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Oklahoma Skins: 'Red People'

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The history of Oklahoma—a Choctaw word meaning “Red People”—has done everything it could to finish the job the U.S. started in destroying American Indian government, politics, jurisdictions and economics, while at the same time exploiting our culture.

What is now Oklahoma was originally divided into two parts: Indian and Oklahoma Territories. In the early 1900s there were two movements to create two new states, both Indian. Indian Territory was to become the State of Sequoyah; Oklahoma Territory, while less developed, was to be the state of Quanah. The Sequoyah Constitutional Convention of 1905 was led by the Five Civilized Tribes, whose efforts were blocked by Theodore Roosevelt for political reasons. He believed it would create another two Democratic states and tip the balance of power in Congress. On June 16, 1906, Roosevelt signed the Oklahoma Enabling Act, which ruled that the Indian and Oklahoma territories would be granted statehood only as a combined state. The following year the Five Tribes joined the Constitutional Convention and brought with them not only the experience, but the Sequoyah Constitution that is the basis for the constitution of the state of Oklahoma today. The tribes had already designed and constructed a great seal that became the seal of Oklahoma in its entirety.

You would think Oklahoma would be rich in American Indian politicians and cultural knowledge—but you would be wrong. Shortly after the establishment of Oklahoma the leadership went about a task of systematically removing American Indians in state government. Oklahoma strongly supported separation of the races with 18 Jim Crow laws passed from statehood until 1957. Oklahomans didn’t want to only suppress Indian politics, they were out to oppress Indians. Two laws were passed that restricted voting rights for people of other races. In 1908 the Education Statute passed, whereby public schools within Oklahoma were to be operated under a plan of separation between the white and colored races. There were $10 and $50 fines for teachers for violating the law, and their certificate canceled for one year. Corporations that operated schools that did not comply with the law were guilty of a misdemeanor and could be fined between $100 and $500. White students who attended a colored school could be fined between $5 and $20 daily. And the state legislature didn’t just stop at politics and education; in 1921 Oklahoma passed the Miscegenation Statute, which prohibited marriage between Indians and Negroes.

The attacks on American Indians continued. Thousands of acres of tribal lands were lost when the state transferred titles of from United States trust status to simple-fee state status. The state of Oklahoma had declared all-out war on American Indians, in what appeared to be an attempt to finish the job the U.S. government had left undone. Oklahoma never embraced any of the 35 beautiful cultures here. Oklahoma had gone out of its way to diminish any form of American Indian culture and history. So, the following news was a surprise:

In 1986 Oklahoma declared it will now enter the pow-wow business, starting with the Red Earth American Indian Festival. Needless to say we were all dumbstruck! We knew that American Indian culture was becoming of interest to people around America and the world. Oklahoma was going to exploit that fact regardless of their history of trying to destroy us. We saw it as a shameless act of exploitation. After 26 years, it is one of the more successful events in Oklahoma. It spawned the Red Earth Museum and the art show that draws major national talent and art buyers worldwide. One might that this success would cause the powers that be in Oklahoma to attempt to get along with Indians and build something special here. Well, they don’t think that way.

Red Earth gave Oklahoma its decision to expand its Indian show business by building an American Indian Cultural Center like no state has ever seen. Again most American Indians didn’t support it and I was against it, knowing how Oklahoma had exploited our culture. But the designers invited me to visit it while it was being built, and I have to say I was blown away! I was impressed with the planned exhibits; they were beautiful and respectful. I walked away jealous, but this was something the tribes of Oklahoma deserve: A place where future generations could learn the truth about us and see and experience our beautiful cultures collectively. Hopefully, those old perceptions and lies will die forever. I knew it in spite of the powers that be, this is a beautiful spirit building this thing, and Oklahoma finally had it right!

Last week the Republican senate killed the Cultural Center—it’s now a white elephant. After the measure failed, the senators—no more than spoiled children—celebrated. The bond issue failed by only one vote—it seems even the wiser and more knowledgeable Republicans knew this was something Oklahoma was dying for. Oklahoma has shot itself in the foot without a gun, and maybe that’s a good thin. Hey, this is Oklahoma what should we expect?” Check it out here.

Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.