In the early 1980s, one of my favorite times at Hall-Halsell elementary in Vinita was the day we re-enacted the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.

I look back now and cringe that the Land Run was a celebratory event but glad Vinita schools abandoned the celebration years ago.

Even with the passage of time — four decades — I can remember how excited my classmates and I were. Basically, it was a fun race. We ran and we planted flags. Some teachers mentioned something or other about how Oklahoma was founded, with a focus on some land run.

If most of my classmates were like me, they paid little attention to the history lesson. We were outside. It was sunny. We were running! But whatever feelings we had about the Land Run as a historic event was not only positive; we were downright joyful about it.

Forty years later, public school celebrations of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Run are less prevalent. When the last one is held, I say good riddance.

Public school celebrations of the Land Run should end.

What should not end is teaching kids about the Land Run. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 and the other land runs in the region of the late 19th century are indispensable to understanding the formation of the state they call home.

Teaching about the Oklahoma land runs is also indispensable to understanding the brutal federal Indian policy that ushered in the land run era in the first place.

Public school students should be taught that, earlier in the 19th century, tribes were promised various areas of what would later become the state of Oklahoma. These promises were embedded in various treaties, with language protecting the rights of tribes into perpetuity.

Students should be taught that these pre-land run promises were themselves on the heels of the loss of land, life and resources by these same tribes at the hands of the United States as well as earlier broken promises to these tribes by the federal government. A retelling of deadly and destructive forced removal of Native people from their homelands is appropriate context for all of this.

Students should be taught that in the late 19th century, years after all these promises were made in treaties, the United States changed course. It did so for a variety of reasons, including familiar pressures on tribes: the quest of American settlers for more land and other resources.

Next was a series of new treaties and new mandates from Congress. Gone was the promise of land held in common by each tribe “forever.” Land allotment and pressured land sales gave rise to “unassigned lands.” It was on these lands — once promised forever to the tribes — that land-rushing settlers would stake their claims.

The destruction of traditional Indian land title and the divvying up of the land that was left among tribal members of the late 19th century mark a grim milestone in the history of U.S. tribal relations: the near destruction of all the affected tribes. Beyond land, the era ushered in a policy of suppressing tribal sovereignty and tribal governments so that we could not fight back. All of that must be taught.

What followed must also be taught. The affected tribes would struggle for much of the 20th century to regain as much as possible of what was lost. The struggle continues to this day, as evidenced by the policies and legal debates stemming from the McGirt case.

And, the resilience of the tribes, the triumphs of the tribes and the present-day leadership of the tribes must also be taught. All of this happened despite the Land Run, allotment and Oklahoma statehood.

Oklahoma’s creation must be taught alongside all the grim and dark history of U.S. tribal relations prior to 1907. How it is taught, of course, varies by the students’ age. But no child is too young to receive an honest, if difficult to hear, recitation of our shared history. Our public educators must also have the freedom to teach it.

What we should end, though, is glorifying the Oklahoma Land Run. Land Run celebrations — like the one I participated in as a boy in Vinita — hide the factual backdrop of the Land Run itself. Obscuring the backdrop of broken promises and destructive federal Indian policies whitewashes the larger subject of what led to the land runs in the first place.

So, to the few schools left who hold “Land Run celebrations,” I ask that you end those once and for all.

Let the kids go outside. Take the time on a sunny spring day to talk about Oklahoma history, including the Land Run. But tell them the whole story.


Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Principal Chief