The archives of the Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club contain the membership files of many of the Cherokee women who have at some time been a member of the club. The files all look pretty much the same until you open them. Hidden inside each folder is the unique histories of many of the hundreds of members of the club since the club was founded eight years before Oklahoma became a state.
More than 60 years after the Pocahontas Club made the commitment to document a great deal of the history of the Cherokee people, President John F. Kennedy wrote, “History, after all, is the memory of a nation . . . it is the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose.”
After the recent passing of longtime member Billie L. Heiligman, the club was updating her file. Many will tell you, even though she didn’t start her career until she had finished raising her four children, she became a legend in the Claremore education community. With all of her accomplishments, it was not a surprise that her file is a little thicker than most.
She began her teaching career as an English teacher and concluded as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Claremore Public Schools. She loved to learn as well as teach. Her longtime friend, Pat Reeder, described her simply by saying, “Billie Heiligman was one of the smartest and most compassionate people I have ever known.”
In her lifelong pursuit of learning, Heiligman must have written many papers on many topics. A copy of a thoroughly researched 14-page academic paper written by her titled “The Cherokee Indian from 1540” was found in her Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club file. Although undated, it appears this paper was authored in the late 1960s.
This paper does a masterful job of recounting the history of the Cherokee people. It starts with the first known European contact. Fourteen pages later, it concludes by recounting the organized effort of the federal government to create societal collapse of the Cherokee people. The plan was to create the loss of cultural identity and self-governance with the implementation of the Dawes Act.
The Dawes Act plainly stated that its goal, in part, was to abolish the communal lands of the Cherokee Nation along with our tribal government and much of our traditional ways. The dissolution of the tribal governments would clear the way for Indian Territory to become the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
A group of young Cherokee women from the Cooweescoowee District joined together in 1899 to form the Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club. It was not long until they became known as keepers of history and culture. For more than 120 years they have graciously refused to allow the collective memory of their Cherokee people to disappear. The federal government underestimated the dedication of these Cherokee women like Billie Heiligman, to be the “memory of a nation.”