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 parents 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.