by Steve Russell
American Reporter Correspondent
San Antonio, Texas
February 27, 2001
ONE MAN'S 'FREE LAND' WAS ANOTHER'S IDENTITY by Steve Russell
SAN ANTONIO -- Next month, I will testify again in front of the Texas Legislature, and once again I will hear in my mind the unspoken question: What makes you an Indian?
You don't ride a horse; you drive a truck. You don't live in a tipi, but a house that looks a lot like mine. You are in front of a legislative committee rather than dancing in the woods. You have three college degrees. What makes you any different from me?
Yesterday, instead of vision-questing or sitting around a fire with a shaman, I was channel-surfing on the satellite service, and came upon a movie I missed in the theaters, the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman vehicle, "Far and Away."
The film tells the story of Irish immigrants from the Auld Sod to Oklahoma Territory. It contains a gritty portrayal of class conflict and lack of opportunity in Ireland, poverty and crime and exploitation in turnof the century Boston. The Holy Grail for the downtrodden Irish is "free land" in Oklahoma.
"Free land" indeed. Locked into that phrase, "free land," was the story of my people, a story that eluded the pretty people on the big screen. (By the way, can you imagine how the people on reservations would appear if malnutrition, alcohol, and regular beatings produced the appearance of Tom Cruise andNicole Kidman?)
The "free" land coveted in "Far and Away" came from lands declared "surplus" after the Curtis Act destroyed the reservations of the Five Tribes in Indian Territory: Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Muscogee (Creek), and my people, the Cherokee. The Dawes Commission went out and took rolls, a census of those who would involuntarily receive a piece of the tribal homelands, a process that proceeded in spite of resistance led by the Muscogee Chitto Harjo and the Cherokee Redbird Smith.
The lands allotted by the Dawes Commission had been given to the tribes in perpetuity (and also involuntarily) in exchange for the lands of their ancestors in the Southeastern U.S. The Indians were removed at gunpoint in an ethnic cleansing noted if at all in American history as the Trailof Tears. Cherokees lost their sacred lands and a third of their people. My great-great-great grandmother made that walk, a lucky survivor.
The climactic land rush of the film visually recreates the famous photos of the last land rush prior toOklahoma statehood, the run for the Cherokee Strip. The Strip, also known as the Cherokee Outlet, was given to the tribe as a guaranteed path to the rich bison hunting on the Southern Plains. That use of theland was rendered moot with the near-extinction of the bison, which of course did more harm to the Plains Indians than to the Cherokee.
My Dutch immigrant great-grandfather was an unsuccessful participant in that very land rush. MyCherokee great-great grandfather was a victim of it. My great-great uncle, Houston B. Teehee, litigated against the United States over the theft of the Cherokee Strip. In the 1960s, my father received a per capita payment from that litigation amounting to, if memory serves, $2.36. This is because payments were split among the many descendants of Dawes enrollees.
None of this was adverted to in the film. The only Indians on the screen were extras in crowd scenes.
Yes, I am a thoroughly modern Indian, and even a fan of Tom Cruise. From the jet jock in "Top Gun" to the wounded warrior in "Born on the Fourth of July" to the jaded doctor in Stanley Kubrick's final effort, "Eyes Wide Shut," I appreciate the entertainment I have received from the actor.
But yesterday, channel-surfing on the satellite service, I found myself in tears. And I was not crying for the Irish.
Steve Russell teaches constitutional law at the University of Texas at San Antonio and writes for Native American Village. His weekly column "First American," debuts today in The American Reporter.