In Oklahoma, theft of Indigenous land was swift and relentless following statehood

OklahomaEducationHealthPoliticsCommunity Indigenous
Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 04/29/2024, 6:33 AM
Edited: 05/18/2024, 4:15 PM

(TVLSE, Okla.) As Oklahoma closes the book on another year of ‘89er Day” celebrations, the real history of the land continues to be overlooked by most, including the state’s governor.  

“The first land run in our state was in 1889— it opened the unassigned lands to pioneers and settlers who built the foundation of Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said in a post on social media. “During ‘89ers Week, we celebrate that awesome history.” 

But for many Native Americans living in Oklahoma, that history was not so awesome. 

While municipal governments like the City of Guthrie communicate the birth of Oklahoma “began with a cannot shot at noon on April 22, 1889”, in actuality the state began with the creation of “Indian Territory”, or the forced removal of Native American tribes to modern-day Oklahoma from their ancestral homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. 

Amanda Clinton, owner of A.R. Clinton: Communications. Strategies. Content, is a Cherokee citizen who worked as a spokesperson for Cherokee Nation for 15 years. 

Clinton said in addition to its Indigenous peoples, what would later become Oklahoma also became home to people formerly enslaved by Native Americans (who would go on to form the state’s all-Black towns) and immigrants from all over the world looking to stake their claim.

“On its face, this makes Oklahoma the most diverse melting pot of any state in the country,” Clinton said. “Except, throughout our state's history, one of those storylines has been elevated over the others, inspiring iconic plays and movies like Oklahoma! and the Ron Howard-produced blockbuster Far and Away. It's no coincidence that this well-known storyline primarily centers on white settlers and concludes with the happy ending of beginning a homestead without harming anyone. The problem is the storyline state leaders have consistently told over the past 100-plus years and that children learn through these 89er Day celebrations is not rooted in reality.” 

Most of modern-day Oklahoma was Indian Territory during the late 19th century. In the 1880s, railway expansion brought in white settlers who realized the land Native Americans were forced onto wasn’t too bad. The value of the land increased, and in 1899 nearly two million acres promised to Native Americans was removed from Indian Territory to allow for white settlement. 

“The federal government called this area "Unassigned Lands" in legal terms,” Clinton said. “But in practical terms, we know there is no such thing as "Unassigned Lands," and the concept of "free" or "unclaimed" land is a fantasy. Before any European incursion, Native peoples lived with sophisticated forms of governance and unique social structures. They inhabited every mile, every acre, and every inch of this continent. The 14 million acres the federal government deemed "Unassigned" is land Native American tribes inhabited for centuries, following and hunting bison for food, clothing, tools and other items essential for day-to-day survival.” 

Clinton said whether the lands were legally deemed "unassigned" or ceded by treaty or some other legal mechanism, it doesn't mean they were any less stolen or that the process was less disruptive to Indigenous lifeways and culture.

“I have close friends whose families staked their homesteads in the Land Runs,” Clinton said. “They grew up very proud of that family history, and I never begrudged them of that pride or tried to make them feel guilty. But as our friendships grew over the years, they've learned more about our state's Native American history and begun to see their family history through a bit of a different lens. It's just unfortunate my friends and their families didn't get the whole story in school or from our state leaders. Because by now, everyone knows better. When leaders like Gov. Stitt continue to perpetuate this fantastical and sanitized version of history, it seems intentional. When he perpetuates this sanitized version of history while also suppressing the background of how the Land Runs came to be, it seems intentionally mean-spirited and cruel.”   

Oklahoma became a state in 1907, following President Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of the State of Sequoyah, a proposed Indian Territory state, in 1905. 

Establishing Legalized Theft

The congressional paper “The Five Civilized Tribes: Progress and Problems”, published in 1948, says that Oklahoma’s Constitution pledged to never question the Federal Government’s jurisdiction over the Native Americans or regulations to protect them but, ‘Immediately, however, the then State Delegation started in Congress a determined effort to change certain laws intended for protections of Indians’. 

Though theft of Indigenous land was swift and relentless following statehood, the foundational mechanisms of theft were assembled pre-statehood with the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act, in 1887. The act broke up communally held land into individual allotments following the extinguishment of tribal governments. This despite that tribal communities had built homes, schools, and even hospitals while embracing their communal way of life.

Allotment efforts were extended to the Five Treaty Tribes (the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) with the creation of the Dawes Commission in 1893. The Curtis Act of 1898 was another significant blow to the Five Tribes, allowing the Dawes Commission to take over many functions of tribal government and effectively abolishing it in the process. 

“Many Indians objected most strenuously to allotment but the weight of decision not only of the Federal Government but of tribal leaders included toward individual ownership of the land,” Progress and Problems states. “Consequently, allotment became the inevitable consequence.” 

Native Americans were forced to register on tribal rolls, called Dawes rolls, in order to receive their land allotments. They were also forced to declare their percentage of “Indian blood”, a measurement tool that would later be used to determine levels of competency. The higher the blood quantum, the more incompetent a Native American was believed to be.   

In the beginning, land allotments were to be held in trust by the federal government for up to 25 years for the protection of the allottee. A decade later, Oklahoma lawmakers were well on their way to convincing Congress to claw back those protections. 

“Protections” In Name Only

One of the worst acts to follow is considered the Act of May 27, 1908. Also known as “The Crime of 1908, this act transferred all probate jurisdiction from the Federal Government to Oklahoma’s county courts. 

“Only six months after being granted statehood, OK's congressional delegation agitated vehemently for the Crime of 1908,” Native author and historian J.D. Colbert (Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Citizen Potawatomi) said. “OK knew that the Act would lead to widespread loss of Native lands and that it would enable egregious graft and corruption. One could say the passage of the Act was the first order of business of OK's congressional delegation.” 

Colbert said the Act removed all protective restrictions from intermarried whites, all freedmen, and tribal citizens with blood quantum of less than one-half. 

“It removed restrictions from the surplus allotments (but not the homestead portion of the allotments) for those tribal citizens with blood quantum of one-half to three-quarters,” Colbert said. “It kept all of the restrictions on all lands held by those with three-quarters to full bloods. Finally the Act empowered the Secretary of the Interior to sell inherited lands from dead Indian landowners if the Secretary deemed those who inherited the lands incompetent. The Act primarily facilitated the legalized theft of Native lands and it invited murders of Native landowners.” 

Colbert said deed restrictions on lands allotted to tribal citizens in Indian Territory were set into law and marketed as a way to protect the non-English speaking tribal citizens who were generally regarded as uneducated and intellectually inferior to the dominant society. 

“The thought was that the tribal citizens needed deed restrictions to protect them from the avaricious and predatory white land speculators,” Colbert said. 

For the roughly 64,000 Native Americans whose restrictions were removed in 1908, experts estimate only five to ten percent of them had anything left less than two decades later. 

Congress’s “Progress and Problems” contended “The abrupt change in policy from what was promised Indians of their continued protection by the Federal Government after Statehood to complete termination of all Federal controls over property of those of less than half Indian blood did result in thousands of Indians losing their lands, often to the corresponding enrichment of white and some mixed blood Indians.”

At the same time, the Native population was also decreasing by the thousands. 

The land loss continued for decades, with the congressional paper stating in 1948 “Indian lands in heirship status are being disposed of at the rate of about 10,000 acres per month.”

Documented Crimes and Death Rate Disparity 

The Indian Rights Association, an advocacy group dedicated to the well-being of Native Americans, investigated the wrongdoing being committed against Oklahoma’s Native American people in 1923. They published their findings in a report called “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians” in 1924, exposing a corrupt probate system involving judges, lawyers, guardians of the “incompetents” and many others. 

“In the absence of Federal supervision, the Indian heirs were robbed in a wholesale manner, virtually with the aid of these County Courts,” the report states. “The abuses became a notorious scandal, and as a means of affording some protection to the Indian, Field Agents were authorized by Act of Congress, to represent the Department. They had no standing in the courts, however, and were in reality nothing but painful witnesses to wholesale graft. Even so, they saw too much, and Congress, in 1912 (at the behest of the Oklahoma delegation) refused to make the necessary appropriations to maintain them and the service was virtually abolished.” 

Unfortunately, an established system of legalized theft was not the worst of it. 

“Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians” also details cases of assault, forced alcohol consumption, and neglect to the point of starvation of young wards, all to gain access to allottee land, oil and mineral rights. Children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools at the behest of their professional guardians, of which there were believed to be thousands in Eastern Oklahoma, handling estates worth millions of dollars. 

While many are familiar with the Osage Reign of Terror (1921-1926) thanks to Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster film “Killers of the Flower Moon”, murder and other crimes were committed against Native Americans from different tribes across Eastern Oklahoma. The Native population began to decline around the time of production of the area’s first commercial oil well in 1897, named “Nellie Johnstone” after its Native American allottee.

Brian Hosmer is a professor and Head of the Oklahoma State University History Department. He believes the Osage Murders are more well-known thanks to FBI investigation documentation and trial transcripts, as well as the fact that it is a somewhat self-contained story with clear villains and a seeming anomaly of ‘rich Indians’. 

“By contrast, the vast bulk of violence committed against Native people in the early 1900s was sort of invisible,” Hosmer said. “It was neighbor against neighbor, instances of theft and abuse on local levels, expropriation of property by seemingly 'legal' means like tax auctions. It was the denial of the right to participate in political processes. Violence against women was, and remains, underreported.  Add to this the overwhelming impact of cultural and institutional racism, and we can see why a more general state of affairs, by which I mean violence toward Indigenous people, was under-reported.”   

According to numbers from the US Census Bureau, from 1890 to 1940, Oklahoma’s white population and Black population increased by 1.9 million and roughly 147,000, respectively. Meanwhile, the state’s Native American population actually decreased overall by about 1,300. The Native population’s greatest decreases were in the 1920s (-17,488) and the 1940s (-29,600). 

“Allotment was more than simple land theft, on a large scale, or even the disabling of tribal governments,” Hosmer said. “It contributed greatly to deepening, grinding, poverty. Indigenous people were malnourished, even starving. Infant and early childhood mortality was increasing.  All manner of diseases plagued Indigenous communities.” 

Hosmer said Native Americans being misclassified as whites could have also impacted Census numbers, thanks in part to binary Jim Crow segregation mentality. But these numbers also indicate the level to which authorities did not care about the deaths of Native American people. 

“Allotment meant federal authorities more or less turned over criminal investigation to local law enforcement, which routinely ignored these kinds of crimes,” Hosmer said. “Also, since managing allotments became the Indian Office's top priority, it failed to provide health service, food aid, and other assists to Indian people.” 

Hosmer said it is important to broaden the discussion beyond the Osage Reign of Terror. 

“While that is, and remains, a shocking event, the early 20th century was a devastating time for Indigenous people across Oklahoma, east and west,” Hosmer said. “The shift of Indian policy away from honoring tribal nationhood, and their collective land domains, was part of a much larger abandonment of Indigenous communities. Presented in the name of 'assimilation' or 'unity,' that period of time is better understood as a horrific moment for Indian people.” 

Advocates Outnumbered

Members of the Indian Rights Association weren’t the only advocates for Native Americans during the Allotment Era. 

Angie Debo, a historian of Native American history, is one of the most well-known. Published in 1940, Debo’s book “And Still The Water’s Run” was the first book to document the “scandalous founding of Oklahoma on native land”. 

15 years her senior, Kate Barnard was the first woman to win a statewide elected office in the United States. Elected as Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Charities and Corrections in 1907, her public support began to nosedive when she began advocating for Native American justice against legalized theft in 1910.

In “Oklahoma’s Kate Barnard: Catholic champion for American Indian orphans”, published by the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, author Dana Attocknie said, “Barnard and J.H. Stolper, a special prosecutor, worked on and won 107 cases across 25 counties. Her work implicated corporations, politicians and judges, and led to a federal investigation by the United States Board of Indian Commissioners.”

But, Attocknie said, the Oklahoma legislature then began investigating Barnard. And while no wrongdoing was found on her behalf, they killed her budget, effectively ending her work. 

“At the time, they wrecked my office in the state house,” Attocknie quoted from Barnard’s typewritten diary. “The Standard Oil click bought up all the newspapers of the city, and some 500 county newspapers, and not a word was allowed to seep through of the wrecking of the Department of Charities by the 4th Legislature of Oklahoma. The silence was universal, deadly, ominous.” 

Creek delegate to Congress George Washington Grayson made his thoughts about Barnard clear in a letter he sent to Creek National Attorney Hon. R.C. Allen in 1914, writing Barnard was kicking like a “bay steer” around Washington against the administration’s plan of government paid probate attorneys. 

“I hope no attention will be paid to her rantings, as I regard her simply as a disappointed small politician, who because out of the service, can see nothing good in anything not inaugurated and conducted by her own comprehensive intelligence and abounding charity,” Grayson said. 

Barnard wasn’t the only disgraced official who sounded the alarm on legalized theft. 

Marshall L. Mott served as the Creek National Attorney from 1901 to 1914. 

“The experience of the Government in Indian matters disclosed conclusively that no local control should be granted over the affairs of the Indian, because experience had demonstrated by an unbroken record of oppression, robbery and plunder, that such local control was not only directly opposed to the Indian's best interest but would inevitably lead to his impoverishment,” Mott later wrote of his experiences. 

His Allotment Era compilation “A National Blunder” detailed the “evil” guardianship system, including exorbitant attorney fees and guardian costs Native Americans were forced to pay to have their land and other resources swindled away. Another frequent occurrence was guardian loaning of minor money to questionable allocations, including to the guardians themselves and even members of their families. 

Following a report Mott submitted to Congress in 1912, subsequent investigations found many guardians were not bothering to file any kind of reports at all. 

Land Back

As tribal efforts to buy back land increase across the US, Native Americans in Oklahoma await a different kind of reckoning.

“Guardians by law have a fiduciary responsibility toward their wards and thus a legal standard to at all times act in the best interests of the ward and to put said interests ahead of their own,” Colbert told VNN. “OK failed miserably to meet this well established legal standard. And by not adopting these model Rules of Procedure (among other failures) it is my belief that a class action lawsuit can and should be filed against OK by the descendants of the allottees.” 

Clinton said no one can ever compensate Native Americans for the loss of lives, culture, language, lifeways and other intangibles because not only are they unknowable, but they're also immeasurable. But land is another matter. 

“My great-grandmother Helen was a full-blood Cherokee, and both her parents died by the time she was three years old,” Clinton said. “The White midwife who delivered Helen adopted her and, by all accounts, loved her and was kind to my grandmother and my dad. However, the adoptive mother and her husband sold Helen's Cherokee 160-acre allotment. The allotments of Helen's parents and siblings were also sold or taken by Whites via quiet title. I've been told that since Helen, her parents and her siblings were all full-blood Cherokee, these allotments should have remained in trust, yet no one can tell me how or why they were allowed to be sold.” 

Clinton said tribal governments need to be more proactive in helping tribal citizens research information about their allotments, where they were, and what happened to them.

“Tribal citizens need to come together in a movement and prioritize the landback movement,” Clinton said.”If that doesn't include getting our family's original allotments back, what does that look like? The federal government condemned countless tribal allotments for an array of infrastructure projects in Oklahoma. From manmade lakes to projects like Camp Gruber in Muskogee County to support World War II, the federal government seized tribal allotments and displaced homes, cemeteries and schools for these projects. The landback movement can and should include examining these projects for usefulness through a modern-day lens and pushing for Native voices to be included in how they are used and managed going forward.” 

“Even though there can never be a remedy for the atrocities committed against Native Americans, and again, the extent of the theft and harm is unknowable, we should never stop seeking justice for the ancestors whose names we don't even know. I encourage all Natives to utilize every available resource and never stop seeking the truth.” 

This investigation was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill 

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Brittany Harlow
04/29/2024, 4:49 PM

This report is a necessary first step to combating generational trauma in our communities!

Hanna Olson
05/01/2024, 5:52 PM

Very thorough and thoughtful, great work!