Happy New Year!
What do I want to do more of? Why did the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” pop into my head as I wrote that? What do I want to give up? Along those lines, I’m going to *try* to write or share an adventure piece every Tuesday.
That’s because, if I’m not traveling, I’m fantasizing about traveling, reminiscing about traveling or planning to travel.
#traveltuesday, ya dig?
But as it’s after 9 p.m., and I’m just sitting down, we’re going to re-visit an adventure I had on the job as a plains journo.
A newcomer in a strange land and a lonesome soul, I had a lot of time to wonder about stuff after my family moved to Oklahoma from the Midwest in ’12.
Maybe too much time.
I up and decided one day to figure out why the Oklahoma dirt is red. But beyond that, I wanted to know if there is some deeper, symbolic meaning to it all. Yes, the dirt fascinated me. I am fascinated by dirt.
Anyway, before I digress, here is the piece I wrote about my journey to the heart of dirt. Red dirt!
Driving deep into the central Oklahoma countryside with veteran Oklahoman photographer Steve Sisney, I looked out the windows at the landscape: an amalgamation of sky, field and cattle. Twisted dead trees, the wreckage of a home and the rusting shell of a car flashed by, remnants of a tornado that had raked Grady County several months earlier.
All of it sat atop a striking element: the red Oklahoma earth.
“Wow, look at that,” I said.
“What?” Sisney replied.
“The dirt. It’s so red. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Uh huh,” a far-less soil-enchanted Sisney said.
It was early January 2012 and my second day in the state. We were on our way to the trailer home of Sarah McKinley, who just days before, while surviving on top of that red soil, had shot and killed a knife-wielding intruder as her 3-month-old son lay crying in a back room.
Since that dramatic introduction, Oklahoma has become my home.
My family moved here from the Rust Belt in search of a more stable future. We joined thousands coming to Oklahoma; in 2013 alone, 109,255 people moved here from other states.
Subtle regional differences across the U.S. fascinate me, and as a relative newbie just three years in, I’ve got my eyes wide open.
To get behind our state’s quirks and characteristics, I’ve proposed this occasional series, dubbed “Oklahoma Observed,” an open-ended foray into unique Oklahoma topics.
If you have a suggestion for the series, I’m collecting ideas. Please send an email, leave a comment or write a note to the paper. You don’t have to have come from out of state to make suggestions; anyone can join in and help me to explain a piece of Oklahoma that would fascinate, surprise or enlighten us.
The soil of central Oklahoma, that red earth, is our first piece in this series.
I know I’m not the only new arrival to be hypnotized by red dirt. Scanning the Oklahoma History Center archives, I came across a mid-1980s oral history project interview with a woman named Edna May Armold, whose grandfather, in 1893, rushed “into the Cherokee strip,” the largest in a series of 1890s Oklahoma “land runs.” Armold recalled her own family’s arrival in the state from Minnesota in 1914.
“The soil in Minnesota is black, and was red in Oklahoma, and the whole family was fascinated by the red dirt,” she recalled.
So, it’s not just me. Thanks for the proof, Edna. Moving on.
I first consulted a state soil brochure — yes, we have one of those — for answers.
The bright red soil characteristic of Oklahoma has a name: Port. First recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1942, the “Port series” of soil is the state’s most common and can be found in 33 of 77 counties, covering about 1 million acres in central and western Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. In 1987, Oklahoma lawmakers named port silt loam the state soil.
Port draws its name from the small community of Port in Washita County in western Oklahoma.
Port soil in Oklahoma can range from dark brown to dark reddish brown.
According to Brian J. Carter, a professor of soil science at Oklahoma State University, iron oxide gives the soil its color, the result of the weathering of reddish sandstones, siltstones and shales of the Permian Geologic Era nearly 300 million years ago.
From a scientific standpoint, I got it. But there had to be a deeper meaning.
I next called the Red Earth Museum in Oklahoma City. The nonprofit that runs the museum also puts on the Red Earth Festival, an annual event designed to celebrate diverse native cultures in Oklahoma.
The staff suggested I call Gordon Yellowman, a chief, educator and peacemaker with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, one of 39 federally recognized tribes with headquarters in the state.
Yellowman shows each year at the Red Earth Festival as an accomplished ledger artist. Plains Indians developed the transitional genre in the 1860s after being forced onto reservations and losing access to traditional materials like animal hides. Instead, scenes of daily life, of bravery, of military intervention, were scrawled, initially, on accountants’ ledger paper.
I wondered what Yellowman, an American Indian, artist and a thinker, would have to say about red earth.
I drove west of Oklahoma City to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal headquarters about six miles north of El Reno to find out.
Yellowman works in one of a handful of green and tan one-story buildings clustered together on the 10,000-acre expanse of tribal land, where wagon ruts are still visible from the post Civil War-era cattle drives from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail.
There, Gordon shared the story of how the Cheyenne arrived in Oklahoma — of a violent clash of cultures spurred by Westward expansion.
Ever-encroaching European settlement in the 19th century prompted the federal government to forcibly relocate American Indian tribes to Oklahoma in a series of bloody encounters and death marches. Textbooks call it “Indian Removal.” American Indians today call it genocide.
On Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington’s Colorado volunteers massacred a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, Colo., killing 148, more than half women and children.
What became known as the Sand Creek Massacre prompted some of Yellowman’s ancestors to flee to Indian Territory in what is today Roger Mills County, OK, according to historians. There they sought protection.
They didn’t find it. Only four years after Sand Creek, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a sleeping encampment of Cheyenne along the Washita River, killing 103, mostly women and children, as well as Chief Black Kettle, considered a peacemaker, according to historic accounts.
Today, the battleground is a National Historic Site within the U.S. Forest Service’s Black Kettle National Grassland near Cheyenne, about 140 miles west of Oklahoma City.
We left the office to explore Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal land in a pickup.
What looked like giant craters that exposed expanses of bright red soil were actually buffalo wallows, carved by untold thousands of buffalo that rolled in mud and dust years ago, Yellowman said. The red earth carries special meaning for the Cheyenne and Arapaho and other American Indian cultures here, Yellowman said.
“That pigment is a reflection of who we are, a representation of who we are as native people,” he explained.
“It’s our blood. The red earth takes care of us and protects our identity as native people, but it also secures and reminds us of our wound, where we come from. And we were made from earth, and we shall return to earth.”
Today, 168 head of buffalo and a sizable colony of prairie dogs populate the land. The tribe rents its buffalo herd to filmmakers and is exploring selling meat to retailers like Whole Foods.
It’s part of the continuing adaptation of American Indians to the Oklahoma earth, Yellowman said.
“We were forcibly removed here from our original homelands,” he continued. “No matter where we were, we always adapted with those harsh conditions. We lived in harmony with the environment. One of the very first things we learned to adapt to was the lands.”