When I was growing up in Tulsa, my teachers would move quickly from the Trail of Tears that began in the 1830s to the oil boom in Oklahoma of the first half of the 20th century. During the early 19th century, the state of Oklahoma became the destination for Native American Nations who were forcibly removed from the south and southeastern United States, but no one drew a straight line from the marginalization of Native Americans to white men’s accumulation of land on which they could profit. The way history was taught, I assumed that the devastation happened so many years ago that it wasn’t relevant. I even had one teacher mention that Native Americans were “standing in the way of progress.” I didn’t know that that teacher was echoing the sentiments of the namesake of the town, Bixby.
Over the past month, I have been spellbound by the actions of activists determined to compel America to confront the ugliness of its past. The protests at the Emancipation Memorial, the removal of Teddy Roosevelt’s statue in New York, and now even the bold calls for rethinking Mount Rushmore on the site of Lakota land reveal that our country has more learning to do about what we choose to glorify. But last week, as many celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling that Oklahoma—almost half of it at least—belongs to the jurisdiction of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I have also been thinking about the relics of our past that are so ingrained in our present that we misremember our history. One such relic is the names of the very places in which we live.