Zena, Oklahoma — Days 13 and 14
Odometer: 2397–2491 (94) miles
Listen to: “Welcome Home, Son” — Radical Face
I’ve realized today that Oklahoma has stopped feeling like home, and rather is just another place I’m familiar with. Like the East Village in New York, or downtown Chicago: it’s somewhere that feels comfortable, but at some point in the last few years, it’s lost that sense of intimacy, that close connection that is the definition of any place you can call home. It’s been supplanted by the Bay, and it’s hard to reconcile myself to that while I’m here. Everything in the Bay, the place I can call home, continues happening without me. Time passes, and life carries on. The same process has happened over years here in Oklahoma, and now it feels distant. It’s enough to make me a bit apprehensive of the concept of long-term travel.
That said, spending time with my family is always great. We went to a dinner together at a farm about 45 minutes outside of Tulsa, and had some of the best food I’ve ever had in Oklahoma. The best part about farm to table food in middle America versus on the coasts is that the distance from farm to table in considerably shorter. We had goat cheese on one of the first dishes, and I had seen the goats about twenty minutes earlier.
Since I moved out, my dad has turned my old room into a recording studio, complete with a few microphones, studio monitors, and mixing board. I took this opportunity to finish a song Mia and I had recorded before I left California. If you get a chance, you should really listen to it. It was my first time collaborating on writing music since I was in a band in high school. Plus, Mia’s lyrics have the kind of depth where they get better and better with repeated listens. It also has mandolin AND harmonica, who could ask for more!
We left Tulsa around 3, and started to head up to Grand Lake. My parents have had a house on the shore of the lake since I was 15, and going up there has always been one of the highlights of summers in Oklahoma. It’s been four years since the last time I was there, and even when planning this trip months ago, I knew this was going to be one of the highlights.
The road up to the lake usually involves taking the interstate out of Tulsa, switching to a small highway in Adair, and then taking rural rounds around the lake and up to the house itself. Since I was on the Vespa, I decided to take Route 66 up to the small highway near Adair rather than the interstate. Plus, that meant I got to see my favorite random roadside attraction ever: the Big Blue Whale of Catoosa.
The whale started as an anniversary gift; the original owner’s wife liked to collect whale figurines, and this added to the collection on a much grander scale. As time went on, it began to gather crowds, and the owners opened it to the public. Now, stands as one of the more iconic things you see off Route 66: a giant blue beacon, a friendly hello by the highway.
After turning onto the small highway that would lead me up to the lake, I passed by another famous roadside stop: Foyil’s Totem Pole Park. Well, Oklahoma famous, at least. And it was here where I started thinking about moral culpability for genocide and cognitive dissonance.
Let me back that up a bit.
As I drove through Arizona and New Mexico, there’s been no shortage of places that have cashed in on the theme of the Wild West. In Oatman, I saw cowboys-vs-indian tourist memorabilia. I’ve seen motels with teepees. Gun stores with arrowheads decorating the windows. We’ve built a story about ourselves that romanticizes a culture of “noble savages”, of an idyllic time and place before white settlement, and we use that myth to sell motels, tourist tchotchkes, and the like. You see these images all over the west.
We love the idea of Native Americans as a symbol, but that presents a few problems. First, the reason we can romanticize them as existing within a time and place that’s no longer ours is because a series of policies, starting with the earliest white settlements, confined them to smaller and smaller territories, while at the same time, strangling their livelihoods. Hunters nearly caused the buffalo to go extinct, a vital source of food and sustenance for many plains tribes. Other tribes were forced to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Those who resisted attempts at resettlement and assimilation were massacred.
It was a set of policies aimed at the extinction of a particular people and culture, and it was largely a success. The west was settled, the Native Americans almost wiped out entirely, and the few left alive confined to reservations. And after this genocide, we cultivated in our national identity an appreciation for that culture we had wiped out. We speak with affinity for a lost way of life, but never understand the reason that way of life disappeared was a direct result of very specific policies aimed at that disappearance. We spend a $20 bill at a motel with a Native American chief as its logo, without realizing the man enshrined on that bill was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of chiefs, and the destruction of their tribes. This is how we deal with genocide in America.
Second, this image of a lost civilization is at odds with the very real presence of Native Americans in the United States. We can talk about how this noble culture was lost years ago, but that’s simply not true; we continue destroying it even now. The poverty rate on reservations is 28%, almost double the national rate. The rate of homes on reservations without electricity is 10 times the national average. Native American homes are overcrowded at three to six times America’s average. One in ten Native American homes lack access to safe water.
These are all problems that can be solved by investing in infrastructure and education for Native Americans, and improving quality of life on the reservations we forced them onto. But since the national myth is that the culture was lost long ago, and most reservations are in far-flung rural areas of the country, these solutions rarely enter into policy discussions. Instead, you hear, “sure, the things white settlers did to Native Americans was horrible, but it’s all in the past,” while these particular problems go unaddressed.
Which brings me to the totem pole in Foyil.
The pole was built by an artist born in the late 1800s, around the time eastern Oklahoma was opened to white settlement and the tribes which had lived there were forced into reservations. He wasn’t Native American himself, but the images of plains tribes, totem poles, teepees, and headdresses captivated him. So he built a massive totem pole with those images enshrined on it, and it served as a roadside attraction in the glory days of Route 66.
To be clear, I don’t think the artist was a bad person. I don’t think anyone who appreciates the park is a bad person. I don’t think any person who defends the creation of the park and its right to continued existence is a bad person. But here, in the middle of territory given to the Cherokee after the Trail of Tears, then taken away when white settlers set eyes on it in the late-1800s, stands a totem pole built by a non-Native man who was born during that last removal, who served in the US army that massacred Indians at Wounded Knee, who built his home on what was once Cherokee land.
This is cognitive dissonance at its peak. As I mentioned before, we’ve never tried to undo the damage of this genocide. Instead, we attempt to honor what we think is a lost culture by taking the images of the culture and turning them into roadside attractions, motel logos, and sports teams. But the culture isn’t lost.
In an ideal world, any roadside attraction like this would have information packets about how this genocide occurred and the current state of Native American affairs in the United States. Then maybe, we could start enacting policy to fix some of the damage. As it stands, most people who see this will look at the pole, think “well, that was a nice civilization that existed before settlement, shame it’s gone” and go about their lives.
This is damaging. It lets people continue to believe in this myth of a lost civilization. It allows us to not make amends for the genocide we were responsible for. We can write off the damage to our ancestors, without fixing the results of that damage today. And for those of us who know our history and our current events, it’s an unsettling reminder of how little responsibility our society has taken for both the original extermination of Native culture and the continued indifference we have towards Native Americans.
(wow that aside ended up being much longer than I expected; still, it’s important, hope you all don’t mind)
My disappointment at the park was mollified a bit when I pulled into a roadside stand in Disney, next to the lake, and bought an ice cream cone. The menu was in both Cherokee and English. Cherokee is written with a syllabary developed by Sequoyah in the 1800s, and currently has about 10,000 or 20,000 speakers. The grammar is fascinating, and I’d highly recommend reading the wiki article on it.
Once I finally arrived at the lake, I ate a barbecued pulled pork sandwich with my parents outside, we watched the sunset, and I started to build a fire.
A fire, at its core, consists of only three things: oxygen, heat, and combustibles. Making a fire is a balancing act between those three: too many combustibles, and the fire lacks oxygen, it’s smothered, and goes out. Too much oxygen means too much space between combustibles, a twig burns and that’s all. It’s an engineering challenge, and you can see it play out in a pretty short amount of time.
I spent several hours next to the fire, building it up and up, trying to save it from going out when all the logs I had put on it were too wet to burn. Once it had died down a bit, I roasted* some marshmallows, and alternated between looking up at the a sky full of stars and reading Lorca to practice my Spanish. This was nice. You could hear the waves hitting the shore, songs from parties down the cove with people singing along. It was a wonderful way to spend a night in Oklahoma.
I’ll be staying here for a few days, and heading to Kansas City on Tuesday morning. Looking forward to more nights under this gorgeous sky.
Till next time,
*my definition of a perfect marshmallow is one that’s mostly carbon, so roasting might be an understatement