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Community profile: Tulsa, OK

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WHEN TULSANS MARKED THEIR CITY’S centennial anniversary last year, they celebrated the rich saga of a truly American city. Remembrances of the bitter struggles of Native Americans, tales of the rugged determination shown by westward-pushing pioneers and enviable stories about the sheer luck of early wildcat oilmen all intertwine to create the fascinating anthology of Tulsa’s first century.

Tulsans today are working on Volume 2 of that anthology, building on a dreamcome-true, thoroughly modern city. Jobs are plentiful. Transportation is easy. And there’s plenty to satisfy healthy appetites for the arts and sports. It’s all in Tulsa, under a big blue sky where people have never been able to settle soon enough.

Internist Jeff Galles, DO, is one of those folks who came to Tulsa and decided to make it home. The Iowa native came to Tulsa for medical school at the Oklahoma State College of Osteopathic Medicine. Even after returning to his home state for residency, Tulsa lured him back. With extended family scattered from Texas to Iowa, Tulsa made geographic sense.

Galles likes the cultural and ethnic blend of Tulsa. “There are a lot of people from other metropolitan areas of the Midwest, like Chicago and St. Louis, and there are people from the rural areas of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri who have come to Tulsa, so it’s a real nice mixture of people.

With such variety, there is still a distinct feel to Tulsa, which Galles attributes to history and location. “Because of  Tulsa’s oil history, it has all the cultural benefits that came from that wealth. Then, of course, there’s the Native American influence. And we’re far enough southwest, that you get that flavor too,” Galles says.

The “Land of Red People”

The Native American influence resonates in the names of many Oklahoma counties— Pontotoc, Pushmataha, Nowata, Washita, Sequoyah, Okfuskee, Creek—poetic offerings to the state’s origins. In the language of the Chocktaw, okla means “people” and humma means “red.” Oklahoma is the land of the red people— Indian Territory.

The earliest traces of Native Americans in Oklahoma date more than 20,000 years ago, when hunting bands armed with nothing but flint-pointed spears pursued giant Columbian mammoths. From A.D. 850 to 1450 a group called the Spiro People built mounds, established networks of towns and made carvings from rock crystals in settlements along the Arkansas River. Mounds and artifacts from these settlements are preserved at the Spiro Mounds Archaeological State Park near the Arkansas border.

In the mid 1600s, groups such as the Wichita and Caddo set up trading posts and intermarried with French fur  trappers, who left names like Verdigris River and Sans Bois Mountains on the landscape.

By the early 1800s, Oklahoma seemed to be following the frontier state paradigm; permanent settlers followed the fur traders and built cabins, planted crops, and brought in livestock.

But in 1825, the federal government made a remarkable declaration: Oklahoma would be barred from white settlement. Instead, it would become official Indian Territory, a place where the government could relocate Native Americans who were impeding settlement east of the Mississippi River.

The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and some of the Florida Seminole—known as the Five Civilized Tribes—were the first to be relocated to Oklahoma, a tragic journey the Indians called the Trail of Tears. Despite the hardship of their trek, the tribes re-established themselves and, for more than 50 years, held most of Oklahoma’s land in common and governed themselves.

By the 1870s, however, Indians were being overrun by white men who were pouring into the region to build railroads, work in the coal seams, and cut down eastern forests for the lumber industry. In 1889 the U.S. government authorized the first of several land runs in Oklahoma that allowed home-into western Oklahoma. This was accomplished through the Dawes Allotment Act, which took away land the Indians had held in common and replaced it with a 160-acre allotment to each Indian. The “surplus” lands then became available for white settlement. The “Sooner State” takes its nickname from the many homesteaders who staked out their land claims before the legally organized land runs were to begin.

Indian leaders met to resist being annexed to the progressively white Oklahoma territory, and even wrote a   constitution for their new state of Sequoyah. Their efforts were ignored by Congress, which passed legislation enabling a unified state of Oklahoma in 1906.

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Pamela M. Prescott

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