Oklahoma land run

History is messy.

In Oklahoma, we’re reminded of this every April when a school decides to teach kids about the state’s history by re-enacting the land run of 1889, and one or more parentsĀ  get upset because the land in question was more or less stolen, likely as not from the ancestors of people still living here.

For those who don’t know the story, almost all of what is today Oklahoma was designated Indian Territory in the 1820s and 1830s. Tribes were moved here lock, stock and barrel, mainly from the southeastern United States, mainly to solve land disputes. The disputes were generally as follows: The Indians had land and whites wanted it.

Originally, all of present-day Oklahoma except the Panhandle and the southwest corner were promised in perpetuity to the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. But the relocation went so well, at least from the United States’ point of view, that it soon began moving other native peoples into the territory. This was facilitated by, of all things, the American Civil War.

Abandoned by the Union at the start of hostilities, the tribal governments of Indian Territory signed treaties with the Confederacy. In practice, Indians from the territory fought on both sides, but the treaties were used to force concessions from the tribes when the war was over. Among these was the surrender of the western half of Indian Territory so that the federal government could move Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Pawnee, Comanche and other Plains Indians onto it. Dozens of smaller tribes — Delaware, Kickapoo, Pottawatomie, Ottawa, Kaw, to name a few — were also shoehorned in.

While mapping out all of these reservations, officials somehow managed to leave 2 million acres smack dab in the middle of the territory. These became known as the Unassigned Lands, and it was this part of Oklahoma that was opened by the epic land run of April 22, 1889.

This land run, and the four that followed it, were subject to a good deal of violence and fraud. The term “Sooner,” by which the state would become known, was applied to settlers and land speculators who sneaked into the Unassigned Land ahead of the official start and staked claims before anyone could get there.

Under federal pressure, all of the tribes agreed to allotment — that is, the tribal lands were broken up and distributed to individual tribal members, with the surplus made available to non-Indian settlement. These were distributed through a total of five land runs and at least three sealed-bid auctions. Thus, while Oklahoma has one of the nation’s largest Indian populations, it has no Indian reservations.

Only about half the state — the western half — was opened to settlement in this way. The eastern half had more people than land, and so none was left for homesteading by outsiders.

Within a generation, well over the half of the Indian allotments had passed into other hands, often through less than fair means. When, in the 1930s, a woman named Angie Debo exposed the extent of the fraud and deception, the University of Oklahoma Press canceled its book contract with her. And Still the Waters Run was finally published by Princeton.

So yes, there is some bitterness about the Land Run. In Oklahoma City, which owes its existence to the 1889 run, there is particular exuberance. A giant sculpture sets along a busy Interstate highway exchange east of downtown.

I have no Indian ancestry but my children do, through their mother, and they are somewhat conflicted on this subject, as am I. But I’m ok with that.

History is messy. Contrary to the simple moral fable we seem to so desperately want, history is ambiguous and complex and in some cases inevitable. So, yes, teach the Oklahoma Land Run. It was a wonderful, exciting, exuberant chapter in our state and nation’s history.

But also teach what came before and what came after, the price that was paid for that free land, and who paid it.

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Quick draw artists

Yes, I’m back after a six-week hiatus. Sometimes life gets in the way.

My town has gotten a lot of attention lately because of a fatal shooting involving a 73-year-old reserve sheriff’s deputy and a sketchy ex-con. My newspaper has had a lot to do with that attention, having ferreted out the incident’s most startling details. I’ve had nothing to do with that and am not inclined to involve myself in the discussion except to say the people working on this story for our paper know what they are doing.

More generally, the story fits into what seems to me a larger pattern of guns becoming an early option for settling disputes. Whether its two drunk guys in a bar or members of Congress seeking a solution in the Middle East, it seems Americans are increasingly trigger happy. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s always been this way and the thing that’s really changed is the ubiquity of digital media. Either way, it seems like a lot of people are being shot unnecessarily.

Some of this is political. In many cases, politics is the science and art of scaring people witless. Scared people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, like overestimate the threat posed by others, or underestimate their own reactions under stress. Some of this is fed by people and organizations with a financial stake in keeping the public on edge. The worst thing that can happen to an advocacy group is for its particular crisis to be solved. So they have to keep the donors and the volunteers stirred up. My rule, and it doesn’t apply only to this subject, is to always take into account who is selling a book or a CD or has an election coming up.

Our fairly recent obsession with the Second Amendment is revealing. No right, including the only to keep and bear arms, is completely inviolate. Freedom of religion does not extend to human sacrifice or polygamy. Freedom of the press does not include libel. And the Second Amendment did not prevent Congress and even local governments from regulating firearms. For many years, Tulsa police confiscated guns from people they simply did not like the looks of. We accept and even advocate for infringement of the right to vote, of equal protection, from search and seizure and fair speech, but draw the line at any restriction on our right to own and use guns.

I am not against guns. I don’t understand why some people own the kinds of guns they do, or as many, but that’s their business. I just don’t want them to use one on me.

And that’s the problem. It’s not the number of guns we Americans own, it’s our attitude about them. Maybe we don’t see guns — and bombs — as a first resort, but we tend to keep them very high on the list.

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Elmer McCurdy

This isn’t a new story, but it is a good one in a macabre and darkly humorous way. It’s the story of an outlaw who roamed the West for the better part of seventy years, mostly as a corpse.

Elmer McCurdy was a sad sack character, raised in Maine by an uncle and aunt he believed were his parents until he was ten, when the women he thought was his aunt told him she was his mother, and that she didn’t know who his father was. Understandably confused, McCurdy took up hard drink about the same time he reached puberty and by twenty was well on his way to ruin.

Drifting out to southeast Kansas, he joined the Army and allegedly received demolition training. Upon his discharge in 1910, McCurdy undertook to become a safe cracker and hold up man.

At first things didn’t go well. And then they got worse. McCurdy and a companion were arrested in St. Joseph, Missouri, on suspicion of intent to commit burglary, but talked their way out of it. Moving to Oklahoma, he and some companions held up a train under the impression it carried $4,000 in cash. And it may have. Problem is, McCurdy used too much nitroclycerin and blew the safe and most of the money to smithereens. About the only thing left were some silver coins melted into unrecognizable globs.

In September 1911, McCurdy and two others tried to rob a bank at Chautauqua; this time, Elmer’s inexpert use of explosives resulted in the demolition of the bank’s interior but failed to open the safe.

His big score occurred the next month, when he and some friends determined to rob a train carrying $400,000 in oil royalties to the Osage Nation. Unfortunately for McCurdy and his gang, they stuck up the wrong train, and their haul consisted of only $46, some whiskey, a pistol, a coat and the conductor’s watch.

A three-man posse tracked McCurdy to a barn near Bartlesville, Okla., where he had spent the night drinking his share of the loot. Refusing to surrender, firing drunkenly at the lawmen, McCurdy was finally shot and killed.

And that’s when Elmer McCurdy’s life got interesting.

When no one showed up to claim the body, the Pawhuska, Okla., undertaker who embalmed McCurdy put the body on display and charged visitors a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” In 1916, two sideshow operators posing as relatives obtained McCurdy’s body from the undertaker, and began exhibiting it as “The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Be Captured Alive.”

For the next three decades, Elmer McCurdy traveled the country with various carnivals and sideshows,once even appearing briefly in low-grade horror movie, his true identity and even the fact he was, in fact, human remains, growing hazier with each passing year. In 1976, a crew filming an episode of the television program The Six Million Dollar Man bumped into what they thought was a papier mache figure hanging in a funhouse at a Long Beach, Calif., amusement park. When an arm broke off, revealing a human bone, the medical examiner was summoned.

The mummified corpse was eventually identified as Elmer McCurdy, erstwhile bad guy. In 1977, the remains were finally laid to rest in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla.

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History repeats itself

We had a considerable to-do in our state this week. The Common Education Committee in the House of Representatives reported out a bill to cut off state funding of Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, and was shocked by the angry public reaction when word got out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had something to do with that. Part of my job is keeping an eye on the Oklahoma House. So I wrote a story about this bill and the committee discussion.

The claim against AP U.S. History — or rather, to the outline published by College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program — was that it is overly concerned with some of the less attractive aspects of America’s past. The author of the bill, Rep. Dan Fisher, said he wasn’t against against covering the bad stuff, but in his opinion AP was way off kilter. His two supporting witnesses were a county assessor and a former teacher from somewhere in the Northeast.

Fisher considers himself something of an expert on U.S. history. He likes to dress up like an eighteenth century parson and lecture on how the American Revolution was really a kind of holy war led by men of God. His main sources are two books written in the 1860s; anything much more recent than that, he says, is tainted by “revisionism.”

As far as I know, Fisher has never tried to include this particular view in the state’s history curriculum.

In the course of discussion on the bill, it was suggested that AP courses are a lot like Common Core in that they could be interpreted as a way of imposing national standards or curricula on the states. One representative said she had asked the state attorney general if Advanced Placement violated state law.

After the blue books hit the fan, Fisher and the others who supported the bill said they never intended to hurt AP, that they had been misunderstood, that they had not understood the implications of the bill. This last, that they didn’t quite understand what they were getting into, may be true. I’m certain they were completely surprised by the uproar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least some of them had not thought beyond the risk of being labeled unAmerican.

What they got was national ridicule, from cable news to The Onion, and probably more surprising to them, a deluge of phone calls and emails from angry constituents. (A co-worker asked why Oklahomans didn’t get that angry about some of the anti-LGBT churned out by our Legislature. That’s easy, I said. No one’s kids get college credit for being gay.)

Fisher says he hasn’t given up on the bill, but will rework it before it gets a floor vote. Many observers think it’s as dead as George Washington’s cat, but in Oklahoma you never know.

And anyway, none of this is new. About fifteen years ago, I covered a story involving the state textbook committee, a heretofore obscure board that, as its name implies, approves public school textbooks. But a few Young Earth creationists had managed to get themselves appointed to the committee, and they were trying to nix the new science books for not including their particular point of view.

A similar furor erupted, lasted for a while, and subsided.

I personally don’t know how or if AP history is corrupting our youth. It’s an optional course, so if parents don’t like it they can keep their kids out of it. People I know who teach AP history say it really hasn’t changed in years, and I can believe it. I used to cover higher education, and one of the things I learned is that eduspeak is constantly inventing new ways to say the same things, only more obscurely.

Among the fears posed by the Great AP Menace is that students are not being taught the “foundational documents” of American history. My sense is that this is a little like asking why long division is not taught in calculus class. Advanced Placement, as the name implies, are advanced courses; they are, in fact, college level courses.

Foundational instruction begins much earlier. I’m not an educator, but I’d guess kids should have a pretty good idea what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are by middle school. Probably, they’ve been exposed to such things as the Mayflower Compact and Washington’s Farewell to the Troops. One would certainly hope so.

History is not like math. There are few constants; two-plus-two does not always equal four. History is messy and changeable, open to interpretation and susceptible to all sorts of external influences. The teaching of history is further complicated by dual and often competing purposes: a common narrative to unite an increasingly diverse nation, and a warts-and-all explanation of how we arrived where we are.

It’s kind of fun, too. People have argued about history since the Greeks came back from Troy, so why stop now?


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The age-old argument

The Tulsa World had a long piece Saturday about the rift between ” young Earth” and ” old Earth” Christians. Of all the things Christians (or anybody else) argue about, this has to be one of most pointless.

The argument is whether the Earth is a few thousand years old, which is what some interpret the Bible to say, or a few billion years old, which is what virtually everyone who knows anything about natural sciences say. Really, it’s about those who believe a literal reading of the Bible — for some, the King James Bible — trumps all else, and those who don’t. My own view, through the lens of a lifetime of working with words, is that no language is free of ambiguity, and the phrase “lost in translation” is not merely a cliche.

But I digress. The real question is “What difference does it make?”

Philosophically, morally, spiritually, what difference does it make to me whether the Earth is six thousand years old or six billion? Will I behave differently if it is one or the other? The answer is no. When and how the Earth was made has no bearing on my conduct, and it’s difficult to believe it affects anyone else’s. While this sort of thing might make an interesting discussion, obsessing over it is a detour down a theological dead end. It is the equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; more seriously, it diverts from the central message.

For some reason, we in the United States are particularly prone to pitting science against faith. This is disturbing because it encourages a mindset that puts wishful thinking ahead of objective evaluation of facts and circumstances.

My personal rule is that I never call an electrician to work on my plumbing. I call a plumber. He may turn out to be a bad plumber, an unscrupulous plumber, or a plumber who misdiagnoses the cause of my backed up sink or leaking kitchen drain, but on the whole I’m more likely to get better advice about plumbing from a plumber than I am from an electrician or a child psychologist or a priest.

So it is is with the age of the Earth. If the experts in the field say the earth is billions of years old, I’m inclined to go with that. But I am also quite aware that ideas change as more facts present themselves, and some day the consensus of science may change. That is the nature of science. It’s conclusions change to fit the facts, not the other way around.

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