots at the Spider Gallery during the Tahlequah Public Schools Foundation ”Uncorked” Wine & Cheese Tasting Fundraiser Thursday, Feb. 13.
- More Features Headlines
- Tahlequah Public Schools Foundation awards $30K