In the hills of Sequoyah County, in the heart of the Cherokee Nation reservation, sits the iconic Dwight Mission campus. For almost 120 years, Dwight Mission served as a Cherokee boarding school. It’s only fitting that the tribe is now assuming ownership of this hallowed location with profound historical significance for Cherokees.
The Dwight Mission campus includes the historic school building as well as several dormitories and single-family dwellings set along Sallisaw Creek, near Marble City. Cherokee Nation recently acquired the original 86-acre parcel from the Dwight Presbyterian Mission Inc., along with an additional 120 acres the mission acquired over the years. It can serve a wide array of functions, including as a potential Camp Cherokee site and a retreat location.
When Dwight Mission was originally built in Indian Territory, it was one of the first schools for Native children. Cherokees have always valued the education and spiritual health of our children, and Dwight Mission was an important part of that.
The history of Native boarding schools in this country is complicated and includes many tragic abuses that must be investigated in depth. Dwight Mission was established by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Indian missions, like Indian residential schools established by the Department of the Interior, provided Indian children with boarding, education and exposure to religion designed to assimilate the children into mainstream culture. This assimilation came at a steep price to Native peoples across the United States, a price we are still paying today in terms of the erosion of indigenous languages, cultures, lifeways and the very loss of life among some students. We know that, sadly, in its deep history, misfortune struck at Dwight Mission and dormitory fires tragically took young lives.
There are surely other chapters in Dwight Mission’s history still to uncover. 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. Exploring all of this, however uncomfortable and sorrowful that exploration may be at times, ultimately helps inform a larger and fuller understanding of Cherokee history and American history. However, we know, too, that Dwight Mission served as a beacon for Cherokee youth over many generations. That aspect of its history must also be explored. Dwight Mission has been essential to the Sequoyah County community for years and will soon, more than ever, also be a source of positive economic impact on the region as we open the facility to visitors. There are more chapters — bright chapters — to be written in the story of Dwight Mission.
I am proud that Cherokee Nation and our business arm, Cherokee Nation Businesses, is purchasing the Dwight Mission to protect it for posterity. Acquiring and preserving this facility has been an important endeavor for myself and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. We take very seriously our sworn oath of office to protect the culture and history of our tribal nation. We will continue restoring the historic property, because the preservation of sites that shape our story as Cherokees is a gift to future generations. Indeed, since the enactment of the Cherokee Nation Historic Registry Act of 2020, Deputy Chief Warner and I have made a concerted effort to identify and preserve historic sites across our tribal lands. The acquisition of Dwight Mission is just the latest evidence that this new law is fueling a new era of historic preservation across Cherokee Nation.
Originally established in 1820 near Russellville, Arkansas, Dwight Mission was relocated in 1829 after the forced removal of Cherokees from Arkansas to Indian Territory. It reopened in 1830 and operated until 1948, primarily serving as a boarding school and ministry for Cherokee students. It predates statehood and survived the Civil War.
For the past 70 years, the site had been used for Presbyterian Church camp and conference activities. We appreciate their stewardship of the site, but the history of Dwight Mission runs much deeper. The land is changing hands, but our strong friendship with the regional Presbyterian leadership will continue.
Dwight Mission was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and going forward, we will add the Dwight Mission property to our Cherokee Nation Registry of Historic Places. In the months ahead, we will develop plans for the future of Dwight Mission, and that future will be bright. The mission’s history is worth exploring fully. But we know that at its best the mission was a place that could lift up young people, and with this purchase we will continue this part of its legacy. In the capable hands of Cherokee Nation, Dwight Mission will remain true to the ideals of service and fellowship and be a positive impact on young people for the next 120 years.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.