The State That Never Was

The State That Never Was

A few weeks ago, the state legislature of Oklahoma passed the most draconian anti reproductive rights law in this nation, in effect granting tissues of the fetus “personhood.” Never mind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical; The state of Oklahoma has its own dramatic historical background.

As Erin Blakemore wrote in National Geographic, Oklahoma originally was called Sequoia, the Choctaw term for “Red People.” But Oklahoma’s nickname, “the Sooner State,” comes from white Europeans who swarmed to it to claim native lands. In July of 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that despite its location inside a U.S. state, almost all of eastern Oklahoma is an Indian Reservation; this was a landmark decision and the latest foray in a battle over who should own and inhabit Oklahoma’s prairies and mesas.

The conflict was born in the southeastern United States, the ancestral lands of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), and Seminole peoples that spanned from modern day North Carolina to Mississippi. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the white settlers who flooded the area named these five Native nations the “five civilized tribes”; this insulting term was due to their willingness to develop economic and social ties with the whites. Still, the white newcomers pressured the U.S. government to push Indigenous people off their lands.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed then President Andrew Jackson to grant Native American tribes land out west supposedly “in exchange” for their ancestral lands. Under great duress, the five tribes signed a variety of treaties ceding their lands in exchange for promises like an 1833 treaty that guaranteed “a permanent home to the whole Creek nation.” Still, many Indigenous people refused.

These were their ancestral lands, after all; generations on generations had been born, lived, raised families, developed cultures, died, and were buried there. So people resisted, but were driven from their homes at gunpoint. Between 1830 and 1850 more than 100,000 Indigenous Americans were relocated. This was the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears.

Their destination, their new “home,” was located 1000 miles away, an area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies: different climate, different water table, different soil, different flora and fauna, different neighboring tribes, different everything. Yet there they settled onto land in what is now central and eastern Oklahoma, alongside 21 other tribes.

But over the years, the U.S. claimed more Native land, and Indian territory shrank to roughly the boundaries of modern day Oklahoma. It shrank further when the U.S. switched from a policy of removal to one of allotment, a system designed to force Native assimilation by dividing their traditional communal lands overseen by tribal governments into small, individually owned properties. Lands were carved into tiny portions and doled out to individuals, many of whom were pressured by poverty to sell their shares to white settlers or to the U.S. government. Those so-called “settlers” also tried to take over the “unassigned lands,” a two-million-acre swath of central Oklahoma the U.S. had forced the Muskogee and the Seminoles (who had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War) to surrender more than a decade earlier. Boomers–would-be settlers–squatted on the land, and they lobbied hard, so the federal government agreed to open it to white settlement in 1889. Fifty thousand Europeans flooded into surrounding areas waiting for the land to open on April 22nd 1889 (some illegally entered beforehand, thus the nickname Sooners).

In a single day about eleven thousand homesteads were claimed by whites.

A little more than a year later, the federal government created Oklahoma Territory from the “unassigned lands” and the western Oklahoma lands. “Settlers” were eager to turn the territory into a state to gain representation in Congress. But the they and Congress were split on how to proceed, and as debate raged, white Europeans continued flocking to Oklahoma and to Indian territory, eventually far outnumbering Native residents.

Then the federal government cleared the way for statehood in 1898 with the Curtis Act, which proclaimed that tribal governments would be abolished in March 1906, and which forced the five tribes to accept the allotment law from which they had been earlier exempt.

In a desperate attempt to retain sovereignty, the tribes held a convention to form a state of their own. In August and September 1905, they drafted a constitution and a government for a proposed Native American governed state they called Sequoia. But although a referendum in Indian Territory passed by an overwhelming margin of both Native and white European voters, Congress never voted on the issue.

Instead, Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act of 1906, a new law that invited representatives to become a state that combined Oklahoma and Indian territories. In 1907, Oklahoma became the nation’s 46th state. Today, more than 13 percent of Oklahomans are Native American; Oklahoma has the second highest number of Native Americans of any state in the Union.

But that Union tragically lacks the ghost state that almost but never was: Sequoia.