The Cherokee are not originally from Oklahoma. Settlers forced
them to disappear west, into air and sky, beyond buildings,
beyond concrete, beyond the rabid land hunger. There was
a trail. There was despair. Reservations carved out of prairie
grass, lost space and sadness in the middle of flat dirt. We landed
in March 1980. We knew nothing about the Cherokee.
Settlers from the South, driven by opportunities and education,
looking for the gold and gifts of immigration, we hid our Spanish,
the shame of accents and poverty, immersed ourselves in cowboy
ways. In school we learned English, read about open, endless
land, a territory there by divine right for those willing, chosen
to till and build, for those exiled, broken out of other lands.
Every spring the second grade celebrated the land rush. Half of us
immigrants flung across the globe, we wanted to be part of the story.
We gathered in costume behind the chalk line in a field across from
Westbury elementary. Girls in calico skirts, bonnets, ruffled blouses.
Boys in straw hats, borrowed cowboy boots, chaps strapped with toy guns.
Parents and picnic lunches waited on the sidelines. The cap gun popped.
The second grade scattered wild, stakes in hand running, ready to claim
our piece of promised land. My parents celebrated the land rush twice,
two of us old enough to live into the strange alchemy of assimilation.
I learned later our stakes professed death, bloodied limbs, hacked up
hearts, bodies crushed, taken from the arid land with the wave of a flag,
the pulsing stampede of wagons, the firing of the starting gun,
disappeared with every second-grade spring picnic.
Two million acres of territory taken in the first land rush.
My immigrant confession: I have ached for my Oklahoma childhood,
my territory story, when the land gave again, held a promise of country
after exile. I have mourned the second-grade land rush, the look on
my parents’ faces as we galloped into yellow grass, screaming breathless
in joy and wildness, when they imagined an America big enough,
wide enough, whole enough to let us in, whole enough not to break us.