A Chief of the Choctaw tribe originated the word “okla” and “humma,” for “home of the Red People.”
This came at the end of the tragic “Trail of Tears,” during treaty negotiations establishing territories in Oklahoma for the Native Americans moved forcibly from Florida and Georgia. Recently that very red (Republican) state (all 77 counties going for that party) deleted from its colorful license plates “Native America” with a noble, indigenous warrior, bow and arrow arching into the air.
Today, the distinctive red dirt of Oklahoma hosts dozens of new “farms,” hundreds of giant windmills dominating the landscape. They are a subject of much controversy. Many farmers covet a contract, at $15,000 a tower. They claim “big oil” (a natural suspect) is the source of rumors trashing wind power. (Oil is king in Oklahoma as it is in Texas.) Yet, the more environmentally conscious farmer, the one who leaves the milkweed to feed the Monarchs, is proud to be a part of the nation’s wind energy mix (6 percent up to 33 percent in some states).
The profusion of wind farms is striking along Highway 60, leading from Ponca City to Pawhuska. They mingle with the cattle of Ladd Drummond, cowboy/rancher husband of Ree Drummond, of “Pioneer Woman” fame on the popular television cooking show. Ree’s Mercantile Restaurant is going great guns, bringing tourists, fame and tax revenues to the rustic town of Pawhuska. It is on that highway and to the Osage Nation museum in Pawhuska that I recently returned.
As a native of Oklahoma (and part Cherokee) I respected its native American heritage. I often visited the “Oklahoma Hills Where I was Born.” In my childhood, however, I spent more time near Ponca City, Kay County, in its flat, rich wheat lands, than I did in hilly Osage County, across the Arkansas River.
But in neither county did I hear the rumors of the “reign of terror,” the plunder and murders of members of the Osage tribe, for their oil rights. That bitter period is well documented in the best-seller, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017). I had just finished the book. I was outraged, full of angst, reading of the racism and evil—the white men who married Native women, then killed them; sheriffs, doctors, even undertakers in on the conspiracies of murder (by gun, poison, even bombs) and cover-ups. My sister and I are grandchildren of Samuel Huston Mounce, pioneer in the race for land of the Cherokee Strip. I went with her to Pawhuska, center of much of the carnage of the early 20th century, to pay our respects. It was a mission of homage.
I thought, in some strange way, I could help assuage at least my grief, if not theirs. I was ridden, also, with the guilt of how the Cherokees had been swindled out of their land; we knew nothing of those stories, either. The kind, elderly Osage lady at the desk of the museum took pity. To my surprise she told us she knew nothing as a child of the Osage murders! Perhaps families wanted their children not to hate white men or simply wanted to spare them the fear—who knows?
She showed us a copy of the painting of Chief Claremore, (Gra-mo’n or “Arrow Going Home”). He was an Osage who helped broker peace with other tribes and with the U.S. government in the early 19th century. The museum featured prominently his portrait by famous painter of Native Americans, George Catlin. The museum also houses fascinating Osage artifacts (e.g., drums, shields, Osage orthography, ceremonial garb, complete with top hats, worn by chiefs when visiting Washington, D.C.) and numerous photographs of past and present Osage leaders, family and religious life.
Only one photograph was displayed—with no mention of the murders—of the four Burkhart sisters, all of them threatened, some murdered, some able to bring the murderers to justice. That trial came to completion after many botched attempts (due to bribes and witness tampering), but only with federal intervention.
The period marked the beginning of the FBI; Hoover needed and got a successful prosecution. Granns’ acclaimed book–tightly researched over long years with the help of the Red Corn family and others–rightly lauds the indispensable help of upright men such as former Texas Ranger, Tom White, and a Native American agent in the Bureau.
The “Moon” in Grann’s book title refers to Osage poetry and legend. In the spring, bluets and other flowers spring up, covering the prairie like “confetti left by the gods” (“Sundown,” by Osage writer John Joseph Matthews). Then, the large May moon appears and spiderworts invade the blooms and steal their water. What the great spirit (Wakonda, among the Osage and Ponca) grants, He can take away. Perhaps that rather Judaic/Christian concept among the tribe helped His people deal with their trials and tribulations across the ages.
Now, secular help is needed; the federal government is still necessary. Racist Oklahomans during the turn of the last century eschewed justice, trampled on Native American rights. Today’s Red/Republican officials sue the federal government as it tries to protect the environment. They strike the Native American icon from Oklahoma license tags.
On the positive side? Booming Osage casinos, the promotion of health and educational centers, the arrival of new businesses. The confluence of cultures, the museums, the monuments to great Chiefs, the yearly, popular pow-wows in Pawhuska (and nearby Ponca and Tonkawa, where I grew up) are testaments to the improvement of civilization in the Home of the Red People.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows participants in the annual Pawhuska, Oklahoma, powwow.