Oklahoma’s new branding campaign hangs onto 19th Century mythology

Oklahoma launched a new branding campaign stunning in its 19th Century worldview and its failure to acknowledge the state’s Indigenous history and continued presence. It drew immediate rebukes. Here’s an eye-popping branding statement from the initial roll out:

This is a place that was built from scratch, made by people who gave up everything to come here from all over the world to create something for themselves and their families. We started this place with a land run in 1889 — and honestly, we’re still running, still making, still pioneering.

A map of the Oklahoma Territory and the reduced Indian Territory circa 1890’s, just after the land rush of 1889. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s lots to unpack here, notably the statement: “We started this place with a land run in 1889,” as if the land was empty before white people showed up.

This thinking has its roots in the 15th Century Doctrine of Discovery, the legal and religious justification early European monarchs used to seize Indigenous lands. It relied on the concept of terra nullius, Latin for empty land. European logic said when early explorers arrived at new lands (to them) and there were no Christians, they considered the land empty and free for the claiming.

Due to push back, Oklahoma tweaked the branding language. It’s still problematic. The updated version reads:

This is a place that was built from scratch, starting with Indigenous cultures that learned how to survive and thrive in changing conditions, to those who gave up everything to pursue new opportunities in the land run of 1889. However you got here, whenever you got here, however long you stay, you’re invited to exhale and bring out the pioneer inside yourself — to make something of your time, your opportunity and your future — and be part of something special. Our roots run deep, and we’re still running, still making, still pioneering.

It’s a token effort to appease critics, blurring the truth. It lumps “Indigenous cultures” together with white settlers, as if they were co-pioneers. They were not co-pioneers. The invitation to bring your pioneer spirit “however you got here” skirts the central question of Indigenous land theft. For settlers, the answer to the question “how did you get here?” necessarily includes the story of Indigenous land theft.

The Oklahoma branding strategy claims “a commitment to fairness” as a core value. It includes such statements as “Bold yet humble,” and “Ambitious yet altruistic.” Fairness, humility, and altruism don’t seem to square with how Native Americans were, and continue to be, treated. This is like branding the “minty fresh flavor” of menthol cigarettes.

The Oklahoma State Seal is a key branding image. The Seal offers the false narrative that once upon a time, settlers and Native Americans lived in harmony and mutual respect.

Central portion of the Oklahoma State Seal. (Image: Wikmedia Commons.)

The website Einfon explains the Seal’s symbolism:

The Oklahoma State Seal incorporates the 1905 design for a proposed Indian state of Sequoyah that would have included five Indian republics. The United States rejected Sequoyah’s bid for statehood but merged the area with Oklahoma Territory, which became a state in 1907.

Each point of the five-pointed star in the Oklahoma State Seal represents one of the Indian nations that aspired to nationhood in what is now eastern Oklahoma. Starting at the top and going clockwise, the nations are: Chickasaw (warrior wielding a bow); Choctaw (tomahawk, bow, and arrows); Seminole (man paddling canoe); Muscogee/Creek (wheat and a plow) and Cherokee (wreath of oak leaves surrounding seven-pointed star).

The Seal’s central image depicts a pioneer and Indian shaking hands before Lady Liberty, whose scales of justice are balanced. The image portrays early Oklahoma as a just place, where Indians and settlers stood on equal footing.

Let’s take a look at history and blow up the myth of the happy handshake.

The 1889 Indian Appropriations Act opened up nearly 3,000 square miles of so-called Unassigned Land in Indian Territory for white settlement.

The Unassigned Lands in 1855.
The Unassigned Lands in 1885.

This derived from U.S. government efforts to punish Indian Nations who backed the Confederacy in the Civil War. The Creek Indians were not unanimous in their support, but one Creek Council did sign a treaty with the Confederacy. According to Wikipedia, when the Confederacy lost, the United States forced the Creeks to cede some of their lands in Indian Territory. The Seminoles actively supported the Confederacy, and they were forced to cede all of their Indian Territory lands.

Together, this ceded territory became the “Unassigned Lands.” The Creek treaty stated the United States would use the land to relocate other Indians and freed slaves. In the following years, however, white settlers pressured the government to open the land for settlement.

The Sooners are the Oklahoma University mascot. (image: Wikimedia Commons.)

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened the land to homesteading as of noon on April 22, 1889. However, some sneaked in early to snap up prime land. These became known as the “Sooners,” today the Oklahoma University mascot.

“Sooners were often deputy marshals, land surveyors, railroad employees, and others who were able to legally enter the territory early,” according to Wikipedia. “Sooners would hide in ditches at night and suddenly appear to stake their claim after the land run started, hours ahead of legal settlers.”

Oklahoma’s origin story and branding identity rely heavily on the “land run of 1889,”  “pioneers” and the “pioneer spirit,” a story line of rugged individuals making their way “from scratch” in a hardscrabble world. The Sooners are an important symbol of that effort. Yet the bottom line is that the name “Sooners” celebrates those settlers who broke the law for financial gain.

The motto on the Oklahoma State Seal is “Labor Omnia Vincit,” Latin for “Work Conquers Everything.” Perhaps a better motto and branding statement would be “Omnis Homo Sibi,” Latin for “Every Man For Himself.”

For more, see Indian Country Today’s story: Oklahoma minus the tribes? Something is missing from state’s public messaging.

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