Oklahoma Indian country: Part 1

When I told friends that I was going to Oklahoma, each one asked, “Where’s it playing?” I explain that I’m not seeing the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revived for the umpteenth time but the actual 46th American state.

Oklahoma is cowboy country. Rodeos are wildly popular. Shopping is dominated by Western gear: high-heeled cowboy boots, Stetson hats, silver buckles on wide cow leather belts proliferate. There’s even a boutique shop called French Cowgirl in OK City’s trendy Western Ave that sells cowboy chic. Even if Oklahomans claim to have never been on a horse, they at least look like they ride one every day. I’m told that there are more horses per capita here than in any other state and I believe it.

Best in show
Oklahoma’s tourism literature makes outrageous claims. The hyperbole strikes me as a cry for attention within a country of 49 competitors vying for ‘best in show’ but the facts and figures speak for themselves.

Oklahoma is packed with geographical anomalies and historical oddities:

  • Eleven distinct eco-regions - the most diverse in the USA per square mile
  • More shoreline than the Gulf and East coasts combined - lakes generously pepper the state
  • The longest stretch of Route 66 - the National Route 66 museum is in Elk City and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” museum is in Erick 
  • The country’s first national wildlife park, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
  • The country's largest contiguous historical district on the National Heritage Register in Guthrie, the former state capital
  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper - the Price Tower in Bartlesville
  • The most American Indian tribal headquarters - the annual Red Earth festival is the country’s largest Indian celebration
  • Both North America’s oldest painted object - a 10,000 year old bison skull and world’s largest dinosaur skull - a Pentaceratops) in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.

Unsurprisingly, Oklahoma boasts the world’s largest cattle market. This is beef steak country after all. Surprisingly, by way of contrast, Oklahoma also has more than forty wineries.

Museums, monuments and memorials
Oklahoma also does a seriously intense trade in museums, monuments and memorials. They are almost innumerable.

In Oklahoma City’s National Memorial & Museum tears were welling while I listened to survivors’ stories recorded for posterity while they describe the horror of America’s worst terrorist attack prior to September 11, the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

The somber landscaped grounds that constitute the memorial have become a sacred site since it was officially opened by President Bill Clinton on the fifth anniversary of the massacre that cost the state168 innocent lives. The museum’s photograph gallery dedicated to the children killed in the day care centre continues to haunt me. Indeed the entire complex of museum and memorial had a greater impact on me than I expected. I left feeling vulnerable and miserable at man’s inhumanity to man.

Indian Territory
Native American Indian culture is ubiquitous in Oklahoma. The name itself derives from a duo of Choctaw words meaning ‘red people’. Designated ‘Indian Territory’ until 1907, more tribes call Oklahoma home than any other state.

Since the relaxation of regulations regarding casinos operating on Native American lands, many tribes have struck it rich. Similarly, wildcat oil drillers did likewise in the 1920s and 30s. Oklahoma gained a poor reputation for hard times and desperate people of the ‘dust bowl’ best described in John Steinbeck’s masterpiece ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ but while exhausted farmers were escaping from eroded lands, entrepreneurs were making huge fortunes prospecting for black gold.

The Phillips family established Phillips Petroleum in Tulsa and set high standards for artistic philanthropy when they opened the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Woolaroc wildlife reserve and Western American museum. The oil industry still contributes huge sums to the state’s tax coffers. While the oil wells have been pumped dry, the petroleum technology and support industries thrive.

Community ties
Now Native Americans are plowing their casino revenues back into their communities through college scholarship programs, health care, aged care villages and numerous cultural centres. I visit the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee to learn more about the Nishnabe ‘Original People’ nation comprising the Ojibwe and Odawa people as well as the Potawatomi.

I learned that Jim Thorpe, the word’s greatest athlete was a citizen Potawatomi and that the forced migration of the Nishnabe was called the ‘Trail of Death’ by its survivors, so many perished on the long march from the Great Lakes region to the sparse lands in central Oklahoma. The Potawatomi Casino provides the funds required to operate the Center and its community help projects.

At the Cherokee Nation Heritage Center and Tribal Complex in Tahlequah I discovered that the Cherokee Casino contributes US$4 million to the concept of ‘Ga-du-gi’, a Cherokee word that describes “working together as a community in pursuit of a better quality of life for this and future generations” according to the Cherokee Nation’s mission statement.

About the author: Tom Neal Tacker writes for Naked Hungry Traveller, an Aussie online magazine that bares the truth on travel experiences with stories, reviews, news, tips and pics.Tom hails from the Windy City and he talks alot. Remanded to vagabondage at an early age. Inveterate diner and drinker. Travels widely, deeply with constant hunger. Tom's preferred motto: "Suck it and see."

Have you experienced Oklahoma, the US state not the musical? Tell us about your experiences in cowboy country below in the comments section or share with our community on twitter and Facebook.

Read Part 2 of Tom's blog tomorrow. In the meantime, if you were interested in looking at all our trips to North America just visit the website. 

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