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On Indigenous Peoples' Day, Oklahoma Native Students Reflect On Heritage, 'Sooner' Legacy

Native American students and school administrators march down the South Oval toward Bizzell Memorial Library October 12, 2015 morning to mark the first Indigenous Peoples' Day at the University of Oklahoma.
Brian Hardzinski
Native American students and school administrators march down the South Oval toward Bizzell Memorial Library Monday morning to mark the first Indigenous Peoples' Day at the University of Oklahoma.

Late last month, after extended discussion, the University of Oklahoma Student Congress officially recognized Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of Columbus Day on campus. The vote was a victory for its sponsors, IndigenizeOU, a group of four Native American student activists.

The leader of the group is Masters student Ashley McCray. She's an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and also comes from the Lakota nations of Oglala and Sicangu.

McCray believes that although Columbus Day isn’t a recognized holiday on the University of Oklahoma campus, the fact that it exists at all is disrespectful to Native populations.

“Changing it to Indigenous Peoples' Day, is a little step but it's a first step to opening up the doors for communication between the native community and the rest of the student body,” McCray said.

Indigenous Peoples' Day isn’t the only cause they are pursuing. They’ve also been protesting the use of the word Sooner on campus.

McCray remembers growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma where her school often glorified the 1889 Land Run.

“We had land run re-enactments every year to celebrate the opening of Indian Territory to non-native settlement,” McCray said. “We would have our little stick pony horses and we would all line up on the playground and at a given time we would all rush to whatever place on the playground and stake our claim.”

Some students snuck in early and were called “Sooners” a name that gained a more and more negative connotation for Ashley as she learned more about the history of her people.

“I attended Shawnee public schools and I never learned about Indians until I was asked to create my own family tree and I brought in my ancestors who I was taught to be really proud of and the other students decided to call me "wagon burner" and make fun of my nose,” McCray says.  “I was never taught to be proud of my native heritage and the teachers definitely reinforced that.”

After high school McCray pursued a degree in History of Science and Technology and over the intervening years learned much more about the Native side of the history of Oklahoma. She learned about the hardships faced by her own Absentee Shawnee tribe, as well as many others like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw. 

“All these different tribes were forced here and those were coming in the wake of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830,” McCray said. “I think all of our ancestors were deeply traumatized by that. Lots of children were dying, elders were dying so this really triggers and re-traumatizes me and I think other native peoples.”

Oklahoma Historical Society Executive Director Bob Blackburn believes that the meaning behind the name Sooner has changed over the years and although he recognizes the negative connotations the word carries, he sees it as an important element of the history of Oklahoma.

“It's like changing the name of a building,” Blackburn said. “Many of our state founders were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Alfalfa Bill Murray, the father of the state constitution, the first speaker of the house, a governor, a congressman, was an avowed racist. This guy was so far outside of what we consider politically acceptable now, but he reflected his times, so when an effort started to change the name of a building at OSU from Murray Hall I said to the press ‘You cannot whitewash history.’ If we were to go back and put our values today on everything done in the past, suddenly we are losing our connection to our own culture.”

Although some Native students disagree about the benefits of continuing to use the word Sooner, there is a common theme, the idea that these conversations need to take place.

McCray hopes that an increase in communication and understanding will help everyone move forward. She hopes that in the future more white students will take a lead in educating people about the traumas faced by Native Americans and maybe even help fight for Native causes.

“If we're saying that we don't like the word Sooners, even if it does upset you, you need to wonder, "Why are they saying that they don't like that word?" "Why is it affecting them in that way?" McCray said.

Bob Blackburn also wants to educate people on the history of Oklahoma Native Americans, but he thinks that using the word Sooner, is a good jumping off point.

“That allows me to explain it,” Blackburn said. “That this is part of our history, but it gives me a chance to talk about the Indians who were dispossessed and it allows me to get into these other issues that are part of our culture and who we are and how we got there.”

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