Saturday, March 26, 2016

Shades of Brown, and of Native America, in Tulsa....

In recent weeks I have had a rare and fleeting sense of Native Americans that goes beyond the generic, the quick nod to the landmark event - e.g., the Trail of Tears - and, on a recent visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma - to the honors I have seen of Native America such as its state's license plate, when I have wondered how deep and sincere they are.

With two encounters I was privileged to have in a local coffeehouse - Shades of Brown - seen here in the Brookside neighborhood....
I now see more of how those celebrations can have meaning, partly as, while I have often spoken "Indian" - from the "Cuyahoga" River in my native Northeastern Ohio to a "Wawa" convenience store in my long-time hometown of Philadelphia - I have almost never met an "Indian", at least that I have known as such.

In the fashionable section of Brookside, part of a very red state, I was not exactly thinking outside the Anglo-American mold, or conscious of multiculturalism, at times, while the relative diversity of Shades of Brown, with a crowd that in part was gay as well as straight, black as well as white, etc., helped to pave the way for a mix I do not meet very much - Oklahoma's theme of mixed-blood among at least some of its "White" and "Native American" residents.

On Saturday, March 5, I was working on my laptop near the front door of "Shades..." when I met Margaret Swimmer as she waited for her husband Ross, and started to tell her about my visit being largely to see Tulsa's Art Deco and other sights. While I am often a "buildings" person, meeting people is very much where it's at for me, and I was privileged to meet Ross Swimmer, seen here....
and learn, if more so since our brief talk, that he has not been just another Oklahoma citizen, or one of perhaps many Oklahomans who have lived in both white and native worlds, but was the head of the "BIA" (the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs) from 1985-89, and prior to that, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1975-85, centered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, about 60 miles east of Tulsa, where he was succeeded as chief by the memorably-named Wilma Mankiller.

Mr. Swimmer volunteered some basic information on Indian land rights including aspects of the "Indian Allotment" which started in large part as an agreement that Natives would be allowed to own parcels of land in the early 1900's if they did not contest the U.S. takeover of their ancestral lands in general. Over time, he explained that management of these "portionings" (my word) descended into a nightmare, logistically, legally and otherwise, with original lands so extremely subdivided that it was costing much more than it was worth to oversee transfers, etc.

He presented the scenario that "around 1900 say, one Native American might get 160 acres, but over time, 2000 people might inherit the land, so one of the owners might get 5 cents, or a penny [in a land transfer]" - and even that penny might at times represent a rounding-up of the value of an individual's land. Swimmer, a long-time lawyer, noted that "we had to probate estates where the total value was $5000", as an average cost.

I also asked him about what I thought was a remarkable statistic I had read before coming to Tulsa, that 6% of Tulsa County (which includes the city) was Native American, which seemed like a lot to me compared to my guess as to East Coast demographics. He suggested that that total group of residents would not be based on a "blood quantum", i.e., individuals having a high percentage of Cherokee (biology, basically), but on whether or not one has officially been on the "Dawes Rolls" of recognized members of the Cherokee nation as of 1906, when this epochal list, at least for Oklahoma, was closed shortly before statehood. He said that you could be 1/4000 Cherokee at this point and still be on the list.

The next day, at the same table at "Shades", I met another enrolled member of the nation, Fred Kirk....
and was grateful to receive his insights into having an Indian background.

As he became acquainted with other people of Cherokee background when he was a boy, he observed that "[t]hey were darker-skinned and looked Indian", with his being told he was Cherokee but his sensing that as "I looked in the mirror [I] couldn't see that aspect".

Still, as he "grew up, you begin to understand that we mixed a lot over the history, so now, when I go to any Indian-related Cherokee organization or meetings, events and stuff, and you look around them, most of the people look more like me than (stereotypically Indian)".

Fred said he is 1/8 Cherokee and that his grandfather on his father's side, Albert Kirk, was half-Indian.

Showing me his Cherokee identification card, with excerpts seen here....

he noted it is a more "upscale" version of two paper cards which used to identify your tribal enrollment. When he went to Tahlequah to obtain his I.D. card, "they had the Dawes Roll there and he thought 'I gotta see my grandfather's name'". [Footnote 1 if interested in the Cherokee-language heading on the top of the card's front side.]

I am glad that he did find his name, and thankful to both of these Tulsans for their time and sharing, with hopes that I return again to Native America, in reality as well as in learning.

Shades of Brown (near the center of this view), from S. Peoria Avenue & E. 33rd St., Mon., March 7, 2016


1. The first line at the top of the front side of Fred Kirk's card means "Cherokee Nation", as per an e-mail from him on March 15 regarding a note he received from what appears to be a Communications Department for the Nation; a staffer in any event informed him that, in reference to the characters at the top, "The syllabary is tsalagi(hi) ahyeli, meaning Cherokee Nation".

Sources consulted

Dawes Rolls - 

Native American land ownership - reform of record-keeping - See, including a passage which confirms one of Mr. Swimmer's observations to me that, in reference to an office set up in Lenexa, Kansas that...."[d]ue to a law that divides land rights among descendants of beneficiaries, the office grapples with the proliferation of tiny, nearly worthless land shares that must be tracked despite costing far more to administer than they will ever pay out".

Mr. Swimmer told me that he was a special federal trustee to oversee the "Indian allotment" for eight years starting in 2001.

Native American population - Tulsa County - While I have not retrieved the statistic I saw before my Tulsa trip, here is a more recent one from 2015, also of 6%, towards the upper right at:

Oklahoma statehood - 
and, with the latter including a picture of a flag presented to the state in 1908 by the City of Philadelphia.

Swimmer, Ross - 
and regarding his serving as the Cherokee chief.

In reference to his heading the BIA, see...

Tahlequah, Oklahoma - See, which notes the Cherokee capital as being near Tahlequah.

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