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The Cherokee Museum with Dorothy Heathcote

In 2010, Dorothy Heathcote led a weekend workshop for teachers and drama practitioners at Newman University. The chosen focus was the Cherokee Nation, and the “Trail of Tears” (when the Cherokee people were forced to leave their homeland in North and South Carolina, and march to a new home in Oklahoma).

The video is an extended record of the weekend, showing different ways that Dorothy tackled the topic. Here is the message which Dorothy sent to participants before the event:

1. The context will be that a group of students have been approached by a Cherokee Museum seeking their help in enabling visitors like themselves, when they enter a museum, to see behnd the actual exhibition of memorabilia and information. To discover  that people at all times have common understanding to bring to what at first seems strange and sometimes very alien ideas.

2. The point of view from which all the work will spring is that a commission has been requested to fulfill the requests embedded in the context.

3. The curriculum content is Cherokee life at the time of the "Trail of Tears"

4. The essential documents to provide information and to be interrogated to fulfill the commission are "The Journal of Jesse Smoke" by Joseph Bruchac, and statements from "The Cherokee Trails Guidebook" by Barbara R. Duncan and Brett H. Riggs.

The context/commission should enable any class to perforce meet the evidence with a built-in purpose to create interest in the Cherokee people/s, avoiding teacher dependence and transmission teaching.

jesse smoke.jpg

Special focus will be upon: preparing and using documents, dramatic ways of demonstrating cultural elements which flavour nations.


One notable feature of the work was that Dorothy did not see it as a “Mantle,” where the children would be working as a fictional “team” or “enterprise,” but rather, as a “commission.” In other words: the children would receive the “commission” as themselves, rather than in some fictional “Mantle” frame and context.


She stated that, in this case, “I’m not building a business of people who run museums.” There would not be time to do this over the two days of the event; “so it’s got to be a commission.” The commission itself, however, was fictional, not real. In this way, the work could be seen as a hybrid form, between the Commission Model and Mantle of the Expert.

The “commission letter”


The first task for participants, was to “create the commission.” This meant drafting a letter, which would come (supposedly) from a woman working in the Cherokee Museum. Dorothy even selected a photograph of a Cherokee woman, to represent the person writing the letter.

She said: “The first task, then, is to create the letter, and I’ll take that into the teachers’ language for initiating the commission. Because from then on, it’s that lady in the museum that we’re working for, and I’ve made her ... a direct descendant, she’s a Cherokee lady and she’s running the Cherokee Museum, or at least she’s in charge of it. So she has a vested interest.”

​​Both “Mantles” and “commissions,” Dorothy observed, “do need something to initiate the ‘Mantle’ view”. And it was the letter, in this case, which – through selective language - would create the “Mantle” view. Presumably by this phrase, she meant the sense of being a responsible team, with the responsibility to undertake a range of tasks. This would be the case, whether the children were in a fictional framework as an “expert” team, or were receiving a commission as themselves.

The letter would ask for the children’s help to find ways to encourage museum visitors like themselves "to see behind the actual exhibition of memorabilia and information.” As Dorothy observed, the commission would address the question of, “What happens to our children when you take them into museums? How do you teach them to look behind?” (Of course, the commission would encourage the children themselves to “look behind” – to really look at objects and artefacts, and find the meanings behind them.) In her own notes for the workshop, she wrote:


To launch the Cherokee work and establish context for all the curriculum study, and so create the holding “point of view” from which all actions and tasks spring. Needed Document 1.

A letter heading and date will be required related with “The Museum of the Cherokee Indians.” Installed in 1948. “to preserve and perpetuate the history, culture and stories of the Cherokee.” Present director and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. (see p.52 of Guidebook.) ["Cherokee Trails Guidebook" by Barbara Duncan and Brett Riggs.]

The document will lay in these points:

1. The writer is a descendant of Jesse Smoke (writer of the Journal of Jesse Smoke)

2. and requests the assistance of some young people who are currently studying other cultures such as

3. Romans and British tribes and has heard when the writer visited rural schools in Britain that they may be examining aspects of 1st nation peoples of North America.

4. When young people visit the Cherokee Museum there is so much to be seen that often they are confused and wander from room to room and exhibits, not quite realising how objects can explain the deep structure of the lives of the Cherokee peoples.

5. So the writer wonders if the British students could think of ways which will help visitors penetrate the lives of the people represented in the museum. They are anxious that sentimentality should not enter the study, but empathy should be awakened.

Cherokee lady.jpg
Dorothy Cherokee Documents_page-0001.jpg

Dorothy herself composed a similar commission letter for work she was doing with a class on the topic of Roman Britain. Perhaps in this case, too, she only had a limited time with the class – not long enough to set up an “expert” team; so it had to be a “commission.” In the letter, the children are addressed as themselves – even though the letter itself is a fictional, not a real commission. (We can assume his would have been made clear to the children.) Here is the letter:

From the office of Viscount Holme-Pierrepoint, Holme-Pierrepoint Village, Nottinghamshire NG12 2LD

Telephone/fax: 0115 933 2371     Feb. 14 2009.

Dear Miss Burns,

I was interested to hear from you when we met recently at Chesters Roman fort, that you and your students are currently researching Roman Britain. I am writing to enquire whether your work at Chesters might help me in fulfilling a request in my dead wife’s will. At the time of her death two years ago she was considering leaving a substantial sum of money to enable a Roman Study Centre to be built near to the site of the Ancient Chesters Fort, so that visitors could better understand what an important part of our British history the Roman occupation of our land played.

She had a vision that a Roman Theme Park should be made showing as many aspects of life during those times could be revealed. ...

Could we discuss this further? My secretary the Honorable Dorothy Holme-Pierrepoint could meet you and your colleagues to take this matter further should you and your colleagues be interested to take the necessary action.

Yours sincerely, Pierrepoint

Romans Commission Letter.jpg

The Honorable Dorothy Holme-Pierrepoint was presumably played, in time, by Dorothy herself! 


There is a notable shift in language in the letter – from speaking about the children as “students,” to referring to them as “your colleagues.” This shift itself may be seen as a way of encouraging the “Mantle” view. It implies that even though the children were themselves, they were, in effect, assuming a frame or point-of-view - as if they were becoming an “expert team.”

This is Dorothy’s planning chart for the “commission letter” task (see image). She describes such charts as “A system of keeping records so that work and progression shall have internal coherence.” The chart analyses, not only the task and the teaching aims, but the demands on the children. Each task should lead to the next, to maintain "internal coherence."

She refers at one point to "convention 17." This is a reference to her "33 conventions for dramatic action." (See Conventions.) No. 17 is: “An account of a person written as if from that person, but read by someone else, e.g. a diary or a letter.”

Romans Heathcote Planning Chart.jpg

TASKS CHILDREN WILL DO: e.g. receive the letter from Pierrepoint

DEMANDS MADE ON CHILDREN BY TASK: to accept their copy and share between 2 people. Decode the words and comprehend where possible.

PURPOSE IN DOING THE TASK: to remind [them] of their visit to Chesters fort. To introduce the notion of “colleagues.” To introduce the curriculum domain. To “promise” a future meeting when decisions must be made. To model a type of letter-heading, picture, date etc. To introduce by convention 17.

TEACHER PREPARATIONS SO TASK CAN BE DONE: The details of the letter. Image of Hall, and info regarding sender. Consider the curriculum area (expertise) they will be responsible for exploring and shaping for the client. Style of language. Relevant sense of “reasonableness.”

DEVICES AND MEANS USED: Collecting class in best position to read, discuss and penetrate all the “sign” in the letter. Have to hand highliners [highlighters] so group can place their marks and thoughts on the letter. Manner in which the original and sufficient copies of the letter will be introduced. Teacher talk and vocabulary.

OUTCOMES LEADING TO NEXT TASK: these must be accurate and severely realistic, and precisely observed.

NEXT TASK:  to take decisions regarding future meeting.

In the “Cherokee Museum” training event, subsequent tasks included: preparing documents, to look as if they were historic materials from the museum archive; and “Chamber Theatre” using extracts from "The Journal of Jesse Smoke: A Cherokee Boy" by Joseph Bruchac, a fictional “diary” of a young boy who took part in the Trail of Tears.

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