Friday, October 23, 2009

Don't Pretend You Know Us

Not long ago, I read an article in a small town newspaper about Oklahoma. The writer had a lot of negative things to say about the state. He said the terrain looked like something you would see in the pictures from the Mars Rover. He also said they really play up the "Native American thing" there. He talked about dilapidated houses and said the Native American way was "a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other." At the end of his article, he even said Oklahomans would make good pets!

I am not sure if the article was the worst attempt at satire I had ever seen or if it was the true feelings of the man, but either way, I was highly offended. But, I have heard other outsiders say similar things about any area that is inhabited by a large population of Native Americans. Because of this, I feel the need to address such ideas and misconceptions. I cannot stand back and allow such things to be said without adding my own insight on the subject.

My mother lives in Oklahoma and I travel there as much as possible, because in my opinion, there is no other place like it on the face of the Earth. It is the land where my people, my Cherokee ancestors, rebuilt their lives after being forced from their homes by the United States government in 1838. It is the land where they lived and loved and died. It is the land where my great grandpa cut hair for a living and where my grandpa played the fiddle to entertain his family. It is the land where my great grandma danced around teasing my aunt and the land where my mother was born. It is the land of my people and it is precious to me.

Of course they "play up the Native American thing there". That is because there are Native Americans, or as my family calls ourselves, Indians, there. Before Oklahoma became a state, half of that land was called Indian Territory. And, I guess the land is rather barren and might resemble the pictures you see from the Mars Rover. But, you must remember, it is the land the government gave the Indian Nations long ago. Why did they give it to the Indians? Because it was seen as having little value and it was the land no one else wanted.

So, my ancestors and many other Indians moved to that untamed land and started new lives there. They built their homes, cultivated the rocky soil and raised their families. The Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes did not live on reservations. Their land was considered nations within a nation. They had their own governments, constitutions and laws. They had businesses, schools, jails, and everything else the whites had.

When whites started to see how good the Indians were doing, they decided they wanted to live there too and they started squatting illegally in Indian Territory. By 1890, the whites in Indian Territory far outnumbered the Indians. In the early 1900s, after pressure from all the whites, the government took the land back to include it as part of a new state. They broke up the Indian nation land through allotments. Ownership of the land was a new concept to Indians therefore much of their land was quickly stolen or cheated away from them by greedy whites. So, once again, those families had to start over....just like after the Removal of 1838.

Then, as if enough Indian land had not already been taken away, in the 1940s, the Corps of Engineers decided to put in the lake. And, they had to condemn lots of Indian land. So, many of those Indian families who had managed to hold on to their allotments were forced off their land by the government yet again. And, yet again, those families had to start over.

My family has a humble little home in Oklahoma. To outsiders, I am sure it wouldn't look like much and I imagine they would find some reason to make fun of it. But, that is because they would see it through the ignorant mind of an uninvited visitor. Anyone who knows the history of the house and the land would appreciate what it stands for and what it means to the family that owns it.

The house stands upon the land my beloved cousin bought after she had to leave her grandmother's allotment in the 1940s. My grandpa helped build the little house that stands on that land after he came home from serving in WWII and spending six months in a POW camp. That is the house and land where my Cherokee family and ancestors spent time and lived. It may not look like much to others, but it is priceless to us.

Maybe outsiders see some parts of Oklahoma that they feel are just not as modern as the rest of the United States. Too bad they don't take the time to explore the history of those places to discover why things are that way. Much of what people talk about sounds like poverty stricken areas to me. If one wanted to learn why there is so much poverty, they might discover that the oppression of the Indians is not just something that happened hundreds of years ago, but something that has happened repeatedly and even within modern times.

There are people living today who were forced into Indian schools and not allowed to speak their native language or follow their native traditions. These schools were not pleasant places. The goal of these schools was to make the Indian child as 'white' as possible. Today, many native languages and traditions are dying because of such acts by the government. Indian children were taught that being Indian was a bad thing. Imagine growing up believing that your whole sense of identity is bad! How much damage would that do to a young mind?

These acts of oppression led to things like alcoholism, poverty and depression. Maybe that is why some people think it is in the "Native American tradition" to do things with "a gun in one hand, and a bottle of whiskey in the other." But, these people are wrong. This is not a Native American tradition. Stop and look around the United States. There are very few Native Americans, but there sure are a lot of guns and an abundance of alcohol. People are falling back on a stereotype of Indians and it is nothing short of racism.

Personally, I find nothing funny about racism. If the writer of the article I mentioned had written that he had visited Harlem and said the people who lived there would "make great pets", I have no doubt, that column would not have been published. I don't understand why a column written about Oklahoma, which is known as "Native America" should be any different. Such comments and opinions show that little has changed since the whites started invading our nations hundreds of years ago. Since we don't look or live as you do, we are viewed as inferior and a topic of disgust or entertainment. This is unacceptable.

It is time outsiders realize they cannot bend and twist and shape us into the image of themselves. We have repeatedly overcome attempts of forced assimilation. We have repeatedly rebuilt our lives after everything has been taken away. Maybe we are not where we want to be yet, but we will get there. Until then, please refrain from making judgments about Native Americans. If you don't know our history, then you don't know anything about us. Please don't pretend you do.

Those are my thoughts for today.
Thank you for reading.

The Granddaughter
copyright 2009, Polly's Granddaughter - TCB


  1. I remember reading that very offensive article.
    Northeastern Oklahoma is a beautiful place esp now with the trees in color. The more I learn about the treatment of out Native Peoples the more sickened I get. Thank you for this article and sharing you family's story.

  2. The Cherokee people have been abused, maligned and cheated from the first day white man stepped on this land. The abuse, the cheating and the scorn seems to have survived to this day. Why is it okay to make racial slurs against the Cherokee, but God forbid you make a racial statement against any other "minority".

  3. Wan day bellyful nuh fatten! meaning that some projects take longer to achieve.

    That writer should help to achieve the necessary goals that are needed instead of criticising and making worse the situation.


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