May/Jun 2000

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Native nuances
Oklahoma's culture, beauty are inspired by American Indians who came to live

By Karen Gibson

Red Earth, held annually in Oklahoma City, is the country’s largest American Indian Festival./ ©B.W. Hoffmann-Unicorn Stock Photos
Imagine being uprooted from your home and way of life. More than 60,000 American Indians experienced just that during the 1800s when they were forced from their southeastern homes. Several thousand died on the journey west to Indian Territory that’s now known as the Trail of Tears.

Indian Territory initially was settled by the Five Civilized Tribes–Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. Later, nomadic hunters and warriors, who fought against being forced onto a piece of land, came to Indian Territory.

The land adopted and nurtured by these American Indians is now known as Oklahoma. Today, it has the largest American Indian population in the United States with 13 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Thirty-nine different tribes make Oklahoma their home.

Those who settled Oklahoma made something of the wild, hilly forests to the east and the prairie to the west. Land runs and statehood eventually followed, but Oklahoma’s culture and natural beauty is largely a result of the American Indians who made it their second home.

Native history and culture

As the 46th state admitted to the United States, Oklahoma is young, not yet 100 years old. However, native people lived in Oklahoma long before the Trail of Tears. Spiro Mounds, a 140-acre archaeological state park featuring 12 mounds, is considered one of the most important prehistoric Indian sites east of the Rocky Mountains. Visitors can view artifacts, a period home, and walk trails to the mounds. Spiro Mounds is located near the Oklahoma-Arkansas state line, south of Interstate 40. For more information, call (918) 962-2062.

For another glimpse at Indian life, visit Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village, a living history museum that re-enacts everyday life in an 18th-century Cherokee village. You’ll see craftsfolk weave baskets, young men play stickball and women prepare meals.

Tsa-La-Gi is part of the Cherokee Heritage Center, located south of Tahlequah. The center also features Adams Corner Rural Village and the Cherokee National Museum. An outdoor drama about the Trail of Tears is also at the site. Call 1-888-999-6007 for admission and hours.

When white settlers began moving west, the army followed, scattering posts along the frontier. One of these, Fort Sill Military Reservation and National Historic Landmark, is located near Lawton in southwest Oklahoma. Although Fort Sill serves as headquarters for the U.S. Army Field Artillery, visitors can tour the Old Post area, which was established in 1869. You’ll see the guardhouse where Apache warrior, Geronimo, lived out his remaining years. For more information, call (580) 442-5123 or visit the Web site at

Tragedy continued for American Indians, as explained at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. Here, Lt. Col. George A. Custer attacked a sleeping Cheyenne village on Nov. 27, 1868, and more than 100 people were killed. Washita Battlefield is located two miles west of Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita River. Visitors to this national park can experience interpretive trails or, during summer, join a ranger-conducted program. For more information, call (580) 497-2742 or visit on the Web

Native celebrations

If you’ve never been to a powwow, you’re in for a memorable experience. These celebrations of people coming together to share American Indian traditions, food, song and dance are on most weekends in Oklahoma.

What can you expect at a powwow? Beating drums, chanting, singing and dancing. Participants dressed in brilliant regalia, dance clockwise in a circle.

Most Oklahoma powwows are open to Native people of all tribes and non-Native people also. Patrick Redbird of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism offered this protocol to observe at a powwow.

  • Remember to be respectful. This is a spiritual gathering.
  • Photo taking should occur only with permission.
  • Do not touch the dancers’ regalia.
  • Pay attention to the master of ceremonies, who will keep you informed about the activities, answer your questions and entertain you.

Many powwows and festivals are annual celebrations like the 69th annual American Indian Exposition in Anadarko held Aug. 7–12 at the Caddo County Fairgrounds. It is billed as the world’s oldest Indian-owned and operated fair. In addition to ceremonial dancing, 15 area tribes operate a carnival, arts and crafts, and food at the six-day cultural fair. For more information, call (405) 247-6651 or visit on the Web.

Labor Day is a big weekend for several tribes. The Cherokee National Holiday is celebrated each Labor Day.

The Choctaws of southeastern Oklahoma have gathered since 1884 at the original capitol grounds of Tuskahomma. Tucked in the Kiamichi Valley, Labor Day is a time to celebrate being Choctaw. Stickball competitions, dancing, storytelling, music–traditional, gospel and country–and arts and crafts can be found at Tuskahomma, Sept. 1–4. Contact the Choctaw Nation at (580) 924-8280, ext. 2327 for more information.

What Red Earth lacks in age it more than makes up for in sheer splendor. More than 1,300 dancers in authentic dress demonstrate war and tribal dances. The United States’ largest American Indian festival features three days of dance competitions, American Indian art, and storytelling at Oklahoma City’s Myriad Convention Center. More than 100 tribes throughout the nation participate in Red Earth, June 9–11. For more information, call (405) 427-5228.

Native arts and crafts

In addition to festivals and powwows, American Indian arts and crafts can be found at galleries and museums throughout Oklahoma.

The Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center in Anadarko showcases historic and contemporary art from the Southern Plains tribes. Call (405) 247-6221 for hours.

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, near the University of Oklahoma, is scheduled to open its doors in spring 2000 with authentic Native American exhibits and dioramas. The Brown Special Exhibition Gallery also will be open with the work of talented artists.

Norman is also home to the historic Jacobson House, a unique gallery named after a former Dean of Fine Arts, Oscar Jacobson, who recognized and promoted the immense talent of Indian artists like the Kiowa Five. The Kiowa Five are credited with sparking contemporary interest in American Indian art. For more information, call the Norman Chamber of Commerce, (405) 321-7260.

Oklahoma is a fascinating contrast in urban and rural, the old and new, and the cowboy and the Indian. The impact of what Oklahoma was and continues to be can largely be attributed to its American Indian heritage. It is a heritage of dignity, courage and great beauty.

Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.

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