Clydia Dotson Nahwooksy

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, from the 1978 Festival of American Folklife

Cherokee Cultural Activist and Specialist on American Indian Affairs

Clydia Dotson Nahwooksy


Clydia Nahwooksy is best known throughout Indian country for her work as an advocate and activist for Indian rights. A Cherokee born in Oklahoma, she served as a consultant in Indian affairs to various tribes and organizations. She volunteered on boards and commissions and with numerous organizations for the preservation and sharing of Native American languages, culture, and history. A graduate of Bacone College (Oklahoma), Nahwooksy also studied at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and at Idaho State University, Pocatello. She was a graduate of the Department of the Interior’s Management Training Program.

Nahwooksy worked as an Administrative Assistant with the Indian Health Service and in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Education Office at the Fort Hall Agency, Idaho. She then became Special Assistant to Commissioner Morris Thompson in the BIA in Washington, DC. Having worked for many years with Indian cultural programs, she was selected to coordinate the Bureau’s three national Bicentennial projects in cooperation with Indian tribes. She spent 20 years in Washington, DC.

In the 1970s, Nahwooksy served as director of the Indian Awareness Program for the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife. Her work with the Festival included bringing Native American groups to the National Mall for festival performances and demonstrations to an audience of hundreds of thousands of summer visitors to Washington, DC. The trust and respect she earned working with American Indian communities served her well in helping to organize the usual presentations of Native traditions combined with panel discussions of contemporary social, political, and economic issues facing Native communities. More than three decades before the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, Nahwooksy participated in a new approach for presenting Native cultures, pioneered by the Folklife Festival, which involved American Indians interpreting their own histories and cultures at the Smithsonian. This new way for presenting Native cultures significantly departed from the Smithsonian’s previous static ethnographic modes of displaying Native peoples without their engagement in the process.

In 1986, Nahwooksy entered the seminary in Rochester, New York, after which she returned for ordination in Oklahoma. Rev. Clydia Nahwooksy was an active pastor and a member of the Board of National Ministries and the American Baptist Churches USA General Board. When possible, Nahwooksy brought her worlds together, as when she called the Historical Society and friends at the Smithsonian for help in planning an inventory of the church archives at Rainy Mountain. She understood the church records were valuable for understanding the heritage of the congregation and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Her legacy is found not just in churches, but in the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. She also pressed successfully for the Smithsonian to open up its Indian collections for study and use by tribal leaders and historians, which became the precursor to the National Museum of the American Indian. She was a member of the American Folklore Society and the National Congress of American Indians.

Olivia Cadaval