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Don’t Stop at Statues. Demand a Reconsideration of Place Names Too

6 minute read
Caleb Gayle is a writer and author of forthcoming book, Cow Tom's Cabin (under contract with Riverhead Books), a narrative account of how many Black Native Americans, including Cow Tom's descendants, were marginalized by white supremacy in America

When I was growing up in Tulsa, my teachers would move quickly from the Trail of Tears that began in the 1830s to the oil boom in Oklahoma of the first half of the 20th century. During the early 19th century, the state of Oklahoma became the destination for Native American Nations who were forcibly removed from the south and southeastern United States, but no one drew a straight line from the marginalization of Native Americans to white men’s accumulation of land on which they could profit. The way history was taught, I assumed that the devastation happened so many years ago that it wasn’t relevant. I even had one teacher mention that Native Americans were “standing in the way of progress.” I didn’t know that that teacher was echoing the sentiments of the namesake of the town, Bixby.

Over the past month, I have been spellbound by the actions of activists determined to compel America to confront the ugliness of its past. The protests at the Emancipation Memorial, the removal of Teddy Roosevelt’s statue in New York, and now even the bold calls for rethinking Mount Rushmore on the site of Lakota land reveal that our country has more learning to do about what we choose to glorify. But last week, as many celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling that Oklahoma—almost half of it at least—belongs to the jurisdiction of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I have also been thinking about the relics of our past that are so ingrained in our present that we misremember our history. One such relic is the names of the very places in which we live.

Tams Bixby, a Minnesotan, became chairman of something called the Dawes Commission in 1903, as its founder Henry Dawes took ill. “Henry Dawes may have given the commission its name, but Tams Bixby defined its character and would serve as its leader during the critical period of enrollment and allotment, and he would make the daily decisions that affected the life and future of all of the people in Indian Territory,” Kent Canter wrote in the Dawes Commission And the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914.

The Dawes Commission was a government body designed to persuade the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations (once called the Five Civilized Tribes) to abandon the communal land ownership system they had long used and to divide the land into allotments that would belong to individuals. In order to complete that process, the commission had to determine who belonged to each tribe, a question Dawes and then Bixby sought to answer using ancestral bloodlines. But, as Sandy Grande, director of the Center for the Critical Study of Race and Ethnicity at Connecticut College, wrote in Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, “Since there was no ‘scientific’ means of determining precise bloodlines, commission members often ascribed blood status based on their own racist notions of what it meant to be Indian—designating full-blood status to ‘poorly assimilated’ Indians and mixed blood status to those who most resembled whites.” The decisions, made by the commission and not by members of the tribe, determined who got which land, and still have ramifications for tribal membership today. Crucially, any land left over once the tribal territories were divided would be available for the U.S. government, and in turn to white settlers. This process would lead to these Nations losing more than 100 million acres of land—land they were promised would be theirs and theirs alone.

Until I started writing a book about the history of Black citizens of the Creek Nation, I did not know that the town of Bixby, on the outskirts of my childhood home, was named in honor of the man who led this devastating effort. My teachers never told me about him, likely because they weren’t given the chance to weigh the full measure of history either.

On July 3, in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, President Trump said, “As we meet here tonight there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for.” He then doubled down, saying, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

Children are being indoctrinated, but not in the way Trump suggests. Instead, they are being fed an uncomplex version of history—one that minimizes the experiences of those on the margins to turn white men who did evil things into heroes. The name Bixby had become so common in my area that we didn’t think about where it came from. That’s why we tear down, rename and rethink. We do it to tell the whole story, not just the parts that make us feel good. Perhaps we need to do this not just for statues and monuments and schools and sports teams but for cities and counties too. Perhaps we should begin again with the full weight of history upon which we stand.

It’s not just Bixby, of course. In Oklahoma, Jackson County is named for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, while Roger Mills County is named for Roger Q. Mills, a U.S. senator who served in the Confederate Army and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve driven through both of them without even thinking about the origins of their names. Likewise, Stephens County, Texas, was named after Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States, and his boss, Jefferson Davis, has counties named in Texas, Georgia and Mississippi as well as a parish in Louisiana. People who marginalized and oppressed didn’t just affect those who lived at the time–Bixby’s actions, along with so many others’, caused the Creek Nation to lose the jurisdictional power they just, in part, won back–and the places that bear their names should no longer remain without scrutiny.

History demands that we remember all of it or it isn’t true history at all.

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