Ginny Underwood
Special to Indian Country Today

OKLAHOMA CITY – A sit-in Saturday at a massive monument here commemorating an 1889 land run drew hundreds of Indigenous activists and supporters, along with a few dozen armed counter-protesters, some carrying long rifles and wearing bulletproof vests.

The Society to Protect Indigenous Rights & Indigenous Treaties had obtained a permit for its demonstration at the Centennial Land Run Monument, which depicts the opening of "unassigned land" in Oklahoma Territory. 

Tensions flared at one point, during remarks by a local Black Lives Matter leader, and police were called to diffuse the situation. The event was otherwise peaceful.

“Today, we are here for education and awareness about history in Oklahoma,” said event co-organizer Brenda Golden, Muscogee Creek. “The Land Run monument glorifies the pioneers and doesn’t talk about the Indigenous people who lived here before.”

Sign made by the Seminole Treaty People (Photo by Ginny Underwood)
The $6.2 million bronze structure, the largest such monument in the United States, features 47 statues depicting an 1889 land run. (Photo by Ginny Underwood)

The $6.2 million structure features 47 bronze statues of land run participants on horses and in wagons. The society, also known as SPIRIT, is seeking Indigenous representation at the site.

The sit-in drew added attention this week when Shannon Collins, a disabled veteran from Moore, Oklahoma, organized a counter protest through social media.

He asked for citizens to come, armed, to help protect the monuments. One statue was tagged with spray paint prior to the event.

"I’m tired of things being done because of these small groups removing our history and things like that,” Collins said. “I just decided one day I was tired of sitting on the couch and watching what was going on and decided to do something.”

Robert (left) and Joe, who did not provide their last names, traveled from south Oklahoma to help protect the Centennial Land Run monument in Oklahoma City. They said, as they openly held their long rifles, they witnessed what happened in Minneapolis and St. Louis and they wanted to be prepared. (Photo by Ginny Underwood)

Collins and others camped out the night before the sit-in to make sure no further damage was done to the statues. His call for help was answered by roughly 40 men, many of whom carried side arms. Collins was quick to disassociate from others.

"The guys with the long rifles are not with us,” he said. Collins asked all participants to remain a safe distance from Native attendees and not respond to any comments.

As the event got underway, hundreds of Native peoples gathered with a celebratory spirit. Leaders cheered the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring much of eastern Oklahoma an Indian reservation. They led a prayer, invited singers to bless the event and burned cedar.

(Related: Supreme Court ruling 'reaffirmed' sovereignty)

Many organizations, including Black Lives Matter Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Council on Indian Education, and Matriarch, participated in the Centennial Land Run monument sit-in organized by the Society to Protect Indigenous Rights & Indigenous Treaties (S.P.I.R.I.T) on July 11, 2020 in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Ginny Underwood)

A series of community leaders addressed the crowd. However, it wasn’t until the president of the Oklahoma City Black Lives Matter organization, Sheri Dickerson, spoke that the situation escalated. She specifically addressed the White armed citizens after a taunting comment.

“You want to talk about a land run when you don’t understand that the land you are standing on was stolen and you need to be making atonement for what your people did,” Dickerson said. “My people had to get a permit to stand and protest on land that is theirs. Understand that is an atrocity.”

Native people surrounded Dickerson as White citizens began to press toward the sidewalk leading to the microphone. Members of the group Whites Against Racism positioned themselves between the armed men and Native participants, and Oklahoma City police officers were called.

“When news came out about possibly armed citizens coming to the monument, we did consider canceling the event,” Golden said. “However, we received such an outpouring of support from organizations who wanted to come and stand with us that we decided to proceed with it.”

Organizers are scheduled to meet with Mayor David Holt next week. They plan to ask for fair representation at the site of the monument and in the histories provided by the city about the land run. They are also seeking fair and accurate histories be taught in public schools.

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Ginny Underwood is a communication consultant based in Yukon, Oklahoma. She is a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.