Prone to Wander

Independence Day in Oklahoma

Well, it rained. (Curse you, hurricane Alex.) But I’m convinced the older you get, the more it doesn’t really matter what happens on the 4th of July in the present… the lore and magic of Independence Days past is just too strong.

But first, a little history.

I’m still convinced that the creators of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” set the show in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana after visiting the (real) town of the same name in Oklahoma. Some of the similarities are a little uncanny. I know Pawnee, Oklahoma so well because my mother’s family history is firmly rooted in Pawnee, dating back to the famous Oklahoma Land Run.

For those of you who are only vaguely familiar with the Land Run (probably through the film “Far and Away” or something like it), it really did happen. Tens of thousands of people, the large majority of whom were immigrants like my ancestors, lined up along the Kansas/Oklahoma border on April 22, 1889 to race into Indian Territory, or “No Man’s Land”, to claim their stake. There were several other runs for various territories and lands over the next several years – the one that my family participated in was likely the September 1893 run.

It is worth more than mere side commentary to note that the government had promised all of the land in Oklahoma in the 1820’s to the five most prominent Native American tribes in the US as well as many others. The government meticulously relocated the tribes from their natural homes across the US resulting in a terrible mark on our nation’s history: a journey called “The Trail of Tears.” But then they changed their tune in the late 1800’s. The government saw a need for land, and a need for a place to move large numbers of people and newly arrived immigrants, and so they decided to retract part of their “gift” to the Native Americans and give a large portion of that land away for free to newcomers. This was another big slap in the face to the indigenous peoples of North America… who had already suffered through the atrocity of relocation and loss of their homeland.

As an Oklahoman it’s difficult to wrestle with that history, and at the same time admire the determination and will of the hardworking pioneers and immigrants who settled the land. My great, great grandfather, a German immigrant, staked his claim on land near the new town of Pawnee, on the Pawnee Indian reservation. The prim brownstone house they built stood until the 1980’s – I remember seeing it as a child – and my grandparents still live on and work the land, raising cattle and growing wheat. My great grandmother Martha was also a real Oklahoma pioneer woman. Her parents Josef and Wilhelmina moved the family from Prussia, and they lived in a dugout somewhere in Guthrie before moving to Pawnee and living through the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930’s. Here’s a photo I found this weekend – my great great grandfather Friedrich is in the front, my great grandfather Fred on the far left, and his wife Martha (my great grandmother) on the far right. Talk about strong willed, hardworking people!

Today, other than enjoying picturesque (and not so picturesque) parts of Pawnee, there are a couple of interesting things to see, like Pawnee Bill’s homestead and buffalo reserve (he was a showman, and contemporary of Buffalo Bill, with a traveling Wild West show), the mural commemorating the birthplace of the creator of the comic strip Dick Tracy, and the Pawnee Indian Reservation. If you’re lucky you can catch a pow wow, or maybe a small town football game. Or perhaps you just want to head out to a stock pond and fish for the evening and watch the cows graze in the field. There’s nothing like an evening somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma watching the sun set and feeling the ground cool off after a hot summer day, listening to the cicadas beginning to crescendo as the sky deepens. It’s perfect and very, very simple. I forget about that feeling if I’m away for a long time, but it always comes back.

And even if I don’t actually go fishing or do any of those things (as it happened last weekend), the feeling still comes back when you visit anyway. It’s that way with the 4th of July, too. I have fond memories of being a kid and going to the 4th of July carnival in the main square of Pawnee on the lawn of the county courthouse. I remember riding the scrambler with my mom, dizzy with laughter, watching the fireworks in the sky, dancing with sparklers and enjoying that illusive feeling of being a kid, staying up late, and riding carnival rides in a on the 4th of July. It’s such a classic and innocent memory of being a kid in small town USA, and one that I’ll probably hang onto and think about every year when the 4th rolls around, even though those days are long gone.

I guess it’s a sign of getting a little older; reminiscing about those kinds of things. (Can you imagine how nostalgic I’ll be as a truly old person? I daresay it will be frightening.) But that’s the great thing about memories – they stick with you, and you can take liberties and embellish them however you want – a little artistic flourish here and there. And you’ll never be without a good story to tell… to your friends, to your kids, to random people on a blog… well, you get the idea. ☺


  1. Brandon

    Your blog entries are always so pleasant to read. I experience precisely that feeling each and every time I return to Oklahoma.

  2. Pingback: Lula « Prone to Wander

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