Oklahoma Indians Braving the Racist Culture
I had to leave Oklahoma to find out I’m an “Oklahoma Indian.” My grandparents, who did not drive and had no access to a car, raised me. In my childhood, a road trip was a big deal but the destination was typically “up to Osage” or “over to Cherokee or Sac and Fox” for the purpose of visiting relatives. Cherokee by birth, I was born and raised in the Creek Nation because my Cherokee grandfather had come to Bristow chasing work in the oil patch. Both of my parents were born in the Creek Nation.
My family had been there long enough that both my non-Indian grandparents had vivid memories of Indian Territory, memories they shared with me. I knew that Indian Territory became Oklahoma in violation of treaties with the Five Tribes before I went to public schools where they did mention the Trail of Tears but not the treaties.
There was a lot I didn’t know. I don’t think it was taught in high school but I’m no authority on what was taught there because my misadventures with Oklahoma public schools ended in the ninth grade. I did learn in junior high (what they now call middle school) that there was another tract of land, Oklahoma Territory, peopled by Plains Indians of various tribes that was combined with Indian Territory to form the state.
I did not fully appreciate that all the Oklahoma Indians had stories similar to the Trail of Tears, and it’s hard to look at those stories and construct some objective scale of horror. When I was a kid, the Delawares were a small tribe living up the road a ways and there were also some Delawares living with the Cherokees.
I did not relate them to the state of Delaware, and I was a grown man when I was brought to tears by the blood memories of a Lenape elder who described how many generations of his people were removed and removed again until there were several generations who could not visit their grandparents’ graves.
I first learned I was an “Oklahoma Indian” when I was introduced as such by a Paiute speaking to another Paiute. He did not mean it as a pejorative but just a fact of my background. I learned later that it is sometimes meant as a pejorative, and as best I can tell that is a legacy of the colonists’ intent for Indian Territory to be an intertribal melting pot.
Not exactly a melting pot like the U.S. When the nation was pursuing the One Big Reservation idea, it was still against the law for Indians and white people to marry in many states. Tribal laws did not usually reciprocate these total bans, but they did sometimes treat marry-ins differently, as in the Cherokee law limiting white men to one wife, a rule that did not apply to Cherokee men.
This law was not about racism but rather it addressed a serious problem of white men marrying in to take themselves out of the “intruder” category and then marrying a white woman. The Indian wife would then become the cleaning lady while the white wife took on the social role and the white children were preferred to the Indian children. That is an example of how a problem rooted in race requires a race-conscious response.
Some tribal laws—to our eternal shame—did ape the colonial ban on intermarriage with black people, a ban that was often disregarded. Each tribal government, like each state, had rules about who could marry whom.
These were times before antibiotics and the shooting part of the Indian wars was still on. The life expectancy at birth among the colonists did not leave 40 behind until the same year the Indian wars switched from stealing with guns to stealing with laws, 1890.
The norm was serial monogamy and blended families raising children but not because of divorce like it is now. Spouses died in circumstances that would not cause death in our times.
The white folks who came to Indian Territory not on government business either did not mind mixing with Indians or were willing to overlook a disposition to racism because they were out for the main chance and believed the opportunity to swindle Indians outweighed any distaste for socializing with them.
The results were a lot of “only in Oklahoma.”
In the Osage Nation, there was a plague of white marry-ins murdering Osage women for their head rights. The Tonkawa, promised a reservation in Texas for scouting services against the Comanche, were instead forced to Indian Territory at gunpoint and settled too close to the Comanche Reservation. A raid in 1862 killed half the tribe and the survivors were relocated.
Recently, when Elizabeth Warren was getting her family Cherokee grandmother myth demolished by real genealogists, my own observation was that more white people in Oklahoma claimed to be part Indian than did not. Long before I was grown, I was aware of the social reality that in Oklahoma it’s cool to be “part Indian” while remaining uncool to be full blood.
Oklahoma was a horribly racist place to grow up, with a racial hierarchy that placed Indians above blacks but below whites. Indians reacted predictably, some gleefully participating in keeping African-Americans in their place and others resenting white privilege. I was a teenager before I ever laid eyes on people from Latin America, and it took me a long time to figure out that most of them are Indian by blood. Hispanic Indians came to occupy a similar spot in the racial hierarchy, but perhaps a little below Oklahoma Indians.
Brown v. Board of Education did not hit Bristow full on because the establishment accepted it. The desegregation plan was home grown rather than imposed from outside. The black students were brought into white schools from the bottom up. All the black teachers lost their jobs. My age cohort was among those who got black classmates immediately, but I was in the odd position of already knowing lots of those black kids.
My grandparents lived on 12th street, a dirt road that formed the border between white Bristow and what was known as N-town except the N was spelled out. Kids have to be taught racial prejudice either by their elders or by a run of bad luck in who they meet from over the color line, so it took a while for the N word to sink in for what it is.
In my case, I did not have the run of bad luck. My grandparents were what passes for racist today, using the N word routinely and having their heads full of stereotypes. Their prejudice did not extend to Indians. My Dutch grandmother had been abandoned at the Sax and Fox Agency as a teenager.
My Scots-English-Irish grandfather met her there. He was a driller in the oil patch and his roughnecks were both white and Indian. On the other side of the pond, his ancestry being Scots or English or Irish would be a big deal in terms of his social status and life prospects. In the U.S., he was just “white.”
I can see that if I had been born in a different time, I might not have known what an “Indian” was. I was a Cherokee surrounded by Creeks. There were differences between Cherokees and Creeks, but no major hostilities in my time. I learned much later how Cherokees helped Andrew Jackson fight the Creeks and got betrayed in return.
I learned later about black people and how in Africa it would make a big difference whether an individual were Zulu or Xhosa, Maasai or Kikuyu, Tutsi or Hutu, Igbo or Yoruba. Here, they were all branded with the N word and became a color-defined class of people below Indians.
Now, at the end of my life, it’s easy to look back and see the fundamental similarities among the superficial differences. Then, all of Oklahoma conspired to build fences between persons of differing colors and sell the bill of goods that the fences represented something more than advantage to the lighter shades on top.
If light complexion carried merit, albinos would rule the world. I do wish I could say it was logic that brought me to reject color prejudice, or that I could point to an individual who taught me better, but the truth is I just never bought what Oklahoma was selling.
My own complexion varied greatly, so greatly that I grew up thinking my Cherokee blood protected me from sunburn. I proved otherwise in an act of stupidity that left me past well done and toward crispy. Time spent at the white end of my spectrum conferred no social advantage because if you live in a small town in Oklahoma and your name is Teehee, everybody knows you are Cherokee.
When I left Oklahoma, “Teehee” became “Indian” rather than Cherokee and when I changed my name to Russell, I gained the ability to pass among the settlers as one of them. For almost 20 years, the only people who knew I was Cherokee were the people I chose to tell.
Well, not the only ones. I have been accosted by older Indian people several times who either asked me a question that they could not expect a white person to answer or who just started speaking in Cherokee. That would lead me to beat a quick retreat to English but also to wonder WTF?
Came the day when I gave some legislative testimony for the Texas Indian Bar Association and the Austin newspaper covered it. I thought nothing of being outed since my friends already knew and I wasn’t hiding.
It suddenly became significant.
An elderly man came and looked me up at the courthouse to tell me it was not right for me to hold public office because “Indians don’t pay taxes.” More disturbing, my IQ seemed to have dropped 20 points overnight. I found myself dividing lawyers into those who treated me differently and those who did not.
I learned through the courthouse rumor mill that I had only been admitted to the University of Texas and then Texas Law because of affirmative action. Ironically, the only time I had consciously played white was to avoid that very thing, the affirmative action stigma.
I’ve never looked, but I would bet my records at UT do not list me as Indian. I did not want any affirmative action and I did not want UT to be able to claim they recruited me for diversity’s sake. While I favor affirmative action as public policy, I’m constrained to admit that the very existence of it causes white students to assume they arrived with better credentials—true in my case because I arrived with no credentials, but I did not use my tribal affiliation to finesse that problem.
Then there was getting regaled with all the Cherokee grandmother stories. I could not understand who they thought appointed me arbiter of Indian authenticity or how in the world the limited number of Cherokee women gave birth to so many white people and then somehow lost touch with their offspring in just a couple of generations.
A common story was that grandmother ran off from one of the removal parties on the Trail of Tears. Since grandmother was not around, she never taught them that the literacy rate in the Cherokee Nation was near 100 percent and there were lists of who went with which removal party and whether they arrived in Indian Territory.
None of the real history mattered once my identity became public. I re-learned what I had learned as a child and forgotten. For modern Indians, our experience is all stereotype all the time. After a short flash of novelty that attended the news and opinion adjustments applied to address the puzzle over how I got to be an elected judge, I was back to my courthouse routine. Just another Oklahoma Indian.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.