A treasure trove of knowledge on American Indians, past and present, lies ready for exploration in the Special Collections section of Northeastern State University’s John Vaughan Library.
Scholars ranging from undergraduates to professors, from people seeking to complete dissertations at other universities to authors compiling books, come to Special Collections to perform their research.
“I focus just on American Indian history. My biggest collection, of course, is Cherokee. Then the other four [civilized] tribes,” said Delores Sumner, Special Collections librarian. “Since I’m a Plains Indian, I brought in Plains Indian material and others.”
Many of the items are one-of-a-kind, contributed by people who decided to donate their treasures so others could benefit and learn from them.
“People would bring me a book and say, ‘This belonged to my grandmother,’” Sumner said. “In my 30 years, I have known so many people who have come and helped me, brought a lot of donations.”
Sumner’s academic qualifications helped prepare her for her library career: She is a former teacher and has two master’s degrees, including one in library science, from the University of Oklahoma. But the fact that she’s fullblood Comanche also gave her credibility in the field.
And it didn’t hurt that her husband, the late Rex Lee Sumner, was the longtime coach at Sequoyah Indian School. The couple moved to Tahlequah in the mid 1950s. They also had local connections as former Bacone College students.
Sumner, an assistant professor of library science, joined the NSU staff in 1982. At the time, Helen Wheat was in charge of the department, which included a wide variety of material.
“Helen had a little bitty office. I knew her and came up to visit her,” she said.
When Wheat learned Sumner had completed her master’s in library science, she thought she had found the perfect person to take over Special Collections. She went and got the dean, who came in to meet Sumner.
“I was hired on the spot, but of course they had to go through the process,” Sumner said.
Looking around one of the two large rooms that now house Special Collections, Sumner recalled how they were piled with microfilm. They contained many items that had been exhibited in a museum on the first floor of the library, and a variety of books and artifacts people had donated over the years.
“All of the microfilms where just everywhere. It was so packed,” she said.
Sumner had always been interested in American Indian art, artifacts and handiwork, and had helped her Comanche tribe organize a museum. She was able to put those skills to use when tackling her task: reorganizing the department into three sections, archives, special collections and genealogy.
Shortly after Sumner was hired, Vicki Sheffler became the archivist. They also worked with several older women who were genealogy specialists, as they divided the collection, preserved some of the older objects, and made the inventory more valuable and organized for researchers.
“It probably took me two years,” Sumner said. “I had three Cherokee student workers. I was very fortunate to have their help. I came here not knowing Cherokee history, and they were just great.”
She quickly realized she had found her true vocation.
Now, when people come in with questions about Cherokee history, Sumner can answer them readily. Or she can point them in the right direction if she lacks the particular piece of information they’re seeking.
She also frequently hosts international visitors to campus who are curious about American Indians. Last week, a group of students from Denmark visited NSU and Sumner, and her sister spoke with them.
The students were somewhat surprised to see Sumner wearing typical American clothing. They expected her to be in traditional attire — as she is in a couple of portraits behind her desk.
However, they asked many questions about Indian culture and Sumner enjoyed talking with them, as she does with most of the people who pass through the gates to her department.
Among the stacks of books is a locked cage, featuring rare volumes and materials. There also are cabinets of microfilm from newspapers, dating to the early days of Indian Territory. The Cherokee Phoenix is available on microfilm, as are other native papers. Special Collections also has microfilm of Tahlequah and other northeastern Oklahoma newspapers, the Muskogee Phoenix and the Tulsa World.
For many years, Sumner helped Carol Young organize the annual Symposium on the American Indian, along with Mary Oosahwee, Harry Oosahwee and the late Jake Chanate.
“I really enjoyed it. I think it’s because all of a sudden, I was in an environment I just loved,” she said.
Sessions of the Symposium are videotaped. All are indexed and available in Special Collections.
Another bonus of the Symposium has been the number of books added in Special Collections. When an author speaks, he or she is asked to donate a copy of the book for the library.
The department also has maps of the early Indian Territory period. They have been encapsulated and preserved.
“We also have rare language books, mostly for the Five Tribes. I do have language books for other tribes. Some tribes would bring me a book, not ever bound, and we would bind it,” Sumner said. “A lot of tribes did not preserve things.
“I inherited a lot of hymnals from the mid-1800s. They are well preserved,” she added.
Special Collections also contains materials on various activities that have been held on campus.
“I have a vertical file and a bibliography on almost any subject you could want — such as ‘Cherokee, treaties’ or ‘Notable American Indians,’” Sumner said.
Since Sumner has a longtime native presence on campus, questions about American Indians are frequently directed her way. She has answered more than her share of requests from those claiming descent from the proverbial “Cherokee princess.”
One of the more amusing incidents involved a young woman from California seeking information about her heritage.
“She said she was sent by her grandmother to look up this name and trace it,” Sumner said. “She was here for two or three days.. She said her grandmother was a real upper-class social person.”
A couple of days after her arrival, the woman came running up to Sumner.
“She was whooping and hollering. She said, ‘You won’t believe this! I can’t wait to call my grandma!’”
Her discovery? Her grandmother’s ancestor was not a Cherokee princess, but a slave.
The girl said, “You’d have to know my grandmother. She’s hoity-toity,” of her glee in discovering the family’s roots were not quite so lofty.
Many NSU professors have spent days in Special Collections, researching their projects and books. Among the notable ones were Dr. Brad Agnew, professor of history, who used many of the Special Collections materials to write the official history book for NSU’s centennial. Dr. Terri Baker and Connie Henshaw researched material for “Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives.”
Members of the public can Special Collections items in the reading room. The materials are non-circulating, but staff members can make copies of them as needed.
Over the years, Special Collections has become not only Sumner’s second home, but grew to reflect her personality and taste. She has decorated it with artwork, baskets, pots and other American Indian creations.
Perhaps researchers aren’t the only ones who appreciate the welcome she has provided. Occasionally, a researcher working alone hears unexplained noises, and one reported seeing a long calico skirt pass by as she was seated on the floor.
Seminary Hall isn’t the only building on the NSU campus with a ghostly legend. The spirit in Special Collections may have been seeking records of her long-ago tenure at the Cherokee Female Seminary.
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