Echos Of Futures Past, Part III: Father Aidan

Fr. Aidan ministers at St. Francis of the Woods, an Episcopalian religious community in Coyle, Oklahoma

We are located in the bounds of the Iowa Nation which is the closest tribe to us. They are headquartered in Perkins. Before it was Iowa land it was part of the Great Plains territory that tribes would migrate along while following the buffalo. So it’s always been Native land, for one thing. St. Francis, who we are named for, is the patron saint of the environment, ecology, and animals. He was able to connect with God, the Divine, most in nature and in animals. One of the Episcopalian Saints, David Pendleton, was a member of the Cheyenne tribe here in Oklahoma. And then we’ve had several members, primarily a Cherokee elder named Jackie Dill, who was a heritage wild crafter. Jackie was an incredible woman. She was taught by her Grandmother how to use native plants for medicine, food, and she had this deep connection with the Earth. If there were an embodiment of Mother Earth, it would have been Jackie Dill.

Her native ancestry and connection led us toward the direction of reverence for the Earth and the natural systems. This land had been in farm use for years before us. Wheat was what it was when I got here. But I had come with a vision of trying to restore it to it’s natural ecosystems. I think there is so much the Earth can teach us. Putting it back to what it was originally, what it was designed to be, was really important to me. My hope is that when it’s established as a prairie, it’ll be 95 acres, that we’ll be able to cut some walking trails and nature trails through the prairie and the cross timbers that border it. One of the hopes is that it will bring a lot of the native wildlife back to the area. That will draw more people out here to experience the native ecosystem. 

As a state Oklahoma has the largest native population in America. I think the biggest problem in Oklahoma is that we’re not taught Oklahoma history in most schools. There is general Oklahoma History as a required course but it’s usually taught by a football coach or basketball coach who doesn’t really care. They’re much more interested in being a coach. And so it ends up being one of those subjects that gets whitewashed. We get a few dates in history but we don’t actually get the stories, the causes and affects or the context of what really went on here. I think most that Oklahomans are fairly oblivious to their own history because of that. 

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was an organized effort to eradicate Native culture. Not only in Oklahoma but across the United States. It was done primarily through the kidnapping of children and forcing them into boarding schools to reeducate them as white or “civilized” people. It was completely disturbing and child abuse and kidnapping. Absolutely abhorrent. There was an Episcopalian Deacon at the time named David “Oakerhater” Pendleton. He was a Cheyenne Sun Dancer, spiritual leader and warrior who fought against the US Army during the Relocation. He was captured, sent to prison in Florida where he converted to Christianity. After release he attended seminary school and became a Deacon. He left a Cheyenne warrior and came back as an Episcopal Deacon, which was quite a change culturally. One of the things he did to try to help with was the transition. Being in prison in Florida and seeing the culture in New York he realized that things were changing and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. The best the tribes could do was to change gracefully and maintain what they could. So he set up a church school in Watonga that kept Native children with their families instead of being forcibly removed. His journals are available online now, donated by his family to the Oklahoma History Center.

One thing that comes to mind currently is that we still have sports teams that are named, “The Redskins”. My little brother is in Kingston, OK and attends a school and that’s the mascot, “The Redskins.” How do you have this history and think that’s an appropriate mascot? Another big issue in Oklahoma right now, because of our Governor, is the casinos. The Governor has been battling for the two years he’s been in office to raise the percentage that the state gets from the tribes. The tribes are one of the largest contributors to the state budget and to the betterment of the state through their own efforts. I think that conflict between the state government and the tribes rearing up again about, “They should give us more money.” is more of the same thing. It’s like how much can you take from them? You’ve already taken all of their land, their culture, and now you want them to give you an even larger percentage of their income? 

As for the Land Run itself, it is such a complicated thing in history. It was horrid in so many ways. The stealing of Native lands after stealing, after stealing. Reduce their land, reduce their land, reduce their land and then take it away. But on the other hand it was really empowering and liberating for many African Americans who were able to own land for the first time. Black towns popped up all over Oklahoma as an organized effort during the Land Runs to create little communities and oasis where African Americans did not have to experience the racism of cities. It empowered people in poverty to make a new start. That’s probably the story of my Great Great Grandfather that he had nothing, he had to change his name, there is some family lore that he was a criminal *laughs*. But to have nothing and then participate in a race and then have 160 acres is pretty unheard of. Many people in Oklahoma can trace their time here to someone who participated in a Land Run. So there is a lot of complicated history around it.

I don’t think that I would be on the side that says, “The Land Run is 100% racist and they have to change the name.” I think that I’m more in line with let’s reconcile this thing. Give the name a new meaning and make it about education and the empowerment of Native communities instead.