The Indians Are Coming!

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Every now and then, somebody asks me why I share space in my weekly column, "How Did I Miss That?," with my Republican cousin Ray Sixkiller. I’ll give the answer I always give before moving into the subject of this column, which is pretty much the same thing. I am an Oklahoma Cherokee, and that means I have lots of cousins who are Republicans. I am also old enough to remember when Republicans played a constructive role in government.

Oklahoma has a complicated history that even many Indians do not understand. It became a state in 1907, cobbled together from Indian Territory (consisting of the Five Tribes plus the Osage) and Oklahoma Territory, which contained the reservations of numerous other tribes, including virtually all of the surviving Indians from the Republic of Texas, which had been the state of Texas since 1845. Texas has another colorful and little known history, having been part of other US states (New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming) and Mexican states (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas).

For a Cherokee, even outside of Oklahoma, the Trail Where They Cried is part of our blood memory. Those who did not walk it still lived through the upheaval, the disruption of the clans, the frantic efforts to protect the sacred fire. I did not know as a child that all of the Five Tribes (and many others) walked their own trails of tears with greater or lessor degrees of coercion.

The major compensation for the Trail of Tears was ironclad assurance in the removal treaties that land forcibly “traded” to the Five Tribes would never become part of a US state without the consent of those tribes. Relying on that ironclad assurance, the Five Tribes all functioned as republics defined by geography. Anybody who committed a federal crime on Indian land was shipped off to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to answer in federal court. Indian law governed Indian land, and the forms were quite similar to US states.

When statehood was in the air, the leaders of the Five Tribes called a constitutional convention, and drafted the Constitution of the State of Sequoyah, a map of which appears on the cover of my first book, Sequoyah Rising. It would have been almost all of Indian Territory—the Five Tribes lands but not the Osage lands.

The politics of Sequoyah were not doable, and only part of the reason was racism. The eastern states were not happy with power shifting westward, and the Sequoyah/Oklahoma issue came up at the same time as New Mexico and Arizona. Admitting Sequoyah would have meant at least two new western states, because Oklahoma Territory was not going away, and a political tussle about the Osage Nation, where the BIA had allowed oil exploration since 1896.

When the Oklahoma constitutional convention was held, there was substantial overlap with the delegates to the Sequoyah convention, and the resulting document was pretty similar. The point of this short history lesson is that the men (in those days, always men) who led the Five Tribes led the proposed state of Sequoyah and led the eastern half of what became the actual state of Oklahoma.

Naturally, there was tension between the settlers and the Indians, but in much of the state in 1907, the Indians were part of the establishment. That’s ancient history, and everybody’s colorblind now, right?

Well, Cousin Ray Sixkiller and I have been observing the race to succeed Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. One of the leading contenders is T.W. Shannon, who goes by his initials because his first name is Tahrohon. His father is Chickasaw and his mother is African-American, and he is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. If elected, he’ll be the first Indian in the Senate since Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and part of a short list of Indians who ever served in that body in addition to Campbell: Robert Owen (Cherokee, who also ran for president) and Charles Curtis (Kaw, who was also elected vice president).

A wealthy rancher and prominent supporter of Shannon’s primary opponent, Rep. James Lankford, posted on his Facebook page, “Indians aren’t Oklahomans.” The New York Times quoted an Oklahoma Tea Party group arguing that Shannon “has too many masters to serve,” among them “Indian tribes.”

Like all Republicans in these times, Shannon panders to the crazy vote or he loses the Republican Primary, and in Oklahoma that’s tantamount to losing the election. Shannon’s share of the crazy vote is captured by support from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, but what the Times called a “whispering campaign” against Shannon’s Chickasaw citizenship will test the amount of overlap in a Venn diagram of crazy voters and racist voters. You have to understand Oklahoma to wrap your head around the racist appeal being directed at Indian blood when African blood is available. Okie racists are versatile.

Another test that’s going on is how “real Indians” feel about persons with tribal citizenship seeking office in the colonial government. Oklahoma Indians have always been involved in the colonial government. This particular “real Indian” meme pretty much agrees word for word with the whispering campaign that says to oppose Shannon because he’s Chickasaw, except the “real Indians” would oppose by not voting and therefore ceding ground to the racists. I have voted with my feet against that meme because I hold office in a colonial government.

My position is that sovereignty does not and has not for a long time meant fealty to an individual, the sovereign. Given the way the colonists have structured the United States, that archaic formulation would mean that a citizen of a state could not serve the federal government and, particularly, a federal judge could not entertain a lawsuit between the federal government and his or her home state. That is preposterous. That is constitutional law according to Cliven Bundy, and it doesn’t improve if uttered by an Indian.

Cousin Ray Sixkiller intends to vote for Tahrohon “T. W.” Shannon. I do not. The reason I do not intend to vote for him, besides my residence, is his politics. I vote in neither the Republican nor the Democratic primaries. But whether I’m pushed to do so by a white person or by an Indian, I cannot oppose T. W. Shannon because he’s Chickasaw.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.