The City of Tulsa’s first observance of Native American Day is in the books.
A program of songs, dances and speeches at Guthrie Green marked the occasion just a few weeks after the city council unanimously approved a resolution establishing the celebration, and it carried several meanings.
It’s a rhyme nearly everyone has heard: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
While that’s true, the larger idea it represents — that the Italian explorer discovered America — is not.
"Always that joke going around that Columbus didn’t discover America, but that we discovered Columbus lost at sea," said Cherokee storyteller Choogie Kingfisher, the master of ceremonies for Monday's Native American Day celebration. "He needs to be remembered that way."
Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden agreed.
"Perpetuating the Columbus myth does not make us better as Americans. In fact, it does the opposite. It makes all less aware of our history and our reality today," Crittenden said. "That is a huge disservice to everyone, especially our youth and for future together."
Tulsa’s observance of Native American Day is not all about correcting the record about Columbus.
From the city’s earliest days, its history is tied to Native American history. Muscogee Creek Nation Chief James Floyd said Tulsa is where the tribe settled after it was forced from its homelands nearly 200 years ago.
"Our people established a rich culture and the influence that helped fashion this city, including the naming of the city after an historic Muscogee Creek town in our former homelands," Floyd said.
More than 70 percent of modern-day Tulsa is within Muscogee territory, and the city is where the boundaries of the Muscogee Creek, Cherokee and Osage nations converge. Osage Nation Assistant Chief Raymond Red Corn said Tulsa’s celebration of Native American Day is an important gesture of friendship.
"The Oklahoma state seal has a pioneer on it and a native man, and they’re shaking hands. They’re cooperating. They’re trying to find a way to work together," Red Corn said.
Native American Day is also a celebration of native culture, like dances and the singing of Muscogee Creek Nation hymns. Kingfisher said white men tried for centuries to wipe out native cultures, but it’s clear they haven’t succeeded.
"When we go home, our languages are still spoken. When we go home and into our communities, our ways are still taught. When you go to these communities, you can see these little kids running around. You can come to our arenas and to our ceremonies, and you can see them dancing. You can see them shaking shells. You can see them singing the songs. Our ways are still here," Kingfisher said.
Organizers want to see Tulsa’s Native American Day celebration grow in the coming years. Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission member Alice Whitecloud said it was years in the making, and she hopes Tulsa’s 30,000-strong Native American population and others who supported the commission’s work are proud.
"Now we need to work on Oklahoma City, because they did vote it down twice," Whitecloud said.
Dozens of cities and states in the U.S. have adopted celebrations of native and indigenous people on the second Monday of October. Tulsa is the largest city in Oklahoma to have done so.