A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Ishmaelite of Oklahoma." by Mrs. Selwyn Douglas [aka Sophia J. Colman] (-1902).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 383-387.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 383] 



Oklahoma is a compound Choctaw word, okla or ugla=people; homma=red: red people. It was suggested by Rev. Allen Wright, governor of the Choctaw Nation, and one of the delegates from the Choctaw Nation to Washington City, and accepted by the United States commissioner when the treaties were renewed at the close of the war in 1866. Oklahoma was originally a part of the Louisiana purchase. It was given to the Muskogee and Seminole Indians for a home in 1835. Since that time until 1889, when it became through treaties a part of the public domain, a period of fifty-four years, Oklahoma has been the home of this Ishmaelitish people–a race resembling in many respects the ancient Israelites.

Four hundred years ago the race to which this Ishmaelite of Oklahoma belongs was an independent, self-governing nation–citizens of a sylvan republic, with laws respected throughout their wide domain–a nation crude, but child-like in its working, but capable of high-development, courageous, virtuous, heroic in endurance. A nation, which had the most primitive forms of religious worship to be sure; but without the degrading features of the religion of old Greece or Rome, or of modern India. A nation which had its rude manufactures, its agricultural industries, its strenuous occupations, its hardihood of fearless hunting–for these were no ease-loving, luxurious, tropical dreamers, these North American Indians. Up to this time theft and dissimulation were little known among them, and cold water was their sole drink. "The introduction of fire water," says Mr. Turner in his "History of Indian Treaties," "cost them their native independence of character."

This explains in part how this self-governing people, after four centuries, has degenerated into a savage, wandering race, these Ishmaelites of the American plain, with their hands always turned against their white neighbors. For the ruin of his race the red man has a fearful account against his white brother.

Our "sister in red"–the woman in this Ishmaelitish race–thanks the Great Spirit for the gift of motherhood. She watches eagerly for the dawning of intelligence in the copper-colored features and black eyes of her baby; she is very fond of him and he is rarely allowed out of her sight. To be sure he is strapped to a board, and kept straight. In this way the future warrior takes his first lesson in endurance, and the patience and quiet of this baby in his confinement is wonderful. His mother spends little time in preparing his toilet, and if he cries, what harm? It only develops his lungs.

The Indian mother names her boy from the first object she sees after his birth; but as he grows up, if any special characteristic is developed, he is named from that, and his baby name is dropped. Sometimes that "Reaper, whose name is Death," cuts [Page 384]  down this Indian boy, and the mother watches, with a heart full of anguish, his little limbs stiffen and grow cold and life go out. When the little body is put into a coffin, she brings his little moccasins, his beads, his small buckskin garments, and puts them into the coffin with him, that he may wear them in the land where he is gone. He is buried on the hillside. His little coffin is not put down in the ground, but is set on the sod, a wooden frame is built around it, and this is filled and covered with the red soil of Oklahoma:

"And soon the grassy coverlet of God
Spreads equal green above its ashes pale."

Then the oldest woman of his tribe goes to the top of the hill, and with clasped hands, and face turned to the sun, she prays to the Great Spirit for the soul of this little boy till the last ray of sunlight has disappeared.

The Indian woman bears all the physical burdens of her race. She lifts the heavy loads, she cares for the ponies and the cattle, she loads and unloads the wagons. She is in every sense the home-maker, for she fashions the tepee out of poles and canvas, gets up in the morning and builds the fire, and permits her liege-lord to sleep the sleep of the righteous. For let me assure you, this liege-lord of hers is no believer in "Woman's Rights." To compensate her for this she is stronger physically than her husband; she has few of the ills of her white sister. The Indian wife takes charge of all the money that comes into the family, and doles it out to the husband in proper amounts. And I hope she makes special inquiries of how much he wants, what he is going to buy, what he did with the last she gave him, and winds up with a lecture on economy and hard times. I say I hope she does.

The Indian mother has entire control of her children until they have reached womanhood and manhood. She says what they shall and shall not do, and if the father interferes unwisely, he is told to go about his business in terms he usually understands. The Indian woman in the ignorance of guileless and uncultured nature values the love and fidelity of her husband more than anything else in the world. To be a deserted wife is a sorrow and disgrace hard to be borne.

Both men and women are fond of athletic games. The Shawnee ball-game is quite amusing. The men are pitted against the women. Everyone bets on one side or the other. The women win quite as many games as the men. With their loose, flowing garments, well developed muscles, and superior strength, they are well matched with the men. The Ghost Dance is purely a religious ceremony. The scene, as I witnessed it, was weird in the extreme. The place chosen was a secluded spot, shut off from the surrounding country by a large wood of oaks. Three hundred and fifty or four hundred Indian men and women sat in a circle on the ground. Their dusky forms, wrapped in their blankets, were plainly visible in the waning moonlight. White Horse, a tall, stately indian–one of Nature's noblemen–dressed in a blanket and with a headdress of feathers paced around the outside of the circle, talking as he walked. The rhythm and cadences of the Indian tongue, when the voice is moved by the passion of the soul, are very musical. The whole talk seemed to be addressed to their emotional nature alone. He spoke of their hopes, griefs and fears. Suddenly, and without any signal that myself or the interpreter could detect, the whole circle rose at the same instant, and the song and ghost dance began. Each commenced a slow and measured but ungainly step, until the whole were circling in a sort of magic dance. The movements were timed in some degree by the words of their songs, as were the gestures by the ideas. At intervals someone, overcome by his emotions, would break the line, and rushing toward the center, fall in a swoon. By midnight at least fifty were lying inside the circle in this hypnotic sleep.

This dance continues for days, weeks and months, and the overwrought condition of their emotional natures furnishes a fitting time for dangerous conspiracies and outbreaks.

The religion of the Indian, like that of other primitive races, has neither temple [Page 385]  nor ritual, he was originally a sun-worshiper; but now he mingles with his religious ceremonies many of the rites of the Christian. He worships the Great Spirit, and believes almost universally in a future life. The Indian who becomes converted to Christianity is usually characterized by his moral, upright life.

Since 1889 twenty-three million acres have been taken from the Indian reservations and added to the public domain. When Oklahoma was first thrown open to settlement the great cry, " Land für der landloss und Heimath für det Heimathloss," went out through all our broad land. The old chief, Queenoshamno, when he knew that the lands where his warrior father had lived and died, where his sons and daughters had grown to manhood and womanhood, were to be given to the white man, said: "Old Queenoshamno will never see the white man in his home," and his sightless eyes, made so by his own hands, are a proof of his heroism, born of his patriotism and desperation.

The sun rose on the 22d day of April, 1889, in a clear sky. A sunrise in Oklahoma is a beautiful sight. The east gives a rosy promise of the morning, just the first soft glimmer from the gates ajar of that Heavenly chamber whence the sun will by and by come rejoicing. A doubtful, slowly-growing light spreads, encroaching on the shadows in the east. The sky beds itself on the bright green of the prairie with a deep foundation of rosy red, and builds upward with gradations of softest pink and gold and colors no one can name. Infinite changes gently succeed. The stars fade slowly, blinking at the increasing light like old religions dying before the Gospel. Graceful, airy clouds hover around. Shortly they put on glorious robes, and their faces are bright, as if, like Moses, in some lofty place they had seen God face to face. You wait but a moment for the grand uprise of the sun. Then narrow flashes of brilliant, dazzling light shoot up into the dusky immensity above it. Another moment and the west sees it. Another, the whole heavens feel it, and the day is full blown. The mist settles into the valleys, and you look into the face of the sun through a clear atmosphere. The air is laden with the fragrance of a thousand awakening flowers.

The day had now fairly opened on this seemingly interminable waste of prairie. The landscape was wrapped in a mantle of stillness, undisturbed save by the morning anthem of the mocking-bird and meadow lark. For the meadow lark of Oklahoma, unlike his northern brother, is a singing bird. The prairies were covered with green, for spring comes early in this warm climate. Thousands of flowers raised their little heads fearlessly. For a hundred years they had grown, budded, blossomed and died, kissed by the sun, wet by the dew, and swayed by the balmy breezes of the south. The purple mallows, the rose-tinted gentian of the South, the white poppy of the West, and the spring beauty of the North, are all here, for Oklahoma combines the flora of these three sections to make her own.

The prairie dog sat contentedly at the door of his village, and the rabbit confidently took his usual morning stroll. The quail and plover cared for their little ones in happy ignorance that, before the sun set, their homes would be crushed under the tread of men and horses, and their little broods scattered and dead.

The hours go by. The sun climbs to the zenith. Twelve hundred mounted soldiers guard the line of the territory. It is high noon. The signal for the start is given, and with one mighty shout the whole line breaks into a wild race for the new lands. Such a sight was never seen in the history of this country. There are thousands of people in all kinds of conveyances, thousands mounted on all sorts of steeds, from the little burro of Mexico and the wiry Texas pony to the powerful thoroughbred of Kentucky. When the sun went down that night sixty thousand white men slept in the land of the uglo homma.

The desire for a home, a piece of God's green earth that he can call his own, is the absorbing passion in the breast of many a man and woman. The sacrifices made by many to obtain homes for themselves and children in this new, strange land required the greatest degree of heroism. But the farmer of Oklahoma today, as he looks [Page 386]  across his broad acres and sees his shocks of golden wheat, his fields of waving corn, his cotton with its bursting bolls; when he gathers peaches from his orchard and grapes from his vineyard, forgets the labor and privations of his past four years.

The white man had again told the Ishmaelite of Oklahoma to "move on," and as, like Dickens' little Joe, he had been moving on and moving on ever since he was born, he obeyed.

When the Almighty pronounced these words: "Cursed be the ground for thy sake. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee. In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread," he spoke to the red man as well as to the white man. In work, in the digging up the thorns and the thistles that the ground may yield his daily bread, for "difficulties are God's errands," in meeting obstacles and overcoming them, has the white man alone grown strong, and able to rise as an individual and as a race.

The red man has been deprived of the great blessing of work. Lands and money have been given him. His bread and clothes have come to him without any effort on his part. He has been left in idleness and plenty to follow the wayward impulses of his own crude, savage nature, and in this consists his great degradation. Wherever the Indian has become poor and obliged to work to gain a livelihood he has risen accordingly. The time will come when the United States Government will have given him all his lands and money, and the white man will have stolen or cheated him out of it, and by the sweat of his brow he will earn his daily bread. Then, and not before, will the Indian again take his place among the self-governing nations of the world.

It is a common impression that the Indians are a vanishing race, and that in another century they will be known only in history. Recent statistics show that there has been no serious diminution in the number of Indians on this continent since the discovery of America. So we may conclude that the Indian is here to stay for at least another century, a people destined ere long to become citizens of this country in a common, national home.

How we may best give them a Christian education then becomes a problem of great importance to us. I am told that in the Indian schools of the territory the teachers are able to tell from the youngest child whether its mother has ever received any education, or, as they express it, whether "it has a school-mother."

The Indian girl who is educated at Haskell or Carlisle, when her school life is over returns to her people, and in nearly every instance puts on her blanket and becomes the wife of a blanket Indian, to whom she is usually sold by her parents for a few ponies.

At the first glance, with this fact in view, the educating of the Indian girl is disheartening in the extreme. The adult Indian habits have been formed. All remedies for them must be palliative. But in the children there is hope, through the mother to the child, each generation growing better and wiser than the one preceding it. In this line of endeavor lies, it seem to me, the surest solution of this problem.

Through the sufferings of the mother has the human family ever received its baptism of regeneration. Through the suffering of the Mary Mother a Christ came to dying humanity.

The chapter in our national history which tells of our dealings with the Indian tribes from Plymouth to San Francisco, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, will be one of the darkest and most disgraceful in our annals. No race will lift up at the judgment such accusing hands against this nation as the Indian. We have cheated him out of one hunting-ground by compelling him to accept another, and have robbed him of the last by driving him to frenzy, and then punishing resistance with confiscation. The voices of their scattered dead will find an echo in the ages to come, and the crime of the white man against his red brother will be called at last for judgment. [Page 387] 

"Patient stands the great Avenger:
History's pages show, forsooth,
One death-grapple in the struggle
Twixt old systems and the truth;
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God, within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own."

[Page 383] 

Mrs. Selwyn Douglas is a native of Ellicottville, N. Y. Her parents were Joseph Colman and Julia Blair Colman. She was educated at Vassar and at Ypsilanti, Mich. She married Mr. Selwyn Douglas. Her special work has been in the interest of education. Her profession is that of a teacher of high schools. In religious faith she is a Presbyterian, and is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her postoffice address is Oklahoma City. I. T.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom