Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Chickasaw Country

Oklahoma, the eventual homeland of more than a dozen Indian nations expelled from the eastern United States, has formed a part of Your Humble Narrator's mental landscape since he first became interested in Native American history, over 25 years ago. Not until earlier this month, however, did I visit the Sooner State for the first time. I've always assumed Oklahoma resembled the opening scenes in The Wizard of Oz: a featureless grassland under a flat and boundless sky. Driving to the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, I discovered the inaccuracy of my preconceptions. The territory of the Chickasaw Nation actually overlaps the Cross Timbers country, a rolling, sandy-soiled prairie criss-crossed by rivers and crowned with oak and pine forests. The region is prone to periodic extremes of weather: hard winters, drought, and floods, such as those that partially inundated the district just before my visit. The soil is fertile but not very suitable for demanding crops like cotton, the Chickasaws' chief cash crop in the nineteenth century. This probably helps explain why most Chickasaw emigrants initially settled in the richer bottom lands on the district's eastern edge. However, Chickasaw country is no wasteland, and it has sustained ample herds of livestock, one of the Chickasaws' other sources of wealth, since the mid-nineteenth century. (It still does. Driving south and east from Norman, my partner and I saw hundreds of cattle, horses, goats, even some bison.)

As Jace Weaver observed in Episode 3 of We Shall Remain, Removal was hugely traumatic, but the southern Indians did not have to contend with the shock of relocating to a purely alien landscape. Their new homeland bore enough similarities to the old that the survivors could adapt and, eventually, even prosper.*

* We shouldn't attribute this to the wisdom of the U.S. War Department. The Chickasaws sent a surveying party to their prospective reserve in the late 1820s, and carefully negotiated the boundaries of their new territory with its initial owners, the Choctaws.

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