- Tales of the Old Indian Territory and Essays on the Indian Condition by John Milton Oskison
Now and again, a book is published that “rediscovers” a forgotten author. This compilation consisting of an introduction by the editor, an autobiography, short fictions, and a group of essays by part-Cherokee and part-English author John Milton Oskison (1874–1947), is just such a work.
Larré’s lengthy prologue does more than just introduce Oskison. His introduction is informative, but suffers from being overlong and caught up in zealous explanation and analysis of Oskison’s life and work. By the time the reader finally gets to hear Oskison’s voice, the experience is anticlimactic. It would seem that the better course would be to briefly introduce Oskison, present his work, and advance an analysis in an epilogue. To Larré’s credit, he provides voluminous, well written, and annotated endnotes and a bibliography that is a gold mine of Oklahoma, literary, and Indian historiography.
Oskison’s autobiography, begun sometime prior to 1947, is unfinished and as far as is known, no part of the manuscript beyond chapter eight exits. The first three chapters follow him from his birth near Vinita, Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1874, to California, Texas, and back to Indian Territory, where he was a classmate and friend of humorist Will Rogers. It is a superb portrait of life in the western United States and particularly Indian Territory before enactment of the Dawes Act in 1887, and it illustrates how allotment affected the Cherokee Nation in 1894. The last five chapters attend his transition into manhood from law student at Leland Stanford Junior University to cub reporter in New York, and finally, a long career as columnist and editor at Collier’s Magazine and The New York Evening Post. In his autobiography, Oskison mentioned short fiction that he began writing as a student at Stanford.
The partial collection of short stories published in this volume is a culmination of Oskison’s desire to publish his short fiction in a volume that he planned to entitle Tales of the Old I.T. As these little vignettes are consumed, the essence of what it meant to grow up in an environment of racial and cultural fusions is felt and understood. They are very different tales that together, present a history of a land and a people in transition. These are anecdotes about real people doing real things in real settings, in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Indian Territory, written by an eyewitness who lived it. They are fiction only because the characters and events are fictional; the stories could just as easily be non-fiction.
Oskison’s essays on the Indian condition describe Indians who were trying to embrace their heritage while amalgamating with, not assimilating into, mainstream America. He began writing essays about the Indian condition in 1897 while [End Page 95] at Stanford and continued until 1917, when he began his career in newspaper and magazine journalism. Taken as a whole, the theme of these articles can be summed up by saying that Indians should accept and embrace white professions, white occupations, and white enterprise while striving to maintain an Indian identity.
Forgiving the editor for his overly enthusiastic introduction will make this work more enjoyable, and although it has a very limited Texas connection, it will be appealing to a broad audience, from professional historian to a casual Sunday afternoon reader “relaxing with a good book.”