Until recently, I had never realized my ancestors existed on separate sides of history. I never thought my great-great-great grandfather A.D. Wright contributed to ending my great-great-great grandmother Margarett Russell’s way of life. They were two separate rivers, flowing alongside each other until they forged to produce my mom.
Everything just felt kismet, happenstance, chance.
But history sees A.D. Wright hugging Indian Territory until it became American Territory. It sees him staking claim in individualized land that used to be communal, that used to belong to a sovereign nation. It watches as he builds a distinctly American way of life in a place which never asked for one.
How, then, am I to view him? Can I still read Wendell Berry and think about him with appreciation? Can he still be an example of a good American?
High Points in the Life of
Son of William Halsted and Eliza Wright
In the spring of 1891 the proclamation was issued to open the San and Fox and Pottawattomie Indian lands for settlement September 22, 1891….
The Cimarron River was the north boundary line. This river is a treacherous stream, much quicksand, and one had to be very careful in crossing it. There was a good ford south of the town of Perkins which was a safe place to cross. As there was a big crowd, estimated 2,500 people, waiting to make this crossing we concluded to find another place to get across the stream. So Sunday night we went up the stream around the bend and found a good safe place to cross. On Monday noon we were all in the saddle ready for the start. A little before the time for the guns to fire the signal to go, we saw a man on horse-back coming around the bend toward where we were. I made the remark that his man acts like he knows just where to go across. Just as he got up near us the guns fired and he took across the stream and we followed him. When he got to the opposite bank, which must have been fifteen or twenty feet high and steep, he slipped off his horse, grabbing the horses [sic] tail and away went through the undergrowth on a trail. We all followed the same way, reaching the top of the bank jumped in our saddles and away we went running our horses about a half an hour and coming to a nice strip of country we staked our claims and slept on them that night.
On the way to my grandparents, to the home with the sunroom and pastures, the family van always passes over the Cimarron River. From the birthplace of my memory comes Mom’s voice telling me that was the river my great-great-great grandfather crossed—daring quicksand—to arrive in Chandler and begin the town. Each time we crossed over that river I would look as far down it as I could, imagining my great-great-great grandad on his horse, galloping over quicksand and splashing through water in order to begin a new life, a heroic life.
My great-great-great grandad.
The Cimarron River holds memory for me. That place, that mysterious quicksand, holds A.D. Wright’s journey to Oklahoma, and I can draw a direct line between himself and myself because of it.
The Land Runs in elementary schools do the same thing. They draw connections with the past, connections with our ancestors. They keep memories alive.
But now, at twenty-six, a question burns in my head: who’s memories?
I think about how little I know of my Choctaw side, how divorced from the culture I am even though I grew up in the same state, a state filled with land holding memory.
Why do I not know about my Choctaw side?
Every August my family goes to our favorite steak restaurant for my birthday, Click’s Steakhouse in Pawnee, Oklahoma. It’s the type of place that only belongs in Oklahoma—the waitresses are blunt and sarcastic, the salad bar has pudding as a topping, and there’s a big block of cheese for eating, a steak knife stuck in the top of it.
Click’s sits in Pawnee, Oklahoma, a small, prairie town named after the Pawnee tribe and famous for being the birth place of the first full-blooded Native American baseball player, Moses J. Yellow Horse. It’s about a thirty minute drive from our house in Stillwater; a drive covered in wide stretches of tall grasses—green in the spring, yellow in the summer, and brown in the fall and winter—which sway as our van passes on the two-lane highway leading to the town.
Clicks sits on the corner of the town square, a neatly allotted cluster of old, brownstone buildings built around the time of the Land Run. In the middle of the square sits the county courthouse—a picture of prairie city planning and small town charm.
Most of the time the wait to eat isn’t a bad one. We’ll walk around the town square and look in the window of the official Dick Tracy museum, who’s creator, Chester Gould, was a Pawnee native. However, sometimes—like Fridays before Oklahoma State football games—the wait will be over an hour. In those cases, we will pile back into the van and drive five miles down the road to the old Pawnee Indian school, now disheveled and mainly in ruins.
The first time I went was when I was about eight or nine. I think I remember exploring the grounds with friends from church; Mom and Dad told me this is where Indian children went to school. I looked in abandoned buildings and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live away from home.
Assimilation boarding schools were set up by the federal government to create Americans. Native American children would attend these boarding schools and would quickly be stripped of their culture and previous identity.
Becky Little writes for the History Channel, “As part of this federal push for assimilation, boarding schools forbid Native American children from using their own languages and names, as well as from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new Anglo-American names, clothes, and haircuts, and told they must abandon their way of life because it was inferior to white people’s.”
Just as the privatized allotment of lands forced Native Americans to adjust to individualistic Western mindsets, these assimilation schools forced new generations of Indians to behave and act in foreign, Western ways.
David Grann, in Killers of the Flower Moon, writes of one specific Osage tribal member, Mollie Burkhart, and her experience with an assimilation school:
“In 1894, when Mollie was seven, her parents were informed that they had to enroll her in the St. Louis School, a Catholic boarding institution for girls….
“Mollie had to remove the Indian blanket from her shoulders and put on a plain dress. She wasn’t allowed to speak Osage—she had to catch the white man’s tongue—and was given a Bible that began with a distinct notion of the universe: ‘Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.’
“Each hour of the day was regimented, and students were lined up and marched from point to point. They were taught piano, penmanship, geography, and arithmetic, the world distilled into strange new symbols. The instruction was intended to assimilate Mollie into white society and transform her into what the authorities conceived of as the ideal woman. So while Osage boys at other institutions learned farming and carpentry, Mollie was trained in the ‘domestic arts’: sewing, baking, laundering, and housekeeping….
“Many Osage students at Mollie’s school tried to flee, but lawmen chased after them on horseback and bound them with ropes, hauling them back” (51-52).
While the Land Run created a forced loss of land for Native American tribes, assimilation schools caused a forced loss of culture.
I am Captain Pratt’s ideal product. I am the history he envisioned.
Through intermarriage, privatized land, and an education system focused on white history and culture, I have lost almost all touch with the Native American tradition my heritage included.
I am the perfect product of assimilation.
I am white.