- John Milton Oskison: Tales of the Old Indian Territory and Essays on the Indian Condition ed. by Lionel Larré
Edited and with an introduction by Lionel Larré
University of Nebraska Press , 2011
Perhaps not as deeply studied nor understood as his life warrants, John Milton Oskison’s writing provides a representation of life in Indian Territory, as well as a fascinating case of a once well-known Cherokee writer and public figure. Oskison was born in 1874 to an English-born, American-raised father, and a Cherokee mother from the Buzzard family. Raised in Vinita, Oklahoma, on a farm that had an orchard, dairy cows, and horses, John Milton Oskison was educated in the Pawpaw school that was taught by a recent graduate of the Cherokee Female Seminary (69–71). His family moved to California and Texas, making their farms prosperous to sell them again for twice their original costs. Returning to Indian Territory, the family began a cattle ranch on the Cherokee Strip. With a penchant for books and numbers and with some schooling along the way, Oskison was persuaded by his father to go to college. Oskison chose “the Leland Stanford Junior University at Palo Alto, California, about which [he] had read a lavishly illustrated magazine article” (91). From there he went on to attend Harvard University. By 1917, Oskison was vice president of the Society of American Indians and a well-known journalist living in New York City.
Organized into three sections that include many of Oskison’s original autobiographical, fictional, and persuasive writings, the book includes the first four chapters of Oskison’s autobiography. Larré took care with this previously unpublished and unfinished autobiography, keying the manuscript in along with the corrections to the manuscript pages that Oskison himself had added. These provide an engrossing read and vivid portrait of Indian Territory punctuated with amusing anecdotes like this one: “Father bought a saddle for me, but Jack remained my only ‘cow hoss.’ I became accustomed to his stiff gait and hard mouth, and learned how to control his erratic bursts of speed when I roweled him with the spurs for which I had traded. I thought, with some pride, I bet I’m the only mule-mounted cowboy in the world!” (78). In the first sixty-plus pages of the book, Larré makes a case for the scholarly merit and importance of Oskison’s writings. He notes that “so far scholars have drawn conclusions based on too little of Oskison’s work” (12). When Oskison’s writings and life have been treated, Larré argues, they’ve been handled in assimilationist terms, in the rigidly dichotomous ways that Western modernity demands (i.e., authentic/assimilated? [End Page 90] Indian/white? representative/fictional?). Yet, as Larré points out, Oskison himself never used the word “assimilation” to describe his own or other Indians’ lives. At times, Oskison did use the word “amalgamation,” suggesting one way that he attempted to move beyond the simplistic dichotomies of modernist thinking (13).
Though Larré notes how limited and limiting assimilationist thinking is, he disappointingly goes on to argue that “Oskison’s positions and opinions need to be analyzed in the light of a clear definition of assimilation and the real experiences of ordinary Indian lives” (16). To be fair, Oskison was writing at a time in American history when assimilationist thinking shaped policy and practice and influenced Oskison’s thinking and work within the Society of American Indians. Yet, if Oskison himself never used the term assimilation, why should his writing continue to be read this way? This book provides scholars with a fascinating case of a Cherokee writer and activist who occupied a complicated position, one that remains to be fruitfully analyzed, perhaps in light of postcolonial and decolonial border thinking that might better be able to see this writing in and on its own terms.
For readers interested in regional histories and autobiographical sketches of life in Indian Territory, Oskison’s writing doesn’t disappoint. Larré’s meticulous editing deepens the experience with these primary texts, providing extensive and well-researched...