The Influence of American Indians on Oklahoma

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Most of current day Oklahoma was once 'Indian Territory'. The Five Civilized Tribes were removed to this area, with portions of land later opened for other tribes and settlers. This lesson explores the influence of American Indians on Oklahoma.

Welcome to Oklahoma

Have you traveled through Oklahoma? From the license plates, the state markers, and the gifts in the travel stops, it is hard to escape the Native American influence on the state. The name itself, Oklahoma, means 'red people' or is sometimes interpreted as 'principal people' among Oklahoma natives. It comes from the Choctaw Indian language.

People from Oklahoma aren't simply from a city or county; they are also from a particular tribal nation. That's because Oklahoma is divided into many different tribal nations representing Native American tribes. For example, northeastern Oklahoma is Cherokee Nation, or Cherokee territory. It's an area surrounding the Cherokee capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There are more than 320,000 registered Cherokee citizens making Cherokees the largest Native American tribe in the United States. Oklahomans with Native American blood - of any amount - often refer to themselves as Oklahoma Indians. It is a claim that evokes pride and loyalty, or 'gohiyuhi' in Cherokee.

The Five Civilized Tribes

But Cherokees are just one of the Oklahoma nations. They are one of the Five Civilized Tribes, representing the five largest tribes moved into present day Oklahoma through the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This controversial federal Act forced Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River to relocate west of the Mississippi, into land set aside as Indian Territory. More than 4,000 Cherokees died along the route due to exposure, hunger, and disease. The trip is famously known as the Trail of Tears and is a significant piece of Oklahoma history.

The Trail of Tears is marked in several areas with historical plaques, such as this one marking the corridor through Tennessee and Alabama.
Cherokee Heritage Museum plaque

The Five Civilized Tribes were generally relocated by 1842 and included the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. These Native Americans were pushed west so that American settlers could occupy their lands. The Cherokees, for example, were removed mainly from Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. Those were states at the time but keep in mind that Oklahoma was not. Ultimately, 25 tribes were relocated to Indian Territory by the federal government.

Oklahoma Territory

By the mid-1800s, the Five Civilized Tribes were settled in Indian Territory, and each occupied a region, originally known as a reservation. A reservation is a portion of land 'reserved' for the tribe, or designated to the tribe, by the federal government. Reservations are ceded to the tribe so that they are governed and managed by the tribe. The five tribes each possessed large territories, which holds true today, although most are now known as 'tribal jurisdictional areas.'

This is the eastern portion of Indian Territory, divided among the Five Civilized Tribes.
Indian Territory

In 1866, the western portion of Indian Territory was set aside for other tribes. The State of Texas had created a hostile environment for Native Americans, including the threat of genocide. Coupled with fatal threats from other areas, many additional tribes fled into Indian Territory.

But by 1889, settlers had their eyes on Indian Territory as well. The United States opened 2 million acres of land to settlement through the Oklahoma Land Rush. This was land located in Indian Territory but had not been designated to a particular tribe. Settlers were invited to claim land starting at noon on April 22. Thousands lined up weeks beforehand, camping in tents and nicknamed 'Boomers'. Many illegally rushed in early to claim cheap plots, nicknamed 'Sooners.' You might recognize these nicknames as they are used as the University of Oklahoma mascots.

In 1890, the newly settled area became known as Oklahoma Territory. Due to popularity among settlers, subsequent portions of the new Oklahoma Territory were also opened to settlement. However, these portions were actually part of Indian Territory and belonged to Native Americans, meaning settlers claimed land previously designated to tribes.

State of Oklahoma

Settlers soon proposed statehood, asking that Indian Territory be combined into Oklahoma Territory and that the entirety becomes part of the United States. In 1907, the settlers got their wish, though Native Americans strongly opposed the measure. Specifically, Chiefs of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes proposed a separate statehood for Indian Territory, to be known as 'Sequoyah.' Their proposal was ignored, but the Native Americans stayed.

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