Indian Territory
A Phoenix Rising from the Trail of Tears


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In the 1830s the U.S. government set into high gear a plan for which it had long prepared: shifting Indians in the East to lands beyond the Mississippi River. The War of 1812 cleared the British out of the region that in those days represented the boundary of the western frontier: the vast valley of the Ohio River. Farmers who planted grain and raised livestock poured into the lush country. The Old South's cotton culture expanded, too, its slave-owning entrepreneurs gobbling up land at a rapid clip. The Indians, it was agreed, must make way.

Those tribes dwelling north of the Ohio River would go to what is now Kansas, while those living south of the Ohio traveled to the place we call Oklahoma. There, in "Indian Territory," in the midst of what early explorers called "The Great American Desert," tribal peoples would forever be alienated from their ancestral homes.

The politicians and soldiers who carried out this policy called it "Indian Removal," a colorless phrase that names a process but tells us practically nothing about it. The Indians remembered things differently. Some of its victims, especially those from the Southeast's famed "Five Civilized Tribes"--the Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek--remembered those days by speaking of the route they followed while trudging into exile, the same line of march along which so many of their friends and relatives died. They called that journey the Trail of Tears.

And so, as Cherokees walked from Georgia to Oklahoma, the Sauk and the Fox left Wisconsin bound for Kansas. After a few years Kansas became attractive to farmers, and then most of the Indian tribes penned up there were also pushed into Oklahoma. By the 1870s, during the Gilded Age presidency of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, the policy of "removal" gave way to "concentration." As a result, Oklahoma's Indian Territory became the official dumping ground for people the government simply wanted out of the way.

In 1877 Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce from the Plateau region of Washington and Idaho tried to escape confinement to a reservation. Some escaped to Canada, but many of those who did not find northern sanctuary were obliged by the government to take up residence in Indian Territory. In 1894—under guard and after unpleasant sojourns in Alabama and Florida—Geronimo and his Chiricahua Apache comrades, natives of the Southwest's high desert, performed a kind of boomerang Trail of Tears jaunt after moving from west to east, then westward once again to new homes in Indian Territory.

Indian Territory's inhabitants were drawn from the four quarters of North America's tribal universe and included: Cheyenne and Arapaho, Kiowa and Kickapoo, Comanche, Wichita, Iowa and Shawnee, Pawnee and Ponca. Also Osage, Pottawatomie, Caddo, Tonkawa, Missouri, Seneca, Stockbridge, Miami, Cayuga, Conestoga, Mohawk, Natchez, Tuscarora, Waco and Wea, Wyandot and Tuskegee. Eventually, more than sixty-five different tribes and bands ended up corralled in Indian Territory.

Few of the traditional tribal arts survived intact in Indian Territory. Densely concentrated, under the bureaucratic thumb, most Indians found themselves unable to successfully battle against the intense pressures of acculturation and assimilation. Indians were encouraged—and, when encouragement alone proved insufficient, coerced—into converting to Christianity, becoming farmers, raising cattle, sending children to school, and speaking English. True, some Oklahoma Delawares carved interior wooden house posts with humanoid faces, just as their ancestors had in the Eastern Woodlands. Many Plains Indians continued making ledger drawings on paper showing humans and animals, although the combat scenes so typical of the 1860s-era free-roaming buffalo days were more often than not replaced by courting and dancing scenes reflecting reservation days in Indian Territory. But nothing about the surrounding world encouraged the flourishing of long-cherished art forms.

Times were undeniably changing, in fundamental ways, and signs of it abounded. When the Smithsonian Institution sent anthropologist James Mooney out to Oklahoma in 1891 to learn about the Kiowa he found the tribe wracked by the effects of dramatic cultural transition. The government surveyed the tribe's land, mapped out parcels, distributed them to individuals—in an attempt to encourage reverence for private property among people whose culture stressed sharing—and sold the "surplus" acreage to whites.

"These Indians are now receiving their money for the lands recently sold, and are consequently reveling in store goods," Mooney reported. He saw young men "riding around with straw hats and fans." He noted: "Every woman now carries a parasol to prevent sunburn . . . . You see more baby carriages now than Indian cradles. In a few months this country will be opened [to white settlement] and then goodby [sic] to Indian life."

The government intended for Indian Territory to be the end of the trail for Indian traditional ways. In some ways, it was that. But in other, more subtle ways, Indian Territory became not the end of the trail but the trailhead for the creation of new pathways that reinforced closely-held ethnic identities. For in Indian Territory there arose something almost unheard of: recognition of the strength not only of individual tribal identification but a new and powerful pan-Indian sensibility.

This occurred, slowly, in the political arena and more rapidly within the religious and artistic realms. For example, when tribal folk gathered in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 1918 to formally initiate the Native American Church with its peyote sacrament, the signers of the founding document included Otos, Poncas, Comanches, Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches (now called the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma), Cheyennes, Osages, and Omahas.

The work of Dorothy Dunn who helped establish the influence of The Studio school of genre painting by encouraging young Native American artists attending the Santa Fe Indian School is well known. (Those whose careers began in this fashion included Hopi painter Fred Kabotie [1900-1986] and the Apache painter-sculptor Alan Houser [1915–1994]). Of equal importance were the contemporaneous drawings and paintings emanating from the former Indian Territory through the work of the famed Kiowa Five: James Auchiah (1906–1975), Spencer Asah (1905–1954), Jack Hokeah (1902–1973), Monroe Tsatoke (1904–1937) and Stephen Mopope (1898–1974).

Beginning around World War I, the Kiowa Five received encouragement from Susie Peters, a government school employee who worked among the Kiowas. Peters hooked up the Kiowa Five with Oscar Jacobson, head of the art program at the University of Oklahoma, who arranged for tuition-free training at that institution. They were joined at the University of Oklahoma by Lois Smoky (1907–1981) and others who paved the way for the paintings coming out of the onetime Indian Territory—works notable for their richness of ethnographic detail in the depiction of ceremonial, hunting, dance and daily life scenes. Another prominent feature of much Oklahoma Indian painting is the widespread use of a variety of Trail of Tears themes, a drive clearly intended to perpetuate memories of Indian Removal and one not unlike the widespread we-shall-not-forget attitude toward the Holocaust.

Movement in the direction of amalgamation in Oklahoma is also seen in today's widely popular powwow get-togethers, where some of the most eclectic and flamboyant costuming owes its existence to dramatic mixing of the artistic traditions of the tribal peoples of Oklahoma. A kind of amalgamation is also (literally) seen in the heavy use of German silver jewelry among Oklahoma Indians. German silver looks at first glance like silver, but it is--like sterling silver--an alloy of 60% copper, 20% zinc and 20% nickel. Many of the pendants, earrings, bracelets and other jewelry items traded by Europeans and Euroamericans to American Indians as early as the 18th century were made from German silver. The alloy remains especially popular today among Indian jewelers in Oklahoma. One of the best known and most highly regarded of the Oklahoma metalsmiths was Julius Caesar (1910–1982), a Pawnee who introduced Plains and Woodlands designs into his pieces, although he is perhaps best remembered for his mastery of the Peyote Bird motif.

Since the Trail of Tears is so much a part of the Indian Territory saga, perhaps a Cherokee comparison is appropriate at this point. Before the Trail of Tears, in Georgia, a white patron encouraged a Cherokee metalsmith named Sequoyah (c1776–1843) to sign his jewelry. From this suggestion stemmed Sequoyah's creation of a Cherokee alphabet. Eventually, that alphabet was used to print the tribe's newspaper, Cherokee Phoenix.

The phoenix bird seems an appropriate symbol, not only for the Cherokees who traveled the Trail of Tears but for all those Indian peoples whose destinies led to Indian Territory. In Greek legend, the phoenix dies, consumed by fire in its own nest, only to be reborn out of the ashes in an act heavily steeped in the symbolism of rebirth. Indeed, in Cherokee the word for the phoenix translates into English as "the resurrected one." From the flames of cultural death, then, there emerged in Indian Territory an artistic spirit strengthened by the tastes and sensibilities of many diverse tribes. The cultural death that their enemies intended for tribal peoples in Indian Territory was, instead, transformed into cultures reborn.

You can learn more about The Trail of Tears remote on the web.

Thanks to Dr Ron McCoy, Emporia State University

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 15

Related Pages

American Indian Signs and Symbols article
Art at the Crossroads: Art Without Reservations article
Artist of the Santa Fe Trail article
Contemporary Expressions of
Traditional Native American Art

IPOLA: Language is the Soul of a Nation article
Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article
Poetry of the Pueblo Dances article
What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article
Women's Work: Creating Beauty article

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