I wasn’t sure what to expect from Oklahoma. I’ve never been there, I’ve never seen Oklahoma!, and I don’t know anything about the state. After reading the parts of Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina that took place in Oklahoma, and especially after reading Mean Spirit, I know a lot more. I learned about the Osage Indians, who, when mistreated by the US like so many tribes, wound up on barren lands in Oklahoma, they became unexpectedly rich when oil was discovered beneath their territory. In the 1920s, they were the richest people per capita on earth. Maria Tallchief, an Osage Indian who became a ballerina during that time was able to do so because of her wealth and privilege. Unlike so many Native Americans, her family had the resources to travel, to own a piano, to buy her lessons.
Awesome, right, that the original inhabitants of this land finally caught a break after being so mistreated? What a thumb in the eye of the invaders who took so much from them. Except, in the same way the US has been awful to all Native Americans, it was awful to the Osage Indian Nation. In the 1920s, Osage land owners began going missing, and deemed incompetent for managing their land, and getting murdered. And the people who investigated those murders were murdered. The Osage land was stolen from them, again, now that it was fertile with oil. The Osage Indian murders of the 1920s were one of the FBI’s earliest responsibilities. I didn’t read the book about that, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, but I wish I would have read that instead of Where the Dead Sit Talking.
Novel: Mean Spirit
Author: Linda Hogan of the Chickasaw Nation
Setting: 1920s Osage Indian land, Oklahoma
Mean Spirit tells the story I mentioned above, a story I had never known: the story of the Osage Indians whose barren land was rich with oil. It is a fictionalized account of the Osage murders written about in Killers of the Flower Moon, which begin with the murder of one woman, then radiate to dozens of others.
Nothing should come as a surprise to me anymore, especially when it comes to the way Native Americans are treated on the land whites stole from them, but with every Native book I read, I hope against hope it will turn out differently than it does. The sad truth is we know what happens in the end.
The Indian world is on a collision course with the white world… It’s more than a race war. They are waging war with the earth.
Most other Native American fiction I’ve read shares the story of the crappy land the people are shunted off to — land that doesn’t produce, land that the whites deemed worthless, and so were fine with putting Indians on it. Likewise, the Osage Indians were on arid, useless land. Until they discovered oil beneath it.
They put us on this godforsaken land and no one knew what was underneath it, but even with all this oil and money, it seems we can’t come out ahead.
Mean Spirit shares the Osage story. How they became rich from their oil, unimaginably rich, and were murdered for it once whites realized the resources they had unknowingly “given up.” They couldn’t stand to not have that wealth for themselves, and they systematically killed Osage land owners. Whites at nearly every level of government were involved in the murders, until the Osage were so afraid of being killed that they abandoned the land.
But that’s not all this book is about. Woven into it is a deep connection with nature and the land, a connection whites disregard because they lack respect for the earth and for others’ spirituality.
Novel: Where the Dead Sit Talking
Author: Brandon Hobson, member of Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma
Setting: 1980s Oklahoma
Sometimes I read a book, and I get to the end, and I have no idea what just happened. This was one of those books. It’s one of those ones that gets nominated for awards and is named a Best Book — it was a 2018 National Book Award Finalist and named a best book of the year by NPR’s Code Switch — but I don’t get it, and I don’t care enough to try to figure it out.
This is about a Native American boy, Sequoyah, who goes into foster care with the Troutt family when his mom goes to prison. He bonds with the two other foster kids at the Troutts, one of whom, Rosemary, is also Native American.
In Where the Dead Sit Talking there is darkness and adolescent difficulty, and frankly life difficulty, and in the end it is about a boy who doesn’t know who he is. He’s been floating, unmoored his whole life, not just from his ancestry but from his closest family as well — his parents. He doesn’t know his roots.
That’s about as deep as I understood it.
Novel: The Outsiders
Author: S.E. Hinton, born Tulsa, Oklahoma
Setting: 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma
Set in 1960s Tulsa Oklahoma, in a town large enough to have rival gangs — the Greasers and the Socs (short for socials) — The Outsiders tells the poignant story of abandoned, rough, poor boys, Greasers who grease their hair and start smoking as early as age nine. They get into trouble, they get into fights, and they are constantly being harassed by the Socs, who jump them and beat them to a pulp for no reason other than the Socs have power and privilege, and the greasers do not.
Why did the Socs hate us so much? We left them alone.
Narrated by a sensitive boy, a Greaser, who is both loyal and able to see beyond his own gang, The Outsiders is a classic story about the common struggles of all people. Everyone suffers hardships, regardless of what side they’re on. Strip away wealth and social status, and people are more similar than they realize. Yet they commit pointless, futile violence against each other all the same.
I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade.
The Outsiders is wise, beautiful, and sad. It’s amazing the author wrote this when she was 16.