Saturday, 30 January 2010

Oklahoma - the Kiowa Nation

I've written a lot about Native American culture and history this month, as I believe this to be a good starting point for the US. The variety of Native American cultures is such that I've decided to focus on one Native American tribe for every state I learn about in the US.

Without even being aware of it, I've already fallen into the trap that many well-meaning outsiders fall into, which is to treat Native American culture like some kind of relic of a bygone age when, in fact, most of these cultures are alive and well. It's important to remember that Native American cultures have a present, as well as a past and a future that will (hopefully) be long and rich.

For Oklahoma, I've chosen the Kiowa tribe (pronounced like Iowa, with a K in front). Like most Native American tribes in Oklahoma, the Kiowa came from elsewhere, in this case from (what is now) Southern Canada. But they came by choice, unlike other tribes that were forcibly resettled in the Indian territory.

Kiowa is a name that they picked up from the mountains they passed through in Montana and is the Blackfoot word for 'Grizzly Bear'. Already I'm enthralled by a tribe whose name comes from their travels. The Kiowa also seem to be incredibly artistic people, with lots of Kiowa artists, musicians and handicrafts like bead-making, which they are famous for.

Although I studied Linguistics at University, I'm no great expert of the languages of North America, so I'm starting to build the blocks of knowledge about North American language groups. Kiowa and Tanoan stand almost as language isolates in the US. Linguists have tried to link them with their dominant neighbouring language family Uto-Aztec, but a link has never really been proven. I kind of wonder why linguists have tried to prove a connection, when it's obvious from history that the Kiowa and Tanoan people came from Canada?

One interesting thing about the Kiowa language is the way that they classify nouns. Anyone who has taught English will be familiar with our own system of grouping nouns into 'countable' (like chair/table) and 'uncountable' (like rice/water). Kiowa has four such categories, but also a system of prefixes that allows some flexibility.

For example, if you have a noun that is usually singular, like che (horse), you can make it plural by adding the suffix -gau, chegau = horses. In the same way, a noun like tose (bones) which is inherently plural (ie. we usually talk about more than one bone), you can make this singular by adding the same suffix -gau, so we get tosegau = one bone.

I don't know what this tells us about our cultures, but I can't help thinking that in English, the individual value of something is most important, we don't allow for inherent plural or dual, like Kiowa and other languages do. Has this got something to do with our material culture? We're always taking stock of individual possessions and counting them. Sadly, some of the earliest records written in English are lists of things (think about the Domesday book!) - it seems to be a linguistic-cultural obsession!!

When I found out that a writer of Kiowa descent, N Scott Momaday, had written a Pulitzer prize-winning novel called House Made of Dawn, I just had to get a copy.

The novel is divided into roughly three parts and, if I'm being honest, the first part was very difficult to read. I believe Momaday originally conceived the book as a book of poems and this poetic structure comes through strongly in the first part, where the narrative seems to jump around erratically and the story seeps into the cracks between the imagery and meditations of the characters.

The book is about a guy called Abel - I'm presuming this name is symbolic, Abel (Native America) being the innocent shepherd who is ruthlessly murdered by his cunning brother Cain (the White Man?).  Abel is brought up on a reservation and struggles with his place in the world, clumsily drinking his way through broken friendships and searching for a greater history of his people and the idyll of a man immersed in the natural landscape.

The second part of the book, which is much easier to read, deals with his time in Los Angeles, living the fraught life of a man out of context. His story reminded me a lot of the many 'tribes' of people who come to Moscow from all over the ex-Soviet Union, in search of a better life but with the odds stacked against them, often having their native culture corrupted and debased, home-sickness and feelings of dislocation driving them to the comforts of alcohol.

I think a lot of 'colonised' people feel that way. Being Irish, even in the 21st century, I sense my nation's trauma at having been forcefully separated from the land. What Momaday expresses in his book can't even been described as nostalgia for the loss of land and culture, it's something more than that and the only word I can come up with is 'longing' - I'm sure the Kiowa language can describe this feeling better than English. 

I look forward to learning more about the individual Native American tribes and filling in the linguistic and cultural jigsaw that makes up the American continent.

Image credits

The image of the Chief Two-Hatchett of the Kiowa nation is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free.

The image of the bookcover is from

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Oklahoma - Gunfights and the Sun Dance

I've been watching Western movies this month, not all of them directly connected to Oklahoma, but still, it's an important part of American culture, a film genre that was the bain of my existence as a child - Western movies and country music are two things a child in Ireland will either learn to love or hate.

It's interesting to watch these movies now, years later, when I can grasp the concepts and the history behind them and it's been fun re-exploring a genre that I was happy to dismiss as cliched. Really, Westerns are about the human experience, man's determination to survive in a ruthless world, against the backdrop of a harsh landscape and an unforgiving moralism. The Western hero is a loner, a cowboy or renegade, living on the edge of society, unimpressed by such feminine concepts as equity and justice.

It amazes me how many sub-genres there are of Westerns - Spaghetti Westerns, Sci-Fi and Urban Westerns, from the ex-soviet world we had Osterns, more likely to depict the Indians as oppressed peoples fighting for their dignity.  We have revisionist Westerns.  We even have Brokeback Mountain :-)

I watched two movies that were quite different from each other. The first, A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris, later of Dumbledore fame (Harry Potter 1 & 2) who, I found out, was born in Limerick in Ireland. This was an interesting movie. Amazingly, I was a good half hour into the movie before I really noticed that most of the language on-screen was Sioux, and that there were no subtitles! Yet, I'd understood everything, without knowing the actual words the actors were using.

I guess A Man called Horse would be considered to be a revisionist Western. The White man actually becomes Indian, first as a ploy to escape the tribe that have captured him, then because he really believes in the culture he's adopted, although the ending leaves a little bit of ambiguity about this point. He marries one of the tribeswomen and undergoes the excruciating Sun Dance initiation. It's certainly very different than your average Western, but I still felt as though something wasn't quite right. The depiction of the Indian tribes seemed too black and white somehow.

The second movie was a Western of epic proportions, Gunfight at the OK Corral, based on actual events in Tombstone, Arizona. I absolutely loved this movie, which surprised me. It was the triumph of good over evil, law over banditry. The 'relationship' between Wyatt Earp (played by Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (played by Kirk Douglas) was fascinating in that shy and bumbling 'I love you' kind of way that 'real' men have of expressing themselves. I've read a bit about Burt Lancaster and he seems to have been one of the good guys: a champion for gay rights, a left-winger and a very versatile actor, a total contrast to that other great 'hero' of the Westerns, John Wayne.

This was a movie about the clash of civilisation with the anarchy of the Wild West, I guess, the clash of long-established American values with the hastily organised society of the frontier. I'm glad the good guys won in the end. I'm a natural optimist and this also seems to be a national trait of Americans.  Perhaps the American dream is not so much a dream = fantasy, as an dream = aspiration?

Image credits

The photo of the cactus is from flickruser Fritz Liess and shows a cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona. 

Friday, 22 January 2010

Oklahoma - Route 66

If the Trail of Tears has come to symbolise the pain and suffering of the various Native American tribes that were settled in Oklahoma in the 19th century, then perhaps Route 66 symbolises the conquest of the Wild West by the White man - it existed as the ultimate symbol of the west being open.

A 2,448 mile route from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 channeled the energy and dreams of the mid-West, providing a link to the new settlements of California, providing an escape route in hard times for farmers in search of work, getting away from the infamous 'dust bowl' in search of a better life.

It's been superceded now, of course, by the faster and more efficient Interstate Highway System, a ruthless conveyor of enterprise which casually by-passes major towns along the way, diverting much-needed revenue from those who can only watch the motorcars zoom by.

Even a foreigner like me can sense that there is a certain amount of nostalgia for the 'Mother Road'. With Route 66 came some of those aspects of American life that are typical for a casual observer, the ubiquitous gas stations, fast food restaurants, motels and what Americans call 'Mom and Pop' stores.

Passing through Oklahoma, the capital of Route 66 definitely had to be Tulsa. The route was championed by Tulsa businessman, Cyrus Avery, and very much owes its existence to some of those things Oklahoma has come to represent. Although it is much less used these days, the route has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, with parts of it being converted into a national scenic byway, literally, the scenic route!

Coming from a country as small as Ireland, where roads are frustratingly winding and none are big enough to merit an identity, the whole concept of a road having its own mythology and culture really fascinates me. To top it all off, Route 66 even has its own song, written by Bobby Troup and covered by artists such as Nat King Cole and the Rolling Stones.

I'm going to leave you with Depeche Mode's cover version, partly because it was so unusual for Depeche Mode to cover another artist's song, but also because I like the video that accompanies their version.

Well, if you ever plan to motor west . . .

Image Credits

The Image of Route 66 is borrowed from flickruser swiv (a.k.a Hannah Swithinbank) who is a PHD student, originally from Cornwall and now living in Scotland (two places I absolutely love!).  Check out her profile at She also has a really cool website (I'm dead envious Hannah!) it's

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Oklahoma - Choctaw Catfish and Fried Okra

For my second foodie challenge this time round, I wanted to cook a Native American dish, especially one that comes from Oklahoma.  Having searched the Internet for recipes, I came across these two on my old favourite

The first one was for Fried Okra

And the second one was for Choctaw Catfish

I have to say at this point that I'm no Jamie Oliver!  But I did my best - Okra is something I've seen so many times in the supermarket and wondered what it might taste like.  I don't cook fish very often, so the Choctaw dish was a challenge for me.

Fried Okra

First, the ingredients:

A cup full of Cornflower (seems to be ubiquitous in Oklahoman cooking!)
An egg
Some Okra pods
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Chop the Okra into small pieces and soak in a bowl with the egg for 5 to 10 minutes.  In another bowl mix together the cornmeal, salt and ground pepper, then mix the whole lot together and fry on the pan until crisp and golden brown - simple as that!

Choctaw Catfish

I couldn't find catfish, although I did try at our Caribbean fishmongers on the Uxbridge Road!  I'm sure there must be catfish somewhere in London, but I had to make do with Tilapia, which seems to be everywhere!  The face of the shop assistant when I asked him whether or not Tilapia was a river fish was enough to make me not want to ask him a difficult question ever again.  Never mind, fish is fish, right?

I marinated the fish in buttermilk for a few hours, which made it really tender and flavoursome.  Then I mixed together (yet more) cornmeal with salt and steak seasoning.  The recipe stipulated 'onion salt', but try as I might I couldn't find onion salt anywhere, not even in Waitrose!!  I coated the marinated fish in the flour mixture, then fried each piece of fish in the pan for about 8 or 9 minutes.  I wasn't sure what to serve it with, but Zhenya had a craving for white rice, so white rice it was - I think next time round, it would be nice to serve some greens, or even brown rice, for a bit of contrast.  We enjoyed it anyway!

Image credits:  All photos were taken by me :-)

Monday, 18 January 2010

Oklahoma - The Trail of Tears

When most people think of the US and the gold rush, we think of enterprising immigrants heading off to California in search of fame and fortune. Probably less well-known is the Georgia gold rush of the 1830's. Gold was first discovered in the Southern Appalachian mountains in the late 1820's, what was then heart of the Cherokee country.

How covenient then that President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830, hoping thus to resolve territoral disputes with the Indian tribes, namely the disputes between the Cherokee and the State of Georgia.

The mass movement began of the Five Civilized Tribes - so called because of their long history of association with the colonists and their adoption of some of the colonists 'civilisation', in stark contrast to the more 'savage' tribes of the Wild West, like the Sioux and the Apache. It was stipulated that these tribes, the Choctaw, the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Creek/Muscogee and the Cherokee, should all be moved to the newly designated Indian territory, West of the Mississippi River, in present-day Oklahoma.

The first tribes to be moved, kind of voluntarily, were the Choctaw tribes between 1831 and 1833, from their homelands in what is now Louisiana, Alabama and Missippi. The Seminole were forcibly removed from Florida (recently acquired from the Spanish) and forced to re-integrate with their distant relatives, the Creeks, even though the Creek/Seminole relationship was one fraught with conflict. The Creeks/Muscogee were forcibly removed from Alabama in 1836. The Chickasaw removed more or less peacefully from Tennessee in 1837 and even recieved monetary compensation for agreeing to move.

The Cherokee suffered most of all, being forcefully marched 1,000 miles during the winter of 1838, with scant clothing and meagre provisions. They lost about 4,000 people during this enforced march, about 1/4 of the entire Cherokee population. On the Nunna daul Isunyi, they didn't stand a chance.

Pockets of each of these tribes remained behind to face discrimination and persecution in their homelands. The legacy of the Trail of Tears is Oklahoma's relatively large Native American populations. All five nations have capitals in Oklahoma and, thankfully, their cultures are still robust and alive. Europeans may have dominated in the US, but at least a number of Native American cultures have somehow survived.

Image gallery

The Oklahoma flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free.

The composite image of the Five Civilized Tribes has been released into the public domain by its author, Rob Ferguson Jr - find out more at his wikipedia user page  Rob has had a very interesting life, travelling the world with the US marine corps. He has contributed regularly to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia :-)

The flag of the Cherokee nation is also from Wikimedia Commons and was released into the public domain by Aaron Walden. 

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Oklahoma - How I made cornbread

I must admit that this isn't the first time I've ever made Cornbread, as it's a recipe I've used many times before. 

Nevertheless, I thought I would include it in this blog, as it's such a staple from the mid-West US.  I've made it a little bit spicier than usual by adding chillies and my recipe was inspired by

First to start with the ingredients: 

200 g of Plain Flour
150 g of Corn Flour (that's Cornmeal to my US readers!)
2 tea spoons of Baking Powder
40 g of butter
A good amount of grated cheese
2 eggs
2 green chillies (or red, but green looks better)
150 ml of milk, more or less

Prepare the cheese, chillies and eggs, sieve the two types of flour into a bowl

Mix the Flour, Baking Powder, Chillies and Cheese together in one bowl and the eggs, milk and (melted) butter in another - then combine them together and mix gently

You end up with a fairly sticky dough, although you can add more liquid to this according to taste, I think I'll up the quantity of milk next time, as I like my bread kind of fluffy!

Once, you've mixed it together, pour it into a container (bread tin or cake tin) and pop it into a pre-heated oven (200 degrees) for 30/40 minutes

Easy-peasy - the result is a very yummy bread that will impress the whole family - I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it!!

Image credits

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to copy and use them within the terms of the Creative Commons License, including accreditation and a link to my blog :-)

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Oklahoma - Genocide or Manifest Destiny?

Reading Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it just amazes me that Native American culture managed to survive the ruthless and relentless advance of the White man in the Wild West of the 19th century. Although they are not parallels that should be used lightly, the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide come to mind.

According to the Wikipedia definition 'Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.' and according to this definition, I would say it's fair to conclude that the White man of the 19th century United States attempted genocide on the entire Native American race.

We are often reminded that concentration camps were first invented by the British to contain their Boer enemies in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps, the reservations that were designed to contain the Native American Indian populations and stop them from roaming the Praries in search of buffalo, were an earlier incarnation of this.

To the Native American it seemed as though the White man was like a spoiled child, taking all of natures gifts and destroying them thoughtlessly.  White hunters killed an estimated three and a half million buffalo between 1874 and 1876, taking the hides only, so that the Great Plains were full of the stench of rotten meat. To the Native American, living in centuries of more or less traditional harmony with the Earth, the White man's destruction of the environment in search of precious stones and oil, seemed a folly, a war against nature and the natural world.

What's more, the White man treated the Native Americans no better than animals, an attitude chillingly communicated in the words of the bloodthirsty Methodist missionary, John Milton Chivington:

'I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honourable to use any method under God's heaven to kill Indians.'

The history of the Great Plains is a story of deceit and broken promises, racial hatred and an unwillingness on the White man's part (not all White men, it has to be said) to make a genuine and lasting peace with Anerica's first people.

Two of the scariest words in the English language that can be put together are 'Manifest Destiny', a concept which justified the White man's appropriation of former Indian territories and has more than a suggestion of White supremacy and inspired the German concept of Lebensraum, later adopted and manipulated by the Nazis.

Brown's book is full of depressingly numerous instances of murder, insult and repression of the Native American peoples. One episode which took place in what is now Colorado, really disturbed me and left me with a feeling of rage and injustice. I'd never heard of Chivington or his drunken raiding party and the massacre at Sand Creek. It left me stunned and sickened by the cruelty inflicted on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. If you also haven't heard about this massacre, read about it and educate others, so the crimes of Chivington and his cohorts won't be forgotten.

Brown's book endeavours to show the history of the West through Native American eyes. It's almost the polar opposite to the depiction of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages that are usual in Western movies.  In the movies everyone understands that cowboys = the good guys, Indians = the bad guys.

Having said that, growing up where I did, a Catholic boy on the border with Northern Ireland, I remember that during the Cowboy and Indian games we played as children, being an Indian was possibly more popular than being a Cowboy. I was usually an Indian.  Perhaps in some subliminal way, the adult conflict happening all around us had engendered a feeling of pride in being the bad guy, or society's outcasts.

In a much more personal way, I had a recurring dream as a child, on falling asleep, I would find myself, quite inexplicably, in a tipi, surrounded by my elders who were passing round a peace pipe. I'm not sure whether or not I really believe in reincarnation, but who knows, maybe?

Image credits:

The painting is by artist John Gast and was called Spirit of the Frontier, it represents the essence of Manifest Destiny with the Spirit bringing light, religion and civilisation from the East, regardless of the fate of the Native Americans.  The image is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

The photo is also in the public domain and shows Chief Black Kettle with a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Denver, Colorado.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Oklahoma - The Indian State?

For the letter 'O' I've chosen Oklahoma. This might seem a little bit controversial, as Oklahoma is not a country, but I made a decision early on with Learning about the World that I would include regions, states and territories in some cases.

The reason for this is that countries like the United States, China, India etc. are so big, it would be difficult to squeeze everything in to a month of blogging.

The second reason is that I already know so much about countries like the United States, France and Germany, that it's good to focus on one part of the country and learn new things in this way.

I haven't yet been to the States, but we get so much American culture through our TV screens and movies that a lot of American places, traditions etc. are kind of familiar to me. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is a place that I (and perhaps even some Americans) know very little about.

I also chose Oklahoma because of its history. Being one of the last states to join the Union (it was the 46th state, joining in 1907), Oklahoma was made up of two former territories, the Oklahoma territory and the Indian territory. The Indian territory had wanted to join as a separate state, known as the Sequoyah state (named after the man who created the Cherokee alphabet), but this was rejected by Washington as detrimental to the balance of power between the eastern and western states (and I'm sure there was a good deal of racism thrown in to boot).

Oklahoma still has a relatively large Native American population and, as the last refuge for an independent Native American nation, I thought it would be an apt starting point for my learning journey about the United States.

The more I read about the destruction of Native American civilisation, the more I realise that Oklahoma is actually more like a finishing point for Native American culture.  It was the place that the US government hoped the entire Native American race would eventually be settled.

Of course, there is a much bigger picture than just Oklahoma, which is the Great Plains of North America, including states like Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. I'm imagining wide, open landscapes and lots of cornfields, the true heart of the American Bible belt. 

It's a part of the United States that most people know little about and only ever pass through or fly over on their journeys between the East and West. I'm in the process of reading Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown which covers all of the 'Wild West' including Oklahoma and is giving me an important context for the late 19th century westward expansion and its impact on Native American culture.  More about this later.

Image credits

The images of the flag of Oklahoma and of Sequoyah, are from Wikimedia Commons and are copyright free.

The amazing image of the Oklahoma Farm with that beautiful sky in the background is taken from flickr user OakleyOriginals - to see more amazing images of Oklahoma, check out OakleyOriginals photostream at