Unity requires an honest view of history

Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 will mark the 125th anniversary of the Cherokee Strip Land Run, the largest land run in history. The following post is a reprint of a column originally published Sept. 14, 2018 in the Enid News & Eagle in Enid, Oklahoma.

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“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

When Napoleon Bonaparte uttered that quote, he understood a fundamental truth of human nature: We like to recall portions of our past that flatter us, but suppress those aspects that are less than savory.

This weekend our community will once again exemplify that truth by celebrating the Cherokee Strip Land Run.

It is appropriate to celebrate the Sept. 16, 1893, Land Run that was the birth of our community. The courage, resilience and ingenuity of the settlers, the incredible growth of Enid and the vibrant history of its people — these all are good reasons for a celebration.

But these aspects of our annual celebration are only part of the history. The other part, the part that’s most often whitewashed from popular memory, is a history of subjugation, mass murder and degradation fueled by greed.

The Cherokee Outlet was 8.1 million acres of land guaranteed to the Cherokee in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota to provide access to western hunting grounds from their reservation in what’s now Northeast Oklahoma.

While the Cherokee did not settle in the Outlet, they did derive a significant portion of their nation’s income from leasing the ground, culminating in an 1889 five-year contract with Cherokee Strip Livestock Association for $200,000 annually in grazing rights.

Congress, bowing to racial and economic factors, nullified the contract that same year, and in 1890 President Benjamin Harrison outlawed grazing contracts in the Outlet.

Deprived of the use of and profit from land to which they’d been guaranteed perpetual and unmolested access, the Cherokee were left with few options but to concede to government pressure to sell — at less than half the price they’d previously rejected from the cattlemen.

Between the initial sale and a 1964 settlement with the Indian Claims Commission, the Cherokee Nation was paid less than $2 per acre in 1893 dollars for the land in the Outlet. An expert from Oklahoma State University called to testify before the commission estimated the land was worth more than $10 per acre in 1893.

In a 1993 article in Tulsa Law Review, future Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chadwick Smith and his associate, Faye Teague, described the forced sale of the Outlet as “official extortion designed to appease the clamor of greed for land,” and said the centennial celebration of the land run represented “another dark moment — an abandonment of morality, a denial of law and the personification of greed.”

The extortion of the Outlet from the Cherokee was egregious enough, but it was only the capstone of a long history of injustice and violence perpetrated against Native Americans.

Our shared history includes at least 1,500 wars and armed attacks against indigenous people in what now makes up the United States.

Those conflicts, combined with diseases introduced by European settlers and starvation due to the loss of hunting grounds, depleted the indigenous population from as many as 15 million in 1492 to fewer than 238,000 by the close of the 19th century.

The Cherokee who were forced into giving up the Outlet were the survivors or direct descendants of those who lost far more valuable homelands in the American Southeast, and were forced west on the Trail of Tears — a death march of about 100,000 people that claimed an estimated 15,000 lives, including as many as 5,000 Cherokee.

For descendants of those Native Americans who survived to make it to what’s now Oklahoma, four centuries of genocide and indignity can’t easily be separated from the great land run we annually celebrate. That painful past remains woven into our shared history, even if we choose to ignore portions of the whole.

Thankfully, history did not stop on Sept. 16, 1893. One would hope we, collectively, have advanced past the ignorance and hatred that could lead a “civilized” people to force fellow human beings onto something called the Trail of Tears. And, the Cherokee Nation certainly has thrived in the last 125 years, both because and in spite of history. The nation now includes 355,000 citizens, employs more than 11,000 people and last year contributed more than $2 billion to the Oklahoma economy.

None of this should be taken as cause to stir up strife, or as an indictment against our beloved Cherokee Strip Celebration. We should celebrate the good aspects of our history — and there’s plenty of good to be celebrated in the Land Run and the growth of Enid and its people. But, there’s the other side of that history — and if we’re going to be honest, we have to remember it as well.

True unity requires integrity. A sincere view of history requires honesty. And, if we’re to live honestly with ourselves, and foster true unity among all Americans, we need to own all of our history — including the parts that are nothing short of shameful.

 

Neal is a News & Eagle columnist and staff writer. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com, on Facebook and Twitter @JamesNealwriter and online at jamesrneal.com.

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