Written by Mary Smith
Wildflowers near a buffalo herd in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, on Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache land.
On July 9th the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that land in eastern Oklahoma is Native reservation, as was promised when they were originally forced to migrate there starting in 1830. Recognizing this land as reservation land for the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations means that if a tribe member commits a crime in the reservation they will be tried by Tribal Courts or Federal Courts, thus taking it out of the state’s hands. Past Tribal member convictions can now be challenged and potentially thrown out. Tribe members may also be exempt from some state taxes, however the specifics haven’t been worked out, yet.
Many Oklahomans were afraid that this meant Native’s who commit crimes will receive lesser punishments, threatening the safety of the communities in the reservations. There was also a fear that this would destabilize the state’s court system, however this new ruling will really only apply to a few, since it was reported by The Atlantic that only 1,887 Natives were in Oklahoma prisons at the end of 2019.
I’ve lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma since I was four-years-old, and now much of where I grew up is Muscogee Creek land. It’s strange but exciting to know that the area I know so well has belonged to Native people since they were forced to relocate here. Granted, the state’s history of being Indian Territory isn’t anything new, nor is the repeated stealing of land by white settlers.
It isn’t uncommon for schools to reenact the Oklahoma land run, where settlers literally raced to stake a claim of land as their own, never mind that an already oppressed people had only recently been promised that same land. I know my school did, and it was all fun and games as we ran through the playground with a wagon to “stake claim,” because we were taught the white colonizers’ version of history.
Those land run reenactments have been shut down for obvious reasons in recent years, but the mainstream ignorance of our state—and our country’s—true history is outrageous to say the least.
Fort Sill in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, on Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache land.
We’ve seen this summer and in recent years the slow, foggy public awakening to the systemic racism in our country that materializes as especially deadly for African Americans. But in our American caste system, the Indigenous people are at the lowest rung. This doesn’t discount the gross inequities Black folks face, but it is essential to broaden our view of racism in America to those we took this land from and have so badly abused ever since.
The outdoor industry needs to take a good hard look at itself and see how Native voices have historically been removed from the outdoor narrative.
Take John Muir, for example. As the founder of the Sierra Club and a proponent of conservation, particularly of the California sequoia trees and Yosemite, he has been held as a legend and inspiration for the outdoor enthusiast. His vision of the outdoors did not include those, like the Ahwahneechee people in the Yosemite area, and regarded outdoor spaces as a lone wilderness in need of taming—once the Natives were violently erased. Muir was also friends with Henry Fairfield Osborn, who, in addition to leading the New York Zoological Society, helped found the American Eugenics Society. Early Sierra Club leaders also believed in eugenics, like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan. Gifford Pinchot, friend of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt and first head of the U.S. Forest Service, was not only a member of the American Eugenics society but sat on its board. Madison Grant, a friend of Muir, was a conservationist credited with establishing the Bronx Zoo and contributed in preserving the American bison, but on the side wrote “The Passing of the Great Race” in 1916, that Stephen Jay claimed was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism”. It proposed that the white Nordic race was under threat of losing it’s stock in these modern times. Adolf Hitler reportedly wrote to Grant that “this book is my Bible,” if that’s any indicator. This book inspired the Immigration Act of 1924 that placed quotas on immigrants and people from other non-European countries.
So, yeah. Very problematic people in the early outdoor world.
This is a time of reckoning, for us to raise questions, examine, and critique those who created what we know today. As outdoor enthusiasts, it is important that we are aware of the land we live on, it’s history, and who has been and is still connected to it.
Offering land acknowledgments at the beginning of meetings, when convening in certain spaces, or even when posting about a hike or camping trip “shows respect for indigenous peoples and recognize[s] their enduring relationship to the land” and also raises awareness to a land’s history that is likely overlooked,” Teen Vogue’s Delilah Friedler writes. Including a member from the local tribe in your land acknowledgement creates a stronger connection to the true history to the land, and it is vital to note that land acknowledgements should never be rushed through or glossed over.
There is so much we have to learn—and unlearn—about our country, culture, and history in order for us to build an equitable future. As lovers of the outdoors we should do this every time we step foot in nature and consider, what is the history of this space and who has been erased so that I could be here?
Let’s do better, and show others in our communities how to recreate respectfully and with intention.
The USDAC offers a “Honor Native Land: a Guide and Call To Acknowledgment”
Native Land offers a good starting point for determining Tribal land.
Here are some Indigenous Instagram accounts to follow:
If you can, consider donating to these funds aiding Native communities:
Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief:
Native Youth and Culture Fund:
Native Womens Wilderness:
National Indigenous Womens’ Resource Center:
Check out This Land podcast to learn more about what lead up to the Supreme Court decision and what it could mean for Native Tribes.