Free of Fake History in Tahlequah, and a Rogue Klansman Across the Border

Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness.  In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip.  I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.

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When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.”  From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise.  His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too.  She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.Image

George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee.  The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.

Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling).  In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger.  We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history.  The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.

The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds.  When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”

We learned about  European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum.  Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty.   Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.

This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance.  A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.

We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative.  We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better:  a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.

George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.

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About Lee Patton

I'm creating three sites: Comic Relief in Trump Time; Stripper at the Funeral: The First Fifty Plus Poems, and The South Within Us. In The South Within Us, with my Denver writing partners Kristen Hannum and George Ware, I'm closing in on the last phase of our journey for our narrative non-fiction project THE SOUTH WITHIN US: WESTERNERS EXPLORE SOUTHERN IDENTITY. Kristen and I are alternating chapters, she with her strong Southern family connections, I with few personal links to the South, as we uncover what the American South means to us and its place in our national heritage. As an African-American community activist searching for his long-lost Southern roots, George provides perspective and balance.

2 responses to “Free of Fake History in Tahlequah, and a Rogue Klansman Across the Border”

  1. Jean Smith says :

    There are thousands of similar stories: I’m reading “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI”s war on the American Indian Movement.” (Peter Matthiessen). The modern story is inter-woven with history – broken treaties, expulsion of various northern tribes from their lands, and the incredible actions of our government, with our consent and often whole-hearted approval. Another book in the making??

  2. GWare says :

    Our visit to the Cherokee Heritage Center outside Telequah brought to mind an issue about which I don’t often give much thought – that Americans of European descent were not the only people who owned slaves in the U.S. in the 1800s. Besides recalling the efforts of John Ross to mitigate the negative impacts of white expansion into Indian lands in the southeast U.S. and later the Indian Territory in what would become Oklahoma, the center reminds visitors that John Ross, the longest serving Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was also a slave owner. This caused me to reexamine my admiration for a man that stood up against one of the earliest examples of U.S. imperialism, a man credited with saving the lives of many during the forced-march Trail of Tears.

    I had to recognize that in some ways I had been romanticizing a stronger bond between Indians and enslaved Africans that did not in all cases exist. But, I also needed to remind myself that free blacks living in the North and South had also owned slaves – in most cases to assure better treatment of purchased relatives but in others for pure economic gain. If I find it hard to reconcile the actions of Indians who were stripped of their lands by the U.S. government and their participation in this country’s “peculiar institution” and original sin, I find it even more difficult imagining the twists of logic that a black slaveholder would bring to bear to justify treating his own as chattel.

    I probably would have spent a great deal more time pondering these seeming paradoxes and might have engaged center staff in a conversation about the Cherokees and slavery, but the center was about to close requiring that we hurry through the last of the exhibits. As we were exiting, however, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a poster announcing Diligwa, a newly recreated Cherokee village. A man pictured on that poster looked just like my maternal grandmother – high cheekbones, full lips, and long, flowing hair. He could have been her twin brother. I emailed a picture of the poster to my brother and he reminded me that our
    grandmother had told him that she was part Cherokee. I guess I’d forgotten that piece of family lore. This apparent amnesia might also reflect my later attempts to fully own my African heritage having grown up at a time when “colored” and “Negro” were considered polite terms for African Americans. In light of the 60s exhortation that “Black is Beautiful,” I began a journey to unapologetically proclaim my blackness and saw no need to claim some exotic ancestry.

    Of course, anyone who looks at me would know that I’ve mixed race ancestry. My father would sometimes speak of white great-greats in Mississippi but provided little detail about the when, where, and how of their connection to our family tree. In fact, my father’s mom was very vocal about her virulent disdain for white people despite the fact that she herself looked “light, bright, damn near white.” Her antipathy towards white people struck me as extremely racist, but then again, I did not grow up in rural Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century. In contrast, I don’t ever recall her dark-skinned husband, my grandfather, ever speaking disparagingly about whites. He too was born and raised in Mississippi but perhaps he was striving to set an example for us befitting his calling as a preacher.

    Looking back now on our visit to the Cherokee Heritage Center, it seems that I may have fallen victim to a need for uncomplicated stories with easily discernable victims, heroes, and villains. In any case, I realize that I have another clue to investigate as I look for more information about my maternal great grandmother. A search through records of Cherokees living in South Carolina may prove fruitful on a trail that has grown fairly cold.

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