By Muriel H. Wright
Oklahoma is the youngest commonwealth in the Federal Union. The western part of the state was organized as a federal territory in 1890; the eastern part, excepting the extreme northeastern corner, remained under the ownership and governments of the Five Civilized Tribes. Seventeen years later, these regions were united under the name "Oklahoma" and admitted as the 46th State. However, organization of government and development of Christian civilization began within its borders over a century ago, forming a background of culture and advancement in its history that still plays a part in the making of the spirit of the commonwealth.
One interpretation that may be given the term "history" is the story of the formation of nationalities. A nationality is found where a people has become homogeneous in background and vision that—is when united in culture and spirit. In the development of a distinct nationality in the American Republic of the United States, the Indian people have had a great part. This is particularly true in the development of this State, for the story of Oklahoma centers around the story of the Red Man—the Indian or Amerind.
The name "Oklahoma" itself means "Red People" in the Choctaw language.1 This name was first suggested by a Choctaw, Reverend Allen Wright, in 1866, as that of a federal territory of the Indian people to be organized within the present borders of the state excepting the Panhandle. All the Indian nations and tribes within these borders were to have a part in this territory under a general plan providing that "the United States Superintendent of Indian Affairs shall be the Executive of said Territory, with the title of Governor of the Territory of Oklahoma." Thus, it is seen the name "Oklahoma Territory" literally meant in the Choctaw language "Indian Territory."1 While a territory of the
1In the Choctaw language, okla means "people;" homma or humma means "red." The English word Indian is "Okla Homma" in Choctaw. In their treaties with the United States, the Choctaws were spoken of as either "The Choctaw Nation of Indians" or "The Choctaw Nation of Red People," the last phrase in each instance being rendered "Okla Homma" in the native language.
Indian people was never officially organized, the name "Oklahoma," however, became popularly known and was applied to the central portion of this country and was chosen as that of Oklahoma Territory in 1890.
The name "Indian Territory" was suggested for the original Indian country by Reverend Isaac McCoy, the early day Baptist missionary, who did much toward helping the United States solve the intricate puzzle including verbal promises, treaty stipulations and fair treatment of the Indian people in the 1830's. Another name suggested by Reverend McCoy for this country, planned as the final home of many Indian nations and tribes, was "Aboriginia."2 However, the name "Indian Territory" was retained, though the region was never regularly organized as a federal territory. Instead, what is now Oklahoma (excepting the Panhandle and the northeastern corner) was divided among five large tribes of the South, living east of the Mississippi River, the first assignment of land having been made the Choctaws in 1820, who acted under the leadership of their noted chief, Pushmataha. These five tribes were in the order of the treaties with the United States, providing for their final removal and settlement in the Indian Territory as nations,—Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee and Chickasaw. In this same period, the Quapaws and the Mixed Band of Senecas and Shawnees were located on small reservations in the northeastern corner of present Oklahoma.
In the 106 years since that time, other Indian tribes have been settled within the boundaries of the present state, so that one-third of the total Indian population of the United States lives in Oklahoma today. Twenty-nine Indian tribes with their associated tribes are listed under the jurisdiction of seven U. S. Indian agencies in the state. More than fifty separate nations and tribes are represented among Oklahoma's citizens of Indian descent, each nation or tribe having had at one time its own language and customs. Other citizens of the State are from many foreign countries, though the American colonial stock predominates, giving the State a cosmopolitan population. To these people, the Indians of Oklahoma gave up their last home in America and shared with them the land.
2The original Indian Territory in 1832 was the region extending from the Plate River (Nebraska) south to Red River and lying between the western boundaries of Missouri and Arkansas and the Mexican boundary.
Of the five tribes from the Southeast in 1830, the Cherokees were considered the fartherest advanced, with a large mixed blood population of English and Scotch descent. For some years, the leading Cherokee families had educated their children according to standards of the time. Their government had been recently organized under a constitution. Sequoyah had already invented his alphabet for the Cherokee language. The Choctaws and Chickasaws had also given up many of their ancient customs, were fostering written laws and the education of their children. The Creeks and Seminoles were very conservative but they were brave people, capable of establishing themselves in their new country as independent nations.
All of the five nations, generally known in Oklahoma history as the Five Civilized Tribes, endured great suffering and deprivation on the journey west. For some years after their arrival in this country, the Creeks and Seminoles were subjected to continued hardship. After several years, even these nations secured better conditions and established peaceful national governments. The Cherokees and the Choctaws together with the Chickasaws were the first to set up constitutional governments in their respective countries, governments republican in form yet in many instances with their new laws based on ancient tribal laws, thus preserving ancient national, Indian characteristics.
The Christian religion generally predominated through cooperation between the Indian leaders and the missionaries who were living and working in the nations. Education and the establishment of good schools were fostered. Commerce and agriculture thrived along the larger river systems,—the Arkansas, the Canadian and the Red rivers. Printing presses were set up. Newspapers, periodicals and books were written and published both in the native and the English languages. Scholarly attainment was greatly desired. Thus, Christian civilization was merged with the old tribal cultures in many instances, producing brilliant Indian leaders.
Among the prominent citizens of the Cherokee Nation, 100 to 75 years ago were Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, first Indian newspaper; Sequoyah, a chief and the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet; John Ross, statesman and principal chief for
forty years; Rev. Stephen Foreman, graduate of Princeton College, collaborator in translating the Bible into Cherokee; William Shorey Coody, author of the Cherokee constitution; Rev. Dennis Bushyhead, well known Cherokee minister of the Baptist denomination; Brigadier-General Stand Watie, statesman and military commander. Their influence produced such leaders as William Penn Adair and Elias C. Boudinot whose writings are found among Government documents that brought about the final creation of the State of Oklahoma. Then there was the great Cherokee poet, John Rollin Ridge.
Among the Choctaws, this Indian civilization and culture were fostered by such leaders as Robert M. Jones, pre-eminently the business man and wealthiest planter in this section of the Southwest; also fostered by Cornelius McCurtain, Thompson McKinney, Forbis and Basil LeFlore, Peter P. Pitchlynn, Tandy Walker, Rev. Israel Folsom and Sampson Folsom, all outstanding for their personality and character. Among the young men who grew up under their influence, were Jonathan Dwight and Joseph Dukes, teachers and translators; Allen Wright, a graduate of Union College, the Choctaw scholar, a minister, statesman, educator, translator and writer; Joseph P. Folsom, a graduate of Dartmouth College, who compiled the Choctaw law book of 1869. Among the older leaders of the Chickasaws were the wealthy planters and statesmen, Pitman Colbert and Benjamin Love. Among the young men was Holmes Colbert who attended Union College and later wrote the constitution of the Chickasaw Nation.
When the governments of the nations in the last Indian Territory—the eastern part of present Oklahoma—were dissolved just before statehood in 1907, these Indian nations furnished educated and experienced citizens who took an active part in the founding of our state institutions and have continued in the upbuilding of Oklahoma. Some of them have passed on leaving their people to take a respected and important place in the advancement of the State.
Included among the names of leaders of Indian descent within our borders since 1890, are Robert L. Owens, Cherokee, one of the first United States senators from Oklahoma; Charles D. Carter, Chickasaw, twenty years representative to Congress from the Third
District; W. W. Hastings, Cherokee, representative to Congress from the Second District, from 1907-34 with the exception of one term; Alexander Posey, Creek, noted poet ,and editor; B. N. O. Walker, Wyandot, author of Indian legends; Houston B. Teehee, Cherokee, attorney and one time register of the U. S. Treasury; Gabe Parker, Choctaw, member of the Constitutional Convention, a designer of the Great Seal of Oklahoma; Dr. E. N. Wright, Choctaw, gifted physician and surgeon, a progressive leader and organizer for the welfare of the Indian people; Reverend Frank Hall Wright, Choctaw, a talented singer, well known evangelist among the Plains Indians and throughout the South and Middle West; Dr. Fred Clinton, Creek, physician and oil man; Douglas H. Johnston, Chickasaw, thirty-seven years governor of his nation; Delos K. Lone Wolf, Kiowa, recently elected chief of the three important tribes of Southwestern Oklahoma,—Kiowa, Comanche and Apache; Fred Lookout, for many years elected chief of the Osages.
Outstanding among women of Indian descent in Oklahoma is Mrs. Roberta C. Lawson, Delaware, president of the National Federation of Women's Clubs. Among other names of leading Indian women of the State are Rachel Caroline Eaton, Cherokee, educator and writer; Minta Foreman, Cherokee (granddaughter of Rev. Stephen Foreman), educator; Mrs. Jessie E. Moore, Chickasaw, first woman elected to a major state office (Clerk of the Supreme Court); Mrs. Czarina C. Conlan, Choctaw-Chickasaw, supervisor of the museum of the State Historical Society for nineteen years; Mrs. W. B. McAlester and Mrs. Alice McCurtain Scott, Choctaw, club women, civic and social workers; Dr. Anna Lewis, Choctaw, head of the department of history, Oklahoma College for Women, writer; Mrs. Maude Davis Jones, Seminole, interpreter, genealogist and writer; Tess Mobley, Chickasaw, singer; and the late Mrs. Jane Austen McCurtain, Choctaw, who may be counted one of the first women influential as a political leader in Southeastern Oklahoma many years before suffrage for women.
Again among the names of Oklahoma Indians who have achieved national and international fame in the field of letters and art are the late Will Rogers, Cherokee; Lynn Riggs, Cherokee, said by a well known critic to be one of the four great dramatists of the day; John Joseph Matthews, Osage, author, whose book "Wah Kon Tah", acclaimed the "good earth" of America, was
the selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club; John Oskinson, Cherokee, novelist; Todd Downing, Choctaw, brilliant writer of detective stories.
Among famous Indian artists known internationally are the five Kiowas—Tsatoke, Hokeah, Asah, Smokey and Mopope. A limited edition of a portfolio containing thirty paintings by these artists, published in France in 1929, is today a rare volume depicting the art of the Mowas, one of the great tribes of the Plains. Acee Blue Eagle, Pawnee-Creek, has won high rank as an Indian artist. A young man of presence and personality, he is also known for his lectures on art of the American Indian.
Today the future of the Oklahoma Indian is in education and in the continued progress of Christian civilization, together with the preservation of the best in native traditions and customs that produced strong leaders and a great art. It is through such forces as these that the Indian has contributed and will continue to contribute to real American culture which will flourish and blossom for ages to come.