- Lest We RememberCivil War Memory and Commemoration among the Five Tribes
On Main Street in Norman, Oklahoma, nestled between a Bank of America and a Hobby Lobby, stands an unmistakable yet unanticipated object: a statue of a Civil War soldier. Most Americans remember the Civil War as a conflict that was fought between Northern and Southern states predominantly in the eastern theater over issues of slavery and to some limited extent states’ rights. Therefore, the question emerges: Who and what does this statue commemorate in what was formerly Indian Territory?1
As with other parts of the western theater, the Civil War in Indian Territory is frequently overlooked. Although this venue of the war is often forgotten, the Civil War enveloped Indian Territory, disrupted lives, and broke apart families just as it did in Georgia, Virginia, and other battleground states. Conservative estimates suggest that over 3,530 Native Americans fought in the Federal Indians’ Brigade, including 1,019 who were killed. Over 7,000 Indians joined the service of the Union army in an official capacity. This figure excludes a significant number of Natives who donned the rebel gray and fought for the Confederacy. Brutal home-front conditions of poverty, street fighting, and total war cut the Cherokee population in half, while diseases in refugee camps spread rapidly, decimating the Creek population. The war made more than one-third of the Cherokee women into widows and turned over 25 percent of children into orphans. The vast majority of noncombatant Natives were displaced from their homes. Some were forced to march across the Oklahoma plains in winter to seek refuge in Kansas. Native property was destroyed, while human property fled to Northern territories for freedom.2 [End Page 525]
In keeping with the overall theme of this issue, this study addresses the ways in which Natives practiced self-silence in regard to public Civil War commemoration. Notwithstanding the incredible impact on Indian Territory and Indian lives, Oklahoma Indians themselves did not typically commemorate the Civil War. Therefore, Native American contribution to the Civil War was largely skewed in the American historical narrative as well as in public memorialization. A large concentration of statues, monuments, and other commemorative signifiers in the North and South excludes not only white and black soldiers who fought in the West but also the significant number of Indians who fought, resisted, and supported their own unique causes during the Civil War. For example, the aforementioned soldier’s statue in Norman, Oklahoma, is intended to commemorate a white soldier, an ancestor of those who erected it, rather than a Native American who actually fought in the area. This monument is not atypical. This seems peculiar, considering that one must traverse “World War I Memorial Highway” and pass tributes to twentieth-century Chickasaw and Choctaw war accomplishments in order to arrive at a pantribal powwow celebrating war veterans.
In light of this peculiarity, this study examines why Natives who made critical sacrifices during the war sought to bury the past. It asserts that while the North won the military conflict, the South came out the victor during the subsequent Reconstruction era. As the two sides reconciled, they made concessions that allowed the South to venerate its past heritage and transplant it onto Oklahoma Natives. Native peoples, on the other hand, lost during both the war and the Reconstruction periods, regardless of which side they supported. Thus, the only true monuments in Indian Territory during Reconstruction became the scorched grounds in place of homes, weeds and sprouts instead of corn rows, and memories of federal abandonment and betrayal instead of fulfilled promises. As Indian Territory became allotted and the white population overtook the Native population, Northern and Southern Americans’ visions of the war supplanted Native Civil War and Reconstruction recollections. In actuality this meant that white settlers attempted to assimilate the Native story into their own narratives via public commemorative endeavors. Even today, as monuments of white Union soldiers and plaques from United Daughters of the Confederacy (udc) chapters dot the Oklahoma landscape, Native people generally choose not to include Civil War loyalty or Southern “lost cause” mythology as part of their collective memory. [End Page...