Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee poet, educator and Indian rights activist, is a person who should be in all our history books. Her passion, creativity, and dedication to her people alone earned her a place in history. But her story is a missing from our history books. Muskrat Bronson acted when women were struggling to be seen and to vote. In addition, she was a mixed race Indian with all the racial difficulties that came with that. It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name.
Muskrat was born Sunday, October 3, 1897 in White Water, on the Delaware Nation Reservation in Indian territory (now Oklahoma). Her father, James Ezekial Muskrat, was a Cherokee who’s ancestors had traveled the Trail of Tears in the late 1839s. Ida Lenora (nee Kelly) was her mother, an Irish-English transplant from Missouri whose family had moved to Indian Territory.
Muskrat’s surviving relatives and biographers believe her father’s “Restricted Indian” status and his struggle to become a citizen heavily influenced her world view .
Restricted status meant that while her father held the title to their land, he could not sell or trade the land without the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. (For more information, see the Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQ page. )
As early as 1817, U.S. citizenship had been conferred by special treaty upon specific groups of Indian people. American citizenship was also conveyed by statutes, naturalization proceedings, and by service in the Armed Forces with an honorable discharge in World War I. In 1924, Congress extended American citizenship to all other American Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
The Curtis Act
At ten, she lived through devastation to her people by the Curtis Act of 1898.
The Curtis Act, an amendment of the Dawes Act, called for the abolition of tribal governments on March 6, 1907. The act meant to establish individual landholdings in the European-American model for subsistence farming by families. It also provided for the establishment of public schools. But the lands in Indian Territory and the dry climate made the 160-acre allotments too small to permit profitable farming.
Originally her people (one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory) were exempt from the 1887 General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) because of the terms of their treaties. The Curtis Act meant that when she was ten, the tribes lost control of about 90 million acres of their communal lands. They lost more in subsequent years.
Muskrat enrolled in preparatory school at the Oklahoma Institute of Technology at fourteen. After she graduated in 1916, she went to Henry Kendall College in Tulsa, then Northeastern State Teacher’s College.
Financial hardships forced her to quit school and teach for two years. She attended three semesters at the University of Oklahoma in 1919.
During the summer of 1921, she worked for the YWCA. They sent her to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. There, her organizing efforts and the subsequent report she wrote about those efforts earned her a scholarship to the University of Kansas. She studied at KU for three more semesters.
She wrote and published poems during her college days.
“Songs of the Spavinaw” (1920)
I am the river of Spavinaw,
I am the river of pain;
Sadness and gladness must answer my law;
Measure for measure I give, and withdraw
Back through the hills of the Spavinaw,
Hiding away from the plain.
Read the rest of the poem and an analysis of it on poemanalysis.com.
Read her poem “The Trail of Tears” published by the University of Oklahoma Magazine in 1922. She also wrote “The Hunter’s Wooing” (1921), “Sonnets from the Cherokee” (1922), and “If You Knew” (1923).
Early Political Work
At twenty-five, she was the first Native American to represent her people internationally. As part of a YWCA youth conference delegation, she traveled to Hawaii, Manchuria, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. The trip brought her to the attention of the International Press. It also inspired her to become a cultural activist.
The following year, she traveled to many places and worked for racial equality. For her public appearances, she wore a Plains Indians buckskin dress. She chose that dress because that was how most Americans thought all Indians dressed. She wanted them to see her as an Indian.
Her most important appearance was a presentation and speech she made. The “Committee of One Hundred” was a group of Native American leaders intended to advise President Coolidge on American Indian policy.
Part of that Committee, she presented President Coolidge with the volume of the “Red Man in the United States: An intimate study of the Social, Economic, and Religious Life of the American Indian.” She also gave a speech advocating for Indians to solve their own problems.
Mr. President, there have been so many discussions of the so-called Indian Problem. May not we, who are the Indian students of America, who must face the burden of that problem, say to you what it means to us?Antiques Roadshow, PBS
Later Education and Early Work
In 1923, she enrolled at Mount Holyoke College with a full scholarship. She graduated with a BA in English after two years.
After graduation, she taught English at the largest Indian school in the world, the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. She became head of the college placement bureau and won the Henry Morgenthau Prize in 1926. The prize was for best use of her college education in the first year after graduation.
She married a Connecticut Yankee, John Bronson, in 1928. They adopted a native Indian girl. She was their only child.
Muskrat Bronson got a job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She implemented the first national American Indian higher education program through the BIA. Traveling across American Indian country, she increased the number of American Indian students enrolled in higher education by at least 200%.
Awarded the Indian Achievement Medal of the Indian Council of Fire in 1937, Muskrat Bronson was the second woman to have received the award since its inception.
Muskrat Bronson left the BIA in 1943 to raise her daughter. During this period, she wrote and published several books and articles including: Indians are People Too (1944), The Church in Indian Life (1945), and Shall We Repeat Indian History in Alaska (1947).
The National Congress of American Indians
Later, Muskrat Bronson worked at the NCAI. Appointed the executive secretary of the organization, she spent a decade monitoring legislative issues.
She promoted Native American progress at tribal meeting across the country. She advocated for native water rights along the Colorado River, Alaska native rights, and gaining quality medical care for American Indians.
They elected Muskrat Bronson treasurer of the NCAI in 1955. After that, she focused on ways to work directly with local communities.
She moved to Arizona in 1957. There, she worked for Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. She was a health education specialist at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
Muskrat Bronson also served a philanthropic organization called ARROW. Once again, she managed the education loan and scholarship funds of that organization. And she advised tribes about community development.
In 1962, Muskrat Bronson received the Oveta Culp Hobby Service Award from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for her work to improve the lives of Native Americans. And she retired from government service.
After she moved to Tucson, she became the national chairperson of the Community Development Foundation’s American Indian section under the umbrella of the Save the Children Foundation.
Muskrat Bronson continued to advocate for Native Americans to determine their own development and leadership programs, even after a stroke in 1972.
She was a recipient of the National Indian Child Conference’s merit award in 1978 for her commitment to improving children’s quality of life.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson died in Tucson, Arizona on June 12, 1982.
It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name. Ruth Muskrat Bronson embraced her mixed heritage. She believed Indians could benefit from many things from both cultures. For her entire life, she advocated for American Indians to maintain their culture and be self-determining.
Our shame is that despite Muskrat’s tireless work, today approximately 90,000 American Indian families are under-housed or homeless and only 13% of American Indians have a college degree.
Stop our national shame. Speak out, volunteer, buy Native American products, support our American Indian communities.
Her story is missing from our history books. Embrace our real history. It is our national shame we aren’t taught about people like Muskrat Bronson. We don’t own how we’ve mistreated others, especially American Indians. What will you do to advocate like Ruth Muskrat Bronson?