Federal policies allowed for the dispossession of tribal territory
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — The history of jurisdiction and land in Oklahoma is perhaps more storied, dynamic and complex than any other state.
The acquisition of tribal lands by non-Natives here is not unique, however University of Oklahoma College of Law Professor Lindsay Robertson said the encapsulated way in which it happened through the 1889 Land Run certainly is.
“It’s noon, April 22, a gun’s fired and there they come. All of the non-Indians running in to take lands that were ours.
“And it’s the strongest image I know in all of North American history of that dispossession, that moment of dispossession and I think for that reason it sort of especially focused attention,” he said in an ‘Mvskoke Radio’ interview with Gary Fife.
Such a brazen land-grab did not occur without justification.
“To understand the Land Run, you sort of gotta step back in time a full generation to the Civil War, which really made the land run possible,” Robertson said.
In the early 1860s, the southern states, starting with South Carolina seceded from the Union.
Removal of the Southeastern-based Five Civilized Tribes happened two to three decades before the area became informally known as Indian Territory, “and their lands covered all of what we know as Oklahoma today,” Robertson said.
The new Confederate states saw the tribes as a prospect for allies against the north.
Robertson said they hired an eccentric man from Arkansas as their Indian Affairs commissioner named Albert Pike.
“And he was successful for a number of reasons, and all five of the tribes signed treaties of alliance and sent troops to support the Confederate army,” he said. “There was more support for this in some tribes than in others. The Cherokees virtually had a civil war of their own during the American Civil War.”
Divisiveness about this decision within the tribes did not matter to the Union when they prevailed.
“The official United States position was ‘you guys violated your treaty obligations to the U.S. when you sided with the Confederates and took up arms against us and so one of the consequences will be that you’re going to lose the western half of the lands of the Indian Territory,’ ” Robertson said.
Earlier, the Seminole Nation had been using part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation for their territory and made it official through a treaty in 1856 but lost all of it after the war.
The freed up land from the FCT was used as a land base in Indian Territory for a second removal of tribes from their original territories in areas such as the western plains and southwest.
“But by the late 1870s a railroad lobbyist in D.C. who happened to be Cherokee, a guy called Elias Boudinot, looked at a map and realized that there were still a lot of those lands that hadn’t been used for the resettlement of tribes from other parts of the country,” Robertson said.
The ‘Chicago Times’ published an 1879 letter from Boudinot stating this land should be opened to non-Native development.
After this, Kansas legislator David Payne, who had also held several minor posts in Washington, started agitating support in Congress for opening up the unassigned lands, “and also illegally sending groups of settlers across the line to establish settlements,” Robertson said.
Robertson said the U.S. Army routinely kicked out these groups.
“Payne himself was prosecuted and died in 1884 of a heart attack but the cause was picked up in Washington and really took off in 1886 and 1887 when the Santa Fe Railroad ran that train line right down the middle of the Indian Territory that went through Guthrie, Oklahoma City, Moore and Norman where we are at OU. That just made it easier to access those lands,” he said.
This was the final momentum needed to get formal action on the initiative, and a representative from Illinois was persuaded to add a provision to the Indian appropriations bill authorizing President Benjamin Harrison to open up the lands.
“That was February 1889, and it only took until April 22 to get this set up and on that day at noon they fired a gun and said whoever wants it can have it,” Robertson said.
The same year the Land Run started on the former western tribal territories, the allotment period began, which freed up even more areas.
“The allotment policy was a post Civil War policy in which the federal government decided that the smart thing to do with the tribes was to break their lands up ostensibly to eliminate collective ownership of lands and have each tribal citizen have his or her own individual farm,” Robertson said.
However, the amount of land given out was fixed next to the total amount of tribal citizens.
“And there is going to be a lot of land left over and that’s what the U.S. then took. They either bought it from the tribes or they sold it off for the tribes,” Robertson said. “And allotment was devastating for tribes in Oklahoma.”
Robertson said because of this, the confusing arrangement of shared jurisdiction continues to this day.
“Because there is still a lot of individual allotments that were held in what were called trust lands, those are all Indian Country under federal law so those are all the areas in Oklahoma in which tribes exercise their full jurisdiction but they can be next to a piece of land that isn’t,” he said.
He said allotment caused more issues than the Land Run at the time.
“So there was direct access to tribal lands for non-Native people, and when the Cheyenne Arapaho lands were broken up, non-Indians flooded there and you’d see enormous conflict between Indians and non-Indians, and the same thing was happening in the Muscogee Nation when it got allotted and broken up,” Robertson said.
Sequoyah Statehood Movement
After the Land Run, the area now known as Oklahoma was called the twin territories with the eastern portion containing the FCT considered Indian Territory while the western was referred to as the Oklahoma Territory.
“…Which started as just those two million acres in the unassigned lands but by now had expanded to include everything in western Oklahoma,” Robertson said.
A group of tribal leaders in 1905 decided to push Congress for the admission of the eastern portion into statehood under the name Sequoyah in honor of the Cherokee Syllabary creator.
“They held a constitutional convention. They drafted a constitution,” he said. “They submitted it to Congress and they got denied.”
Robertson said President Theodore Roosevelt was concerned that both territories would be dominated by the Democratic Party, giving them an extra pair of electoral votes and making it harder for a Republican to win the next presidential election.
“The following year, Oklahoma territory said, ‘well let’s come in but we will be the entire state. We will sort of absorb the Indian Territory that was fewer electoral votes’ and the Roosevelt Administration said ‘we can live with that,’ ” he said.
He said drafters of the Sequoyah Constitution like Alfalfa Bill Murray moved to Guthrie and took over the drafting process for the Oklahoma Constitution that led to statehood in 1907.
Robertson said the merger of the two territories inspired the famous metaphorical image of a non-Indian man and Native woman getting married and, “who were going to come in theory to form this new state.”
“Although you know, I’ve often thought, ‘well it was a wedding but it was a shotgun wedding and the gun was pointed at her,’ ” he said.
Robertson said it is important to teach history about the event despite the harm Natives experienced and it probably stands out to both sides for polarizing reasons.
“Either as sort of a heroic moment because your ancestors participated because it was bold coming out here to unknown lands and running or if you are a Native citizen, it sort of lives inside you as a really unhappy, sad traumatizing moment,” he said.