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Presbyterian camp land in Oklahoma returned to Cherokee Nation

Dwight Mission’s administration building. Library of Congress photo taken in 1979.

On paper, this might have seemed like a straightforward property transaction: On June 23, Cherokee Nation acquired about 200 acres in Sequoyah County in eastern Oklahoma, land on which since the early 1950s the Dwight Mission Camp and Conference Center has operated a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related summer camp.

Like many stories involving land, people and history, dig a little deeper and you’ll find this one’s complicated — a story of intertwining connections between Presbyterian missionaries and Native Americans going back 200 years; of the nation’s scarred history In its treatment of Indigenous people; of a boarding school at Dwight Mission that educated generations of Cherokee children; of the economic difficulties confronting many Presbyterian camps and conference centers; of land that’s been long-cherished and is now returning to the Cherokee people who lived there before the state of Oklahoma ever existed.

Here are some of the nuts and bolts.

Map of Oklahoma and Indian Territory circa 1890s made by Kmusser made using Census Bureau Data. (Adapted by Presbyterian Outlook)  CC BY-SA 3.0 

The recent land transaction involves an historic, 86-acre parcel – the first mission to the Cherokee people west of the Mississippi River – that is now being returned to Cherokee Nation, plus the purchase of 120 acres the mission added on over the years.

While Dwight Mission Camp and Conference Center has its own board of directors that formally approved the transaction, Presbyterians have been deeply involved in the conversations leading to the transfer, including representatives from three presbyteries – the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma, Cimarron Presbytery and the Presbytery of Indian Nations – who are ex officio members of the board.

A key driver in those conversations: the economic challenges of keeping a church-related camp financially solvent.

Bill Wiles

As a camp, Dwight Mission was “serving a dwindling Presbyterian population in the state of Oklahoma and facing significant competition from other camps,” said William “Bill” M. Wiles, who serves on the Dwight Mission board and is treasurer of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery.

“The two dorms that were put together were mainly for youth camps. So you had bunk beds and communal bathrooms” — a tough sell when trying to attract adult groups for a conference or retreat, who wanted more amenities.

For a time, the camp shut down operations while efforts at fundraising continued. Despite the financial challenges, Dwight Mission is cherished land.

“It’s a very spiritual place,” Wiles said. “It’s what I call a thin place. It’s a place where heaven and earth can touch each other from time to time. People who come to the camp experience that. Over many generations, it has had a powerful and positive spiritual impact on people who come there.”

Ultimately, conversations led to the agreement that the Cherokee Nation would once again have the land.

“We’re honored to have the property back,” said Travis Owens, director of cultural tourism for Cherokee Nation. “The presbyteries have been great stewards of the property over the years, but the connection to Cherokee Nation dates back to the early 1820s.”

While exact plans are still being developed, “we want to pay respect to the history of the site in some way,” Owens said. “We envision the space being used as some type of camp and conference center,” with the possibility that it could still be used for some Presbyterian camp sessions. “We’re excited to have the land back in our possession and to honor that shared history.”

When Cherokee Nation announced the transfer, members of the tribe posted on social media about their own connections with the land — telling of a grandmother who attended school there, of relatives buried in the cemetery, of being married on the property 39 years ago, of family reunions on the grounds, of a grandmother and grandfather who met at the school.

“Dwight is recognized as a very spiritual place with deep historical roots and deep impact on the Cherokee people who have been there more than 200 years,” Wiles said. “The Cherokee Nation that we’ve been in relationship with for 200 years are the right ones to take it on. They have the knowledge, the money, the expertise, they understand the story and they value it.”

Cherokee Nation officials joined representatives from Dwight Presbyterian Mission to formalize the acquisition of the historic Sequoyah County property. Officials are photographed in front of the 1917 schoolhouse, which was renovated in 2014 with financial support from Cherokee Nation. Front row: Preston Bobo, board vice president for Dwight Presbyterian Mission Inc.; Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.; Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner. Back row: Secretary of State Tina Glory Jordan; Bill Wiles, board treasurer for Dwight Presbyterian Mission Inc.; Charlie Smith, administrative officer for Indian Nations Presbytery; District 5 Tribal Councilor E.O. Smith; Chief of Staff Todd Enlow; and Cherokee Nation Delegate to Congress Kimberly Teehee.

Dwight Mission – one of the first missions to Native Americans in the United States – originally was established in 1820 near Russellville, Arkansas, by Presbyterian minister Cephas Washburn, at the request of Tahlonteskee, the Principal Chief of the Western Cherokees, who sought educational opportunities for Native American children. The original mission – essentially a small town, with at least two dozen structures – was named after Timothy Dwight IV, the eighth president of Yale University and one of the founders of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was a Protestant organization that sought to evangelize Native Americans.

Photo by Jmbranum, CC SA 3.0

In 1828, under the provisions of a new treaty reluctantly signed, the Western Cherokees known as the Old Settlers gave up their land in Arkansas and in exchange for land in Indian Territory, in what’s now Oklahoma — and left before the forced removal of Cherokee people that would come a decade later along the Trail of Tears.

In 1929, Washburn moved west as well, establishing a new Dwight Mission along Sallisaw Creek near what’s now Marble City, Oklahoma — with white Protestant missionaries, Congregationalists and Presbyterians providing education and Christian teaching.

From there, the entangled Presbyterian and Native American history at this place unfolds over more than a century, with many twists and turns.

While the missionaries brought English and Christianity to the Cherokee people, Congregationalist minister Samuel Worcester, then living in Georgia, helped translate the Bible into the Cherokee language and establish the first Cherokee newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. He helped push a case that led to a landmark 1832 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Worcester v. Georgia, in which Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that Indian Nations were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights,” laying the foundation for the principle of tribal sovereignty in U.S. law. In 1835, Worcester moved west to Dwight Mission, staying there a year before moving further north.

In the early years, Dwight Mission had its own printing press, using it to print hymnals and textbooks in the Cherokee language, said Bill Hellen, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa who helps maintain the archives there.

During the Civil War, the school at Dwight Mission closed for a time — caught up in the national schisms. Some wealthy Cherokees owned enslaved people, and “the Cherokee Nation was very divided, as the whole country was,” Hellen said. “Some were pro-Union. Many were pro-Confederate,” having moved to Oklahoma from the South. “Many of the tribal leaders were slave holders.”

The schoolhouse on the Dwight Mission property.

During the war, buildings at Dwight Mission were burned; the missionaries left; and the school was abandoned — then re-established in 1881 as a Presbyterian mission school, with some financing for dorms provided by the women’s association from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, Wiles said. For roughly the next 70 years, Dwight Mission operated as a boarding school for Native American children — except for a few years following a tragic fire on Jan. 12, 1918, in which 13 boys, ages 9 to 17, died when fire swept through their dormitory in the middle of the night.

Some of the boys who died that night are buried in the cemetery at Dwight Mission, as are generations of Native American families and some of the early missionaries, with the cemetery – which is still being used for burials – well-cared for by people from the community.

While stories continue to emerge in the United States and Canada about abuses and deaths of children at Indigenous boarding schools, the story of Dwight Mission appears somewhat different, Owens said. “It’s a complicated history. Cherokee Nation invited the mission to our lands in the early 1820s. It wasn’t a boarding school in the context most people envision,” established by the federal government. “This school was still part of the Cherokee community in a way that helped.”

In 2014, Cherokee Nation provided $120,000, matched by funds from the Walton Family Foundation, to help begin restoration on a three-story structure at Dwight Mission that has housed, over the years, classrooms and administrative offices, with a 200-seat auditorium on the top floor. That restoration, like Dwight Mission itself, is a work in progress.

Photo by Jmbranum, CC SA 3.0

Set in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the Dwight Mission land is rural, with rolling hills, and “crystal clear green waters” of Sallisaw Creek that reflect the forest around it, Owens said.

The land transfer this summer is another new beginning in a place that has seen so many. As Cherokee Nation ascertains how the site will be used, visitors will be encouraged “to re-evaluate history, because we know it’s not always told correctly,” Owens said. “We will work really hard to share an authentic and accurate story,” of 200 years of entwined history between Presbyterians and the Cherokee Nation.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, wrote recently that “assimilation came at a steep price to Native people across the United States,” and that “even as we celebrate the acquisition of this historic place, we would be remiss if we did not undertake a critical look at Dwight Mission’s history and how it fits into the larger history of boarding schools in the United States.”

He also wrote, however, of his hope that Dwight Mission, which “served as a beacon for Cherokee youth over many generations,” might continue to play such a role and that “our strong friendship with regional Presbyterian leadership will continue” in the years to come.

“There are more chapters – bright chapters – to be written in the story of Dwight Mission,” Hoskin wrote. The story still unfolds.

Cherokee Nation announced the acquisition of Dwight Mission in Sequoyah County on June 23, 2021.