March 15, 2017
This post may be of interest mostly to history buffs. Some explanation is in order about Oklahoma, especially its history. Such things are frequently essential to understanding a place. For example, the license plates here proclaim “Native America,” and not without reason, for the history of Oklahoma and that of Native Americans are inextricably intertwined. The state was 46th out of 50 in terms of the order of its admittance, and not until 1907, when all but one (New Mexico, with which it shares a tiny border in the far west) of its surrounding neighbors had long been full-fledged members of the union.
The reason was what once was not so politically correctly referred to as the “Indian problem.” Nearly from the beginning of European exploration and settlement of the Americas, the old and new residents were thrown into conflict. For the natives, it was a losing struggle from the beginning. Their nomadic, loosely organized, low-technology culture was simply no match for the sheer force of European “civilization.”
As the rest of the Eastern U.S. began to fill with new settlers, the native tribes were pushed into isolated pockets and farther westward. The situation culminated with the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1836, who campaigned on an “America for Americans” (Jackson or his supporters would not have used such a phrase) platform that has echoes in our own time. And shortly thereafter, the individual states began to pass laws that removed Native Americans altogether, under the logic that they were incompatible with the new American way of life. With the support of the federal government, especially in the South, homes were appropriated, property confiscated and the native population force-marched to new locations.
Well-meaning leaders thought that by dispersing Native Americans in their own lands west of the Mississippi River, little populated at the time, the conflicts would be reduced. And so it was that in 1834 the notion of Indian Territory became a reality, with only roughly defined borders that included much of the West. For the five so-called “Civilized Tribes” in the South, which were forced into signing treaties with the federal government, this territory was roughly the eastern 40 percent of what is now Oklahoma, an area that remained under their control, at least in spirit if not always in practice, as much of the rest of the western lands fell under white domination and the Indian Wars of the second half of the 19th century.
In some ways the tribes that were removed to present-day Oklahoma had it better than their fellow natives, even if they suffered greatly for it (what is today referred to as “the Trail of Tears”). Eastern Oklahoma was or is by no means worthless land. It’s mostly rolling country, with some low mountains in the east, moderately to lightly forested, with relatively plentiful rainfall, good soil and good drainage. It supports a diverse agricultural base. Later, oil and gas were discovered under portions of it.
As the rest of the West became settled and was divided into territories and finally states, the issue of Oklahoma remained. The tribes that were forced to move here in the 1830s and ‘40s, joined by other Native Americans in the subsequent years, were relatively peaceful and had a rudimentary political structure; from a white perspective, they were not “problem Indians.” As such, they were mostly left alone. This continued until the 1880s, when the neighboring Oklahoma Territory, roughly the western 60 percent of what now constitutes the state, was opened up to white settlement.
Oklahomans now refer to themselves as Sooners, a term of some pride but not always so. The first blocks of land in the territory were released in “land rushes,” basically on a first-come, first-served basis. Enterprising (by their reckoning) prospective settlers would move into the new lands under the cover of darkness, and then at the appropriate time make claim to the land they had already staked out. Today, Sooners will tell you this represents the best of the American spirit of resourcefulness and ingenuity.
At any rate, the rapidly growing population of the Oklahoma Territory was soon lobbying to become a full-fledged state. This left the majority-Native American population of the neighboring Indian Territory in a bind. They were once again in danger of being overwhelmed by the white American culture. In a last-ditch effort to preserve at least some semblance of independence, they proposed to Congress that a separate Native State of Sequoyah be created. But the Senate wanted the agreement of the neighboring Oklahoma Territory; negotiations were attempted but remained deadlocked. Finally, in 1906 Congress took matters into its own hands and passed legislation paving the way for combining the two territories into the single state of Oklahoma.
Once again, Native Americans were consigned to their lost cause. They gained statehood, but at the expense of much of what little independence they had. The tribes were no longer allowed to hold land communally for their members, the authority of the tribal courts was greatly reduced, and Native Americans ceased to have much of the unique status that had defined them for centuries.