Joyce Griffin Oberly
April 22nd is a historic day in Oklahoma, for on this day 125 years ago, thousands of settlers streamed into our state with hopes to stake their claim for land.
The Land Run of 1889 opened two million acres in present day Canadian, Cleveland, Payne, Kingfisher, Logan and Oklahoma counties. This wide swath of land was home to the Cheyenne & Arapaho, Iowa, Sac & Fox, Kickapoo, Pottawatomie and Shawnee people. Though the most famous land opening, the Land Run of 1889 was only one of the methods used to transition land ownership from Tribes to individual settlers.
From 1891 through 1906 the homelands of the Tonkawa, Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria, Osage and Kaw people were assigned to individual ownership through the allotment system, in which the U.S. government apportioned American Indian individuals and families a plot of land through the Dawes Act, and where “excess tribal land was purchased by the government to make available to settlers.
In 1901, lands of the Wichita, Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa and Apache people were opened to settlement by the lottery system, a method introduced by Dennis Flynn to improve upon the flawed organization of previous land runs, and in which hopeful settlers registered for a homestead claim drawing. I have intentionally used the word ”people” rather than Tribes to instill the fact that this aspect of Oklahoma history was not only about land ownership and statehood, but had extreme implications for native people throughout Oklahoma.
In December 1906, the Big Pasture area in southwest Oklahoma was opened by sealed bid. Following the agreement of 1892 where the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache ceded their land and with the 1906 Act, the Secretary of the Interior reserved 480,000 acres for American Indians, but was mostly leased to business minded cattlemen as grazing property – thus the name Big Pasture.
My great grandmother, Nellie Tissoyo (Comanche), recalled the settlers, horses and cattle moving into the land. Being blind, she told of the earth trembling with a thunder-like sound around her. I wonder if she or other Indian people realized then that these events would drastically affect their lives. These traditional people, like my great grandmother, spoke their native languages and lived according to the old ways. The concept of individual ownership of land was foreign to Indians like her who were accustomed to living off the land and fully functioning as members of a strong community, rather than individuals. The bitter realization that the nomadic lifestyle was being replaced with a farming and domestic society came as they were forcefully relocated to smaller and smaller parcels of land through these various methods. This aspect of Oklahoma history was not only about land ownership and statehood; it had a deep cultural, social, and political impact on Oklahoma Indians that is still evident 125 years later.
Even though we were the original inhabitants of Oklahoma, we were not allowed to participate in the Land Run events. This separation of Oklahoma society, still echoes today. For example, we have little say on the organization and culturally appropriate education for students in public schools, including but not limited to the Land Run celebrations.
Earlier this month, I received a note from my son’s school stating that on April 22nd, students and staff will re-enact the Land Run of 1889. The re-enactment will include students grouped into “families” to race across the playground and stake their claims.
As a kid raised in Oklahoma, I remember participating in a similar event in first grade. I went to a school with a significant Indian student population. My teacher specifically asked that the Indian children wear their Indian clothes to school that day. I can only surmise this added to the dramatic effect for our re-enactment.
Thirty years later, I assumed Oklahoma public schools taught this subject without the Land Run re-enactment. I am not the only one with this viewpoint. Beginning in 2007, the Society to Preserve the Indigenous Rights and Indigenous Traditions attempted to petition the state to ban these land run re-enactments at public schools. From my perspective, re-enacting the Land Run of 1889 only serves to physically demonstrate one side of history.
The other side, our story includes the continuous removal and relocation of thousands of American Indians across Oklahoma. Beginning in 1902 with the individual allotment of lands by the Dawes Commission, native lands were picked apart and slowly depleted over time, with eventual forced habitation on reservations.
But we survived, even after the systematic attempt to contain an entire race of people. We not only survived, we thrived – but we do so because we acknowledge our history and embrace our culture. Our Elders are treasured within each Tribe because they know the old ways, they remember and relay our history. Through their teachings, we learn humility, perseverance and the importance of community
I posit that the accepted practice of Land Run re-enactments and celebrations do not mesh with our cultural teachings.
Thus, the American Indian perspective needs to be included. Furthermore, school boards should include American Indian representation to ensure topics like the Land Run and other aspects of public school education include the American Indian voice.
As American Indian parents, we must take an active role in our children’s education, this includes Parent/Teacher meetings, providing cultural presentations to students, and volunteering to assist educators in helping all students learn a balanced approach to history.
I challenge readers, educators and decision makers to consider revising our high school graduation requirements. Currently, Oklahoma history is a requirement to graduate from Oklahoma high schools. Given the significant American Indian contributions to Oklahoma’s growth, Oklahoma Indian history should also be an educational requirement.
Schools and teachers could utilize Native American Heritage Month, which is observed annually in November, to teach a month long unit on the indigenous populations of our state. I envision a curriculum that would include American Indian demographics, contributions to American medicine, notable Oklahoma Indians such as Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as Cherokee Chief and Major General Clarence Tinker (Osage), the highest ranking American Indian to serve in the Army and for whom Tinker Air Force Base is named.
American Indian contributions to Oklahoma extend into the state’s economy, the arts, infrastructure, community service, charitable grants and educational scholarships. For example, 33 of the 39 federally recognized Indian Tribes in Oklahoma have signed compacts to operate Indian Gaming. Three-fourths of gaming Tribes devote all of their casino revenue to Tribal governmental services, economic, community development and to neighboring communities and charitable purposes. According to Oklahoma City University’s Steven C. Agee’s 2012 economic impact study, Oklahoma tribes contributed $10.8 billion to our state’s economy, in addition to providing 87,000 jobs (Native American Tribes Boost Oklahoma’s Economy L.L. Woodard, October 17, 2012 -Yahoo.com article). With such a tremendous foundation, Oklahoma would not be the same without contributions from American Indians.
It’s time that we acknowledge this powerful relationship and use it for the betterment of Oklahoma society.
Joyce Griffin Oberly is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation. She is also Osage and Chippewa Cree and resides in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma.