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Acknowledging the History and Legacy of Colonialism

A Story of My Growing Courage to Repair the World

I shook as the adrenaline pumped through my veins. The sound of the room was completely muffled. I turned on my microphone, clipped to my collar and snug around my ear.

After years of slowly building up courage, finding the right opportunity, and wondering if this was a move I’d somehow regret, I decided to do my first land acknowledgment last week to a group of about 60 educators from across Oklahoma. It was everything I had hoped for and more.

I’m a 7th* generation Oklahoman. On my dad’s side, my family came to Oklahoma because their land was stolen and their way of life was systematically destroyed. I knew that I could play a small role in remembering my family’s history and making visible the pain and resilience of my ancestors and those who had been harmed by colonialist settlers so long ago. If one’s purpose in life is to repair the world (thanks to Krista Tippet’s for her introduction of Tikkun Olam), then perhaps one of my contributions will be to insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life.

There are names of our family members who came to Oklahoma from the Tennessee and Georgia region that I love, like my namesake Levi Blackstone, his mom Sallie (Sa-le) Sixkiller, and my great (x4) grandfather White Catcher. These names fill me with a longing for stories, culture, and the strength of my ancestors. That longing led me on a journey of learning about my family’s past and the atrocities that came to many others thoughout the colonialization of North America.

I continually dig into the history I had never learned in school. When I found that White Catcher, after joining the 3rd Indian Home Guard of the Kansas Infantry, eventually joined the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles of the Confederate Army, I came to understand that the prevailing experience with the federal government was of threats, broken promises, land theft, and systematic genocide. Perhaps when he heard that then-candidate Abraham Lincoln aimed to open up Indian Territory to white settlement, yet again dehumanizing his family and community, perhaps he felt justified to choose to fight back. At no point in my educational experience had I learned that the Civil War was also not just about slavery. There were some Cherokees, the Northern faction, who joined in support of the southern effort to maintain slavery, fought to exclude the Freedmen from tribal membership, and maintained a disdain for the inclusive stance of John Ross and my ancestor.

White Catcher was also a signatory of the “Agreement with the Cherokee and Other Tribes in the Indian Territory, 1865,” where the United States enacted their so-called “magnanimity” to take back the people of the tribes under their protective wing after they had joined the “so-called Confederate states.”

From what we can tell, some of my ancestors, Sixkiller (Sallie Sixkiller’s father) and his wife Annie, left the Georgia area before the forced removal. Others, (Oo tar ne yer da) Ketcher (the father of White Catcher), came on Hilderbrand Detachment on the Trail of Tears as an Assistant Commissary and Bridge Builder. His sons, Seed, Moses, and Wasp, are also listed on the Hilderbrand Detachment muster roll.

A quick aside, the earliest Cherokee who moved to Oklahoma are often referred to as “Old Settlers;” others have referred to them as “volunteers.” While the phrasing of “Old Settler” is in common use by the Cherokee still today, I tend to wonder if it’s use perpetuates a colonialist attitude that whitewashes the forced removal, the land theft of the plains tribes, and the overall political will that has nearly decimated countless tribes across this continent. Can we agree that people who leave their homeland for fear of their safety should simply be called refugees?

I am thankful to have a glimpse of my past. But I always get stuck wondering who they were before their lives were turned upside down. What did they believe? What did they value? Were they builders and leaders like White Catcher? Were they educators like me? This mystery sits heavy with me if I let myself think on it for too long.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.”

The reality is that my family just doesn’t know much of anything about the forms of coercion that led my ancestors to move here to Oklahoma. Which brings me to one of the most important experiences I’ve had as an adult. Just a few years ago, in my effort to learn more about the lives of my ancestors before Jackson had his way, I read the wonderful book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a fellow Okie. My dad and I went to a talk she gave soon after the book was published and there, in the hard plastic chair in the Woody Guthrie Center’s venue in Tulsa, she gave a land acknowledgment. My heart sunk and I knew I had just experienced something that forever changed me. I didn’t really know what had just happened. I didn’t know what it was called and couldn’t seem to find anything on the internet about it.

I eventually found two amazing websites, Whose Land and Native Land, where the land acknowledgment finally made some sense to me. I could see some amazingly thoughtful work that had gone into creating maps that helped folks see whose land they were on. The examples and background of land acknowledgments gave me insights into the powerful simplicity of the act. I had everything I needed to be able to enact my very own land acknowledgment — aside from the opportunity and courage to do so.

Native-Land.ca provides beautiful maps that overlay traditional and treaty territories with current maps. Views of land ownership vary drastically from many tribal nations and the colonial structures of land boundaries.

My line of work at the Oklahoma State Department of Education provides me with the opportunity to interact with educators and school leaders on a regular occasion. Usually, my presentations and workshops are about mathematics, instructional practices, or some exciting work happening around federal funding and accountability. In pretty much every case, the inclusion of a land acknowledgment just has felt very disconnected. Thankfully, I was fortunate to see Rochelle Gutiérrez in a lecture on re-humanizing mathematics education and she masterfully began with a land acknowledgment. It was unbelievably powerful, leaving me and a few of my colleagues stunned. Yes, her talk was about equity, which somehow felt like it made the land acknowledgment more appropriate, but mostly I realized that the topic of the presentation or workshop just didn’t need to be connected. The land acknowledgment needed to happen because it matters all on its own, regardless of whatever topic I was speaking about. That shift in perspective helped me to finally realize that I had plenty of opportunities.

The opportunities were many but my courage just wasn’t there. I try to not get caught up in this feeling, but I find myself feeling like an imposter native. No one looks at me, with my 1/8th Cherokee blood and pasty white skin and sees someone with native ancestry. Most of me is German and Scotch-Irish, which has caused me to wonder if it’s even my place to do a land acknowledgment as a white dude? Will it be accepted? What if it is somehow offensive? These endless questions left me petrified.

I don’t remember exactly the moment when I decided I was ready, but I had a realization on the evening before my presentation last week, which happened to be about equity, that I was ready to step up and give a land acknowledgment. I texted a colleague of mine who has always created a safe space for me to be vulnerable, and I asked him what he thought about the idea. He had previously encouraged me in my endeavor to be more proactive about calling out and overcoming oppression and racism by saying, “there are many missteps you might make along the way, but the biggest may be not taking the first step at all.” Tell me that isn’t powerful!

His response to my rambling question was also simple and direct: “I think it’s a great idea! I applaud your effort brother. I say full-steam ahead!” A few revisions later, I had my land acknowledgment ready. With his help, I added a simple salutation and introduction in Comanche. I was ready! Filled with tons of nerves and excitement, 60 educators stopped in their tracks, listened, and paused as though the weight of the world had just centered itself right there on the south side of Oklahoma City.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way about something I do again. It might not have made the impact I hoped for those who heard it, but it has opened me up to the idea that I can contribute to raising awareness to injustice and do my best to create opportunities to heal. I’m sold completely, and I will be doing it again. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of my journey as I become more and more comfortable with bringing light to the world. I’ll keep you posted. Regardless of what happens next, I set out to repair the world by honoring those who have been abused and ignored and actually took my first step. May their history, and the suffering done unto them, not be forgotten.

If you’re interested in learning more about Land Acknowledgments, check out https://native-land.ca/territory-acknowledgement. My other reading recommendation is Steve Inskeep’s “Jacksonland.” It’s more centered around the history of Andrew Jackon and the Cherokee Nation, but it is a wonderfully told story anyone could appreciate. Please share in the comments if you have any other recommended readings.

*A previous version of this story said “8th generation.” While I am the 8th generation to live in Oklahoma, the first members of my family emigrated to Oklahoma. I’ve edited the story to reflect that I am a 7th generation Okie. (2/19/19)

student. teacher. dreamer. thinker. doer.

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