POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2007:
100 Years in the Land of the Red Man
Native Americans quietly recall another view toward a more correct history of the Oklahoma Centennial
Change of Mind, or Heart. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief A.D. Ellis, not among the tribal representatives who were initially invited to participate in centennial observances, allowed the 33rd Annual Muscogee Nation Festival, which was held the first week of June, to be included among events that commemorated the state's 100th year.
"We're Oklahoma Risin', brighter than a star; stand up and sing about her, let the world know who we are," read the lyrics of our centennial anthem, "Oklahoma Rising."
The song, written by Oklahoma natives Jimmy Webb and Vince Gill, recalls tragedies in Oklahoma's early and more recent history, from the Great Depression to the Dust Bowl to the Murrah bombing to wildfires, as well as the perseverance and character of its people in the face of these crucibles.
The song was meant to set the tone for Oklahoma's centennial by celebrating all that is signified in the once derogatory, now proud epithet forged by that history: "I'm an Okie and I'm proud, so when you call me 'Okie,' man, you better say it loud," the song continues.
Some Okies, though, have strong reservations about celebrating that history, contending that any history of Oklahoma that can be celebrated would necessarily be one-sided, while any complete telling would be an occasion, not for celebration, but for mourning.
Significant by their absence in the official centennial anthem's lyrics are any references to other tragedies in the state's history, such as the Trail of Tears and the fall of Indian Territory that precipitated the rise of the Sooner State on Nov. 16, 1907.
"I get the feeling that the history of Oklahoma (depicted in centennial observances) will more resemble the musical Oklahoma! than the actual history," Ponca Nation Principal Chief Dan Jones told UTW.
That romanticized state history, he explained, is one in which "cowboys are clean and good and their teeth shine, and Native Americans are ignored."
Jones is one of many Native Americans whose past experience with less-than-accurate depictions of Oklahoma's formative years makes him skeptical of how accurately the story is being told amid the fireworks, parades and pageantry of official centennial observances.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith has raised identical concerns.
"Our true history includes a public school system that has oversimplified Oklahoma's past with elementary school playground re-enactments of the land run," he wrote in an opinion-editorial piece last year.
"The common sight was of small children streaking across the playground to stake their claim of Indian Territory. Rarely taught was (that) the land was being taken away from its American Indian owners," he wrote.
More recently, during its annual convention in June, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church unanimously passed a resolution criticizing those very aspects of centennial celebrations.
The conference was a gathering of representatives from about 90 Indian churches from various points across the state.
The resolution called "for balance and respect in Oklahoma Centennial celebration events" and asked for "fair depictions of both history and current conditions within the state," as well as for the retirement of Indian mascots and a moratorium on Land Run re-enactments in public schools.
"The birth of Oklahoma was the destruction of my tribe," Jones has been quoted in another publication as having said.
He said the statement was a misquotation, however, and one that has brought him a hefty amount of criticism from across the nation.
"That's been getting mileage all over the country," the tribal leader said.
"That's obviously not true-- we're obviously still here," said Jones. "But, it was the near destruction of my tribe."
The events leading up to Oklahoma's statehood, he explained, "decimated our land base and eventually our tribal government."
"When the Allotment Era came into being, it changed every perspective we had on land--it went from the control of the tribe to the control of the individual," he explained.
Those individuals, Jones recounted, were illegally taxed and many lost their land by their failure to pay those taxes, largely because their grasp of the new and foreign concept of individual private land ownership didn't quite match the speed of the government's enforcement of its imposed tax policy.
The Ponca tribe, along with hundreds of other Native American tribes, are in the process of taking the U.S. government to task for those events through numerous federal lawsuits, but Jones said there are no hard feelings against the state of Oklahoma.
"This is just something that happened; the state now is not responsible," he said.
"We wish the state well, and I think Gov. Brad Henry is a fine young man. The first thing he mentioned when he came into office was that there were governments here before the state of Oklahoma and that we speak more languages here than in Europe," Jones added.
It is precisely the kind of acknowledgment made by Henry that Jones said he wants to be made through the course of centennial observances.
"Oklahoma has had a wild and wooly history and it's created a great state," he said. "But, we have a history that predates Oklahoma and I hope that isn't forgotten during the centennial."
White Man's Version
J. Blake Wade, executive director of the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, said concerns about historical inaccuracy or insensitivity to Native Americans during centennial observations are unfounded.
"We've desperately tried to be very sensitive to all that. That's why we're calling it a 'commemoration' instead of a 'celebration,'" he said.
Wade pointed out that the planned opening this year of the American Indian Cultural Center is a part of the state's centennial observance, as well as the past erection of a statue of a Native American on the Capitol dome.
"We're not trying to change history. We're trying to make sure they're a part of this commemoration," he said.
Wade also listed a host of Native American artists who are involved in the creation of monuments, posters, a centennial stamp and numerous other projects associated with Oklahoma's 100th anniversary, including a bronze statue commemorating the Land Run by Creek Nation member Paul Moore.
He added that Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, and Barbara Warner, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission and member of the Ponca Nation, both serve on the Centennial Commission.
If centennial observances were not true to history and respectful of Native Americans, Wade said, "these kinds of people would not be supporting us at all."
To those whose old wounds have nonetheless been reopened by the commemoration, he said, "I just hope that they would recognize this year that we've tried very hard to be sensitive to our Native Americans and their well-being."
Wade said he has not met with a single negative response to invitations to tribal representatives to participate in centennial events.
However, at the time Wade's comments were made, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief A.D. Ellis was not among the tribal representatives who were invited to participate in centennial observances. If he had been, Wade would have had at least one negative response, according to Ellis.
"Even though I work closely with Gov. Henry, I'd probably decline," Ellis told UTW early this year.
His main reason for declining had more to do with indifference than hard feelings, though.
"We don't plan on making a big deal out of it," he said of the centennial. "We really don't stress it very strongly. I realize we're all Oklahomans first, but we're also Native American and I've got to serve my people and that's not a day that's really etched in our culture."
However, aloofness toward Oklahoma's statehood celebration is not the only emotion at work, Ellis acknowledged.
"There's still some animosity among the elders," he said. "They still resent some things having to do with the state of Oklahoma."
Both Ellis and the elders he serves have apparently had changes of heart since his interview with UTW, though.
The 33rd Annual Muscogee (Creek) Nation festival, which was held the first week of June, included events that commemorated the state's 100th year.
"We're Oklahomans, too, and we will help celebrate the centennial in a way that people can recognize," the chief told another publication at the time.
Ellis' wasn't the only tribe that initially planned to ignore the state's centennial hoopla.
When asked if his tribe had anything in store to commemorate the state's 100th anniversary, Pare Bowlegs, historic preservation officer for the Seminole Nation, said, "We just had an executive meeting and the centennial wasn't brought up--we're just having Seminole Nation days."
Like the Creek Nation, Bowlegs said feelings are mixed within his tribe when it comes to Oklahoma's statehood observances.
"Folks have different feelings about it," he said. "I take the state's history in stride--nothing can be done about it. But, just from hearing things in passing, I know a few who aren't in agreement with (centennial observations), but you're going to have that with anything."
It's In the Name
As any self-respecting Okie knows, Oklahoma owes its name to the Choctaw Nation and language.
Allen Wright, who was principal chief during treaty negotiations of the late 19th century, suggested the name for what would become the 46th state, which comes from the Choctaw words "okla" and "humma," which mean "people" and "red," respectively.
So, it might seem ironic to some that there is no official involvement planned by the Choctaw Nation for Oklahoma's 100th anniversary commemoration.
"At this point, we have not been involved at all," said Judy Allen, executive director for public relations for the Choctaw Nation. "We've got a full calendar of events that are tribally related, but nothing having to do with the centennial."
Allen said neither apathy nor resentment are behind her tribe's lack of participation--only preoccupation with tribal concerns. "It's an ongoing goal of the tribe to want to focus on meeting the needs of our tribal members," she said. "We have a good working partnership with Governor Henry and the state."
While some Native Americans are sitting the centennial out, the Cherokee leader, among others, sees it as an opportunity to correct historical inaccuracies and draw attention to the true story of the Land of the Red People.
"For me, Oklahoma centennial celebration is an opportunity to educate my fellow Oklahomans on the full history of the state, commemorate that history and look forward to an enriched future," wrote Smith.
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