Oklahoma: The Experience

October 15, 2004

<i>Its name first in English was Indian Territory, and then, for a short time, it was called two territories, Indian and Oklahoma  meaning both the same thing, a redundancy  and then, again, it is one. The land took and held its Indian name, its Choctaw name, okla homa, meaning 'red people,' as the whole of the continent, changing, would hold her place names, her mountains and rivers, in the tongues that first named them. The shape of it, drawn in mythical lines by men who collaborate in illusion, is that of a saucepan, or hatchet. It lies not in the heart but in the belly, the very gut of the nation...</i>

<i>Rilla Askew,</i> The Mercy Seat

America is the land of the second chance; one can always start over, somewhere else. That's been the belief, even after the frontier disappeared. As one of the last states to join the union, Oklahoma carries many stories of new beginnings: a territory forced on some; a newly opened land others rushed to secure; a scorched, unproductive home many reluctantly left. Their stories record the struggles candidly, unashamedly, because, in a sense, people become what they have endured.

Many of the stories arise from recognizable historical events: The Louisiana Purchase, The Sante Fe Trail, The Trail of Tears, The Chisholm Trail, The Spanish American War, The Oil Rush, The Dust Bowl, The Oklahoma City Bombing.

Many have written about the Oklahoma experience, the influxes and outflows of people, the boom times and the decline times. Many memoirs and stories record enduring. Since 1990, or perhaps earlier, however, Oklahoma authors' vision seems to have become more expansive. We have a contemporary literature that can stand in stature next to the literature of any other state. Some of the best Oklahoma writers attended the Red Dirt Book Festival at OBU last year. The best known, Tony Hillerman, grew up in South Pottawatomie County, and later settled in New Mexico, which he has made the setting for his famous Navajo mysteries. 

Some of the outstanding younger writers who attended now live out-of-state, and recast the Oklahoma experience from a late 20th century perspective: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie); Rilla Askew (Fire in Beulah); Diane Glancy (Pushing the Bear); LeAnne Howe (Shell Shaker). Oklahoma's past is certainly not a closed book for them. All their narratives show people shaping their lives within the historical moment, even when they are caught up in events that are beyond them.

One is struck by the diversity of these narratives, dramatizing regional and cultural differences within the state. Historians divide Oklahoma topography between eastern, piedmont/prairie, and western plains. These divisions have created different agricultural economies in the state, as migrant waves have enriched Oklahoma's culture. Glancy and Howe focus on two important tribes, the Cherokee and Choctaw, which have strong matrilineal elements. Askew dramatizes the connections, compromises and collisions among whites, Native Americans, and African-Americans in a 15-year period after statehood, leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot. Through an account of her own life, Dunbar-Ortiz explores the social psychology of the poor whites who became the "Okies" of the '30s and '40s.

After an 18-year process of research that included traveling the route taken by 13,000 Cherokees in 1838, Diane Glancy offers Pushing the Bear. Glancy transforms and enlarges the historical documents by parceling the story among many voices. The narrative proceeds state by state, from North Carolina to the Indian Territory, with maps to indicate the way taken. While a large number of characters speak, Glancy's narrative centers on one North Carolina couple, Maritole and Knobowtee, and their families. Through the wife, we are drawn into both the weaknesses and the resources of strength that hardship and deprivation can stimulate. Through Knobowtee, we learn much about the political history, the trail of broken treaties and agreements that led to this awful journey. The travelers are opposed by a bearlike force which seems to resist and even kill them. Some survive by becoming solitary animals, like a lone bear. As they trudge toward the Indian Territory, beset by cold and sickness, the Cherokee debate whether they should or could have done something else at some point and why they suffer so unjustly. Such questions, along with anxieties about the future, stimulate a dialogue that sets white man's Christian answers and self-serving actions against the Cherokees' own traditional stories and beliefs.

Rilla Askew's Fire in Beulah provides a story of the "belly," when the displacements and speculations of the original land boom were echoed by racial conflict and thinly regulated oil exploitation in the 1920s. The state quickly recapitulated two great national excesses: the first large race riot in Detroit and the earlier gold rushes in the West. As in her first novel, The Mercy Seat, Askew features two families: Althea Whiteside Dedemeyer and her husband, an oil entrepreneur, and Graceful Whiteside, her black maid, whose family lives in the doomed Greenwood section of Tulsa.

Askew credits a number of studies on the Tulsa Riot that emerged in the late 1990s: the unearthing of a mass grave and a state-sponsored investigation of what happened to determine liability. Oil fever, lynch fever, and the great gulf between the black and white communities of Tulsa contribute to the passions and misunderstandings that sweep all the major characters into the climactic destruction of that night of May 31, 1921.

A central chapter in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz' Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie details the kind of people who pushed to the frontier, stubbornly fighting the elements and determined to establish a home. Because of the Depression, many moved West; some stayed, clinging to marginal farms and businesses. Dunbar-Ortiz identifies herself as an "Okie" in both senses, growing up among those who stayed and later joining those who settled in California. Pressed by a powerful, alcoholic mother and the realization of utter poverty during the flush years of the 1950s, the young Roxie Dunbar wonders whether she will ever have a "normal life." The author eventually returns to her childhood, to the place in middle Oklahoma that formed her. She returns to family gravesites, to relatives and friends. Journeys can sometimes culminate where they began.

LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker focuses on a group of Choctaw women  peacemakers and visionaries known as shell shakers. The novel weaves stories of two generations that experience conflicts associated with a culture entangled in white interests: the English and the French in 1738 and the profits generated from successful casino operations in the 1990s. The first must work within and sometimes violate tradition; the second must relearn traditional ways. Old and new means of negotiation and resolution, of initiation and death are set side by side. Both generations of women must work out their moral and visionary imperatives in a culture led by strong males. Both learn that the process of healing often involves violence or loss, as well as peacemaking. Whereas Pushing the Bear raises the question of what displacement and a traumatic journey will do to family and tribal groups, Shell Shaker explores whether a displaced people who have since accommodated to modern culture can unify and reclaim old traditions.

Does a common Oklahoma experience exist? Early census figures support the case for regionalizing the state into midwestern and southern cultures, with a central portion of intermingled "Oklahoman" culture. These narratives suggest that contexts of place and time matter. However, we do find an essential commonality: people who confront challenges that define who they are and what they will become.

While all of these stories are set in Oklahoma, the racial prejudice, the poverty, the town or urban environments, the violence, and even the extremes of weather could have occurred elsewhere. In a sense, these novels mark a maturation of Oklahoma literature, a merging of the state's distinctive experiences with mainstream narrative themes. No longer does the state itself seem so much under a microscope, as a place set apart by Indian settlement, land rushes, and the Dust Bowl, although the legacy of these elements is clearly present.