Oklahoma centennial not a time for celebration

By Tim Talley
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) 11-07

When she was a young girl, Lettie Harjo Randall was rounded up with other children in her Muscogee (Creek) tribal family and forced into an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma where she was isolated from her parents and forbidden from talking to her siblings in their native language.

“We were small. We were little. I had never been away from home,” Randall said. “There was a lot of crying.” Now 66, Randall and many others in Oklahoma’s Indian Country believe their shared experiences are being swept under the rug as the state commemorates 100 years of statehood with parades and historic reenactments, including a ceremonial wedding between Miss Indian Territory and Mr. Oklahoma Territory.

“Even though this happened a long time ago, it makes me angry,” Randall said. “There needs to be an understanding of what the Indians went through.”

Members of various Oklahoma-based tribes plan to observe Oklahoma’s centennial on November 16 with a march to the state Capitol to raise awareness of the promises they say were broken when Indians were forced from their traditional lands and marched to what became Oklahoma in the 19th century.

Brenda Golden, Randall’s daughter and one of the march’s organizers, said she was outraged by plans for the mock wedding because it symbolized the government’s decision to renegotiate a treaty that had already promised the land to Americans Indians.

“This was supposed to be Indian Territory,” Golden said. “I’m not asking for anything more than people recognizing the flip side of the story.

“We were hurt. We’re still hurt.”

Oklahoma, a word derived from the Choctaw language that means land of the red man, became the nation’s 46th state on Nov. 16, 1907, less than 20 years after unassigned lands set aside for Indian tribes were carved up for settlement in land runs that began in 1889.

“It basically comes down to land theft,” said Mike Graham, a member of the Cherokee tribe and founder of United Native America, a grass-roots group that works on American Indian issues nationwide.

“It’s nothing for the Native American community here in the state to celebrate,” Graham said.

Oklahoma is home to 39 Indian tribes. In 2005, about 290,000 Oklahomans, 8.1 percent of the population, identified themselves as American Indian and Alaska Native persons. Only California has more Indian residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Richard Allen, policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation, said many Oklahomans of Indian descent have a different perspective of the state’s centennial. Indians settled large portions of what became Oklahoma decades before statehood, establishing tribal territories, cities and governments.

“We are major contributors to the state,” Allen said. From an Indian point of view, statehood “was simply a white overlay of existing Indian institutions,” he said.

While some tribes, including the Chickasaw Nation, sponsor centennial events, most have no plans to commemorate statehood.

“It’s just kind of hard to celebrate it,” said Thompson Gouge, spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. Although some Muscogee (Creek) tribal members will participate in the Statehood Day march, Gouge said the tribe is not directly involved.

Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray said it is appropriate for Oklahoma’s tribal leaders to use the centennial observance to tell their side of the statehood story.

“Don’t celebrate it for God’s sake,” Gray said. “We have a different story to tell – not all of it good. You can certainly understand that we have a different point of view than others do.”

Allen said the Cherokee Nation has been selective in how it participates in centennial events.

“We didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to celebrate as others do,” he said.

The tribe worked with centennial planners in dedicating the Will Rogers Memorial Museum as an Oklahoma Literary Landmark and listing it on a national registry. Rogers became the third Cherokee to be so honored, joining Oklahoma author and playwright Lynn Riggs and Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee syllabary.

Rogers, the late writer and humorist who is claimed by Oklahomans as a native son, was born in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory in 1879 and moved away before Oklahoma became a state.

Allen said it is inappropriate for the tribe to get involved in other events, such as reenactments of the Land Run of 1889 in which school children dress up as pioneers and stage pretend land runs to learn about the state’s history.

“We weren’t a part of that. It was our land that was being taken,” Allen said. “It wasn’t something to be celebrated and it’s still not.”

Centennial planners have tried to be sensitive to tribal concerns and have worked closely with tribal governments on a variety of Indian-related projects, said Blake Wade, executive director of the Oklahoma Centennial Commission.

“History is exactly history. We want to make sure it’s spelled out,” Wade said.

Much has been done to acknowledge the state’s tribal past, Wade said, including installation of a 6,000-pound bronze sculpture of an American Indian, called The Guardian, on top of the Capitol dome and development of a planned $135 million American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City.

“Our whole theme has been our American Indians. I just really feel that there’s been nothing we tried to do more than to help recognize how wonderful our 39 tribes are,” he said.

But Golden said the centennial observance has alienated Indians by overlooking a painful part of their history.

“This is not something that I am celebrating,” Golden said. “Don’t push it under the rug. It’s not going to go away.