This story is part of the Native Daughters project, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln initiative aimed at capturing the vital role Native American women play in their culture and society. The second edition of the project - Native Daughters: Oklahoma - sent 10 students to Oklahoma, home to the second-largest Native population in the country. A $150,000 donation from Ginette Overall, a Muskogee (Creek) business owner in Tulsa, funded the three-semester effort that produced stories and multimedia for a magazine and website.
Published March 1, 2014
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma -- It had been their home for generations.
Abundant rainfall without a dry season rooted leafy forests in moist soil and surrounded their very existence with heavy, humid air. Nature amply provided the resources they needed to hunt, to gather and to farm.
This subtropical climate of the southeastern United States guided both the everyday lives and the sacred traditions of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Nations.
Over time, the Native people had worked out relationships in which men and women were respected for their contributions to their families, homes and nations. The women gathered herbs for traditional medicines used at ceremonies, and their support of their clans and nations was a constant in their way of life. Women, whose mental and spiritual strength carried a special value, led their households.
Then it was all taken away with the drag of a pen.
On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson, who had won his office by carrying the entire South and West, signed the Indian Removal Act into law. Though the act set up a process that was ostensibly voluntary, within the following decade, nearly 50,000 Native Americans had been forcibly removed from their homes in the Southeast and sent on forced marches to Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma.
"Many Native Americans felt utterly violated and compromised," Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in her 1999 autobiography, "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People." "It seemed as if the spiritual and social tapestry they had created for centuries was unraveling. Everything lost that sacred balance. And ever since, we have been striving to return to the harmony we once had."
Indian Territory in the mid-1800s was a vast, dry prairie with little natural vegetation perched somewhere beyond the western horizon. Sparse streams provided minimal moisture, leaving much of the land unable to support crops the nations had grown in the Southeast in any significant way.
The constant struggle between the Native people and the U.S. government in the decades before removal had led to a widespread belief among white Americans that acculturation into their society was the only route to survival. Removal was supposed to not only get these Native Americans out of the way of white settlers but also to facilitate this restructuring of Native people and their ways.
If the forced removal from their homes had been the first blow of the Indian Removal Act upon these Native Americans, the final one came in the realization of how little assistance they would receive, and how vastly different their new homes would be.
Jackson had promised money and food "as may be necessary and proper to enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged; and also, to give them such aid and assistance as may be necessary for their support and subsistence for the first year after their removal."
Yet after Removal, few of those new to Indian Country had seen any aid.
Forced to settle on land carved into specified plots and promised rations and supplies that rarely arrived, the people were confronted with two choices: Give up and let their traditional way of life slip away or work extraordinarily hard to find ways to survive, to maintain their culture, their faith, their ways of educating their children and of governing themselves.
They chose to survive, and, judged from a distance for more than a century, they adapted with disarming quickness.
Women, especially, did more than just survive. They thrived as leaders, mothers, teachers and valued members of their nations. And they did so not only with virtually no acknowledgment from the outside—white—world but also with severe intrusions by those outsiders, whose unnatural influence and patriarchal values would test their traditional gender roles, their systems of education and their government, culture and faith.
"Those first few months, at least the first year, after arrival in Indian Territory were terrible," said Linda Reese, director of Oklahoma Studies Program.
Traditionally, women of all nations had been respected for the strength of their minds and bodies. In cultures that honored matriarchal values, most women were regarded as equals to men. Though the strain of removal – the uprooting of families, the arduous trek over unfamiliar land, the woeful lack of promised supplies – had shocked the relocated nations, they had carried those values with them.
"Women have always been a well-respected but relatively undocumented influence in Indian Territory," said Kenny Brown, a Choctaw and director of graduate studies, U.S. history and Southwestern studies at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
The Cherokee Nation, for example, the largest population removed to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears, holds a long history of valuing female leadership: Cherokee women could earn the title of "Beloved Woman," one of the most esteemed roles in their Nation.
But once they arrived in Indian Territory, a new nemesis—Christian missionaries—seemed to take aim at the Indians' established gender roles. In the first several decades following Removal, women started to experience a drift in their roles. They had regularly participated in tribal governments in the Southeast, for example, but the assimilation demanded in these new lands handed all those positions to men.
The problem, as Reese sees it, was this: When the Nations adopted an Americanized political system, "women lost political power in that respect and didn't hold offices."
Native women continued to be respected for their skills in healing and teaching and for keeping their homes in order. Elite women held higher professional positions, like superintendents or secretaries, for nearly a century until the women's liberation movement of the 1970s.
"They still had that value that all women can be proud of," Reese said. "They simply weren't holding the same political standing."
Though the patriarchal influence of Christian missionaries made men the official heads of households, women's roles were not diminished.
It was a few years before nations had organized new ceremony grounds, or "stomp grounds," in their new homes, grounds that required women to continue their traditional roles as shell-shakers and dancers. Off ceremony grounds, women adapted into more practical, home-based figures who often hosted entire extended families in their homes to keep them close.
"After Removal, it's like family life is a sense of attachment and belonging and working through attacks on culture," Brown said.
Assimilation tactics in schools and laws were designed to instill white, patriarchal values in Native Americans. One of the most prominent examples of this was the Cherokee Female Seminary, established in 1851. The schools, which followed a strict curriculum, banned the use of the Cherokee language and the practice of traditional Cherokee culture. The seminary's announced purpose, according to founder Florence Wilson, was "to create a well-educated high level of assimilated Cherokee woman to serve as marriage partners for their male counterpart."
Most of the women attending the seminary were considered elite, meaning they had one Cherokee parent and one white parent, which gave them a higher social standing. They generally were not resistant to assimilation, and the seminary, Reese said, was successful in many ways: the education allowed women to get jobs in mainstream society.
"They're being developed into Americanized upper-level women, but they never stop understanding their Cherokee history and Cherokee heritage," Reese said.
But the Female Cherokee Seminary also created class warfare. A small group of full-blooded Cherokee women also attended the schools, and these women, who struggled to learn English quickly, were much less disposed to the assimilation tactics than the elites. The distinction between half-blooded elites and full-blooded Cherokees, which had always been there, became more apparent than ever.
However, no matter how severely the Victorian ideals of white American culture were forced upon the Cherokee women, the schools did not completely erase their sense of culture.
"These women didn't see themselves as not being Cherokee," said Julie Reed, a Cherokee and assistant professor of American Indian history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Elites couldn't understand why full-bloods wouldn't want to become refined citizens, and full-bloods accused elites of giving up their Native values for the way of the white man. Populations within nations started to resent one another for the way the others reacted to assimilation.
This attempt to destroy a culture tested the will of Native Americans, but it proved unsuccessful: Traditional ceremonies and the use of herbal remedies ran too deep in Native culture to be taken away so easily. Today, for example, Choctaws still use the same herbal medicines as their ancestors did centuries ago. Such traditions are important cultural pieces on which they rely to explain nature and their surroundings, especially in times of drastic change like Removal.
Ultimately, every nation had to rebuild the ceremonial grounds that had been part of their lives in the Southeast. The land in what was to become Oklahoma was drastically different, and establishing an appropriate place for the sacred dances and meetings was difficult. Just remembering and duplicating ceremonies after time and distance had passed was a daunting task.
"Here's people who just had this traumatic experience, and now they have to remember, ‘What exactly did we do?''' said Rosemary McCombs, a Muskogee Creek and the first female Native American ordained by the Church of Christ.
On these ceremonial grounds, men and women kept their traditional roles. Adapting to the new environment and maintaining medicines for ceremonies became easier once nations had time to readapt, but Christian influences from boarding schools and missionaries changed the way ceremonies would be held.
When men and women returned home from boarding schools, usually after more than a year, they had often lost the ability to speak their Native language. The line of communication within families suffered as a result and meant that some could no longer participate in ceremonies.
But these two separate worlds — traditional ceremonies and white America's Christian faith — overlapped. Native women tended to approach both worlds the same, and women leaders who participated in the Christian church could still be present at the ceremonial grounds as shell shakers, McCombs said from her Okmulgee home.
"We're doing similar things — one is named the church and the other named the grounds," she said. "Then the boarding school era comes along and these people from both of these places end up at boarding schools having to live patriarchal lives, which ultimately results in the loss of language."
The Indian Territory eventually disappeared in 1907 when the state of Oklahoma became the 46th of the United States. All of Indian Territory was now open to white settlement.
"Once you get the onrush of non-Indians into Indian Territory," Reese said, "that is when they begin to lose status within this place that will become the state of Oklahoma."
Oklahoma's new constitution declared all non-black citizens to be white, giving Native Americans equal political standing. The state has had a strong representation from Native Americans in its first hundred years of statehood.
Indian Removal, with its tragic memories and stories, is an important part of Native American history.
"It is a real testament to the strength of their culture and the strength of their families just to have simply survived the Trail of Tears and make it into Oklahoma," Reese said.
That ability to embrace the dark period that followed Removal plays a large part in explaining how Native Americans remain some of the most patriotic citizens in the country.
"We have these collective stories of the same kind of pain – an intense pain – having to reintegrate and start all over again," McCombs said. "We've overcome a lot of hardships and the people endure."