JACKSON, Tenn. – Nov. 8, 2013 – An interest in Native American culture led Union University alumna Patricia Dawson to not only learn more about her family history but also win an award for her undergraduate research.
Graduating in May 2013 with a history degree, Dawson recently discovered that a history paper she wrote about Cherokee clothing her senior year won the Phi Alpha Theta Lynn W. Turner Prize – a $500 first place award for undergraduate submissions.
Dawson is a member of Union’s Delta-Psi chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, a national history honor society with more than 350,000 members. She submitted her research paper into the competition soon after graduation.
Stephen Carls, university history professor and Phi Alpha Theta adviser, said that Dawson represented the first Delta-Psi chapter member to win a national Phi Alpha Theta paper prize, and that the prize she won was the highest that Phi Alpha Theta offers for undergraduates.
“(Receiving this award) is very humbling, and I am glad I can add a little to Union’s academic achievements,” Dawson said. “I am proud of Union and its stellar faculty for fostering an environment where such academic achievement is possible.”
Dawson said her Cherokee heritage sparked a natural curiosity in Native American traditions. But several years ago, Dawson realized how serious clothing was to her ancestors after she saw a painting of Sequoyah, a Native American who invented the Cherokee syllabary.
“For the Cherokees, clothing was a very important part of identity,” Dawson said. “It is hard to imagine this in our society, where clothing is ready made and most people don’t think about it in a deep way.”
Dawson decided to learn more about Native American dress for an assigned Senior Seminar research paper, focusing on the importance of clothing to Cherokee culture. Keith Bates, an associate history professor who taught the seminar, advised Dawson with her 25-page paper, titled “The Weapon on Dress: Identity, Acculturation, and the Transition of Cherokee Clothing, 1794-1838.”
The Cherokees felt pressured to wear clothing styles that satisfied Euro-American concepts of civilization, Dawson said. But the Cherokees also found ways to mix their identity with their new fashions, incorporating moccasins, elaborate beadwork, cloth leggings and colorful turbans into their outfits.
“In order to survive, the Cherokees needed to wear clothing that Americans considered ‘civilized,’” Dawson said. “At the same time, assimilation meant compromising Cherokee identity. Cherokee clothing, with all its accompanying tensions and complexity, served as a carefully chosen weapon for the survival of identity.”
During her research, Dawson said she could not find any other published studies detailing the significance of Cherokee clothing. But she did discover an array of information about Native American dress, as she was able to use sources such as letters, diaries, paintings and newspaper clippings to gather information.
“No one else has written about this before, but the topic is so rich,” Dawson said. “I hope scholars will turn their attention to it.”
By Beth Knoll