Oklahoma tribes increasingly reclaim out-of-state ancestral homelands: “We Are Still Here”


The Kaw Nation’s Sacred Red Rock called “Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, was a place of cultural ceremony and gathering for the Kaw people prior to removal to Oklahoma in 1872. The stone was moved from the Kaw’s homelands near the Kansas River and Shunganunga Creek, just outside Topeka, to Robinson Park in Lawrence, Kan., as part of Lawrence’s 75th anniversary celebration in 1929, and was fitted with a plaque celebrating the pioneers of Kansas. (Photo provided by James Pepper Henry.)

Tribes across the nation are increasingly buying back or being gifted back property in their ancestral homelands, either to build economic sustainability or to manage cultural preservation sites.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Galen Cloud said he was filled with sobering thoughts the last time he visited his tribe’s homeland. As he drove the 10 hours from Okmulgee, Okla., to Oxford, Ala., – complaining about traffic, he recalled how his ancestors had to walk that distance against their wills.  

“You think about it and you’re filled with madness, and then you just feel the pain and then you just hate to imagine what all they went through, just to get here,” Cloud said. 

Cloud has served since January as a Muscogee Nation councilman. Before that, as historic preservation officer for Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, he gained a deep insight into a history he said few know about.  

Cloud said if someone went to Muscogee Nation’s ancestral homelands in Alabama or Georgia, and looked for Muscogee people, they wouldn’t find many. 

 “There’s no one down there, because we all are here in Oklahoma now,” Cloud said. “It’s really important that we go back and let people know that we are still thriving. We are still here. There are still people who think that we still live in houses without running water.” 

 Muscogee Nation and several of its ceremonial tribal towns ended up in Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma in 1907. Since before Cloud became a member of the Muscogee Nation Council, the tribe’s principal and second chiefs along with Oxford’s mayor have worked to protect ceremonial lands in Oxford, where the ceremonial town of the Arbeka people was located pre-removal, according to RaeLynn A. Butler, Muscogee Nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department manager.  

Galen Cloud, left, poses next to a tree on Muscogee Nation homelands in Oxford, Ala.; At right is a photo of the Arbeka ceremonial grounds in Oxford. (Photos provided by Galen Cloud.)

Cloud said the city officials met with ceremonial folks whose ancestors were from the Arbeka Tribal Town, and then Muscogee Nation, to protect one of the largest ceremonial town’s lands around Oxford. 

 “When we were forcibly removed from there, the Arbeka people just had whatever they could carry,” Cloud said. “The main thing they brought was the fire that still burns today.” 

James Pepper Henry, Kaw Nation vice chairman and director of the First Americans Museum, was involved in the early negotiations that led to his tribe purchasing ancestral homelands in 2002 near Council Grove, Kan.

He said the small purchase of land two decades ago is a drop in the bucket for true recovery of Kaw Nation’s homelands. 

“That land we purchased was the last vestige of our reservation lands in Kansas,” Pepper Henry said. “The Kaw Nation had 22 million acres in Kansas, and starting from around 1815, then through a subsequent series of treaties, our lands had shrunk to less than about 100,000 acres.”

Council Grove, now home to the Kaw’s Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, was the last place the Kaw people lived before they were forcibly removed in 1873 to what is now Kaw City, Okla., situated on the Arkansas River northwest of Ponca City. 

“From 1850 to 1970, we went from 22 million acres to 10 acres of land,” he said. “That 10 acres was our cemetery in Oklahoma.”

Pepper Henry said his mission as both vice chairman and citizen has been raising awareness about the Kaw or Kanza people, where Kansas got its state name.  

“We’re virtually invisible there,” Pepper Henry said. “They see the name Kanza here and there, but they don’t make that connection that this is a real, living, breathing group of people that still exist.”

Something still disconnected from the Heritage Park is the Kaw’s Sacred Red Rock, called “Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe,” which will soon be returned to its rightful location, Pepper Henry said, thanks to a $5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, a private foundation that supports humanities projects.

Another Oklahoma tribe reclaiming homelands in Kansas is the Shawnee Tribe. According to a news release from the tribe, the Kansas State Historical Society has returned the 0.52-acre Shawnee Indian Cemetery to the Shawnee people.

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said his tribe is making progress toward establishing economic growth in its ancestral homelands, having purchased 28 acres in Osage Beach, Mo., for a hotel and casino resort. 

Osage Beach is the location of what was the largest Osage village before removal in 1808 to present-day Pawhuska, Okla.

Osage Casino CEO Byron Bighorse said the project will bring an estimated $60 million investment to the region, including new jobs, tourism and revenue to the Lake of the Ozarks community. 

“Phase one includes construction of a casino, sports bar, restaurant and meeting space,” Bighorse said. “It also includes a hotel, which will have general hotel rooms, suites, a fitness and exercise facility, a pool and hot tub and a pool bar.”

Standing Bear said in his eight years as principal chief, the tribe has purchased back about 55,000 acres in Oklahoma in addition to the reclamation of 160 acres of ancestral homelands in Kansas. The Osage had lost 90% of their Oklahoma land after removal, from nearly 1.5 million acres to under 150,000, he said.

​​“When I ran for office, I said this administration would be built on three pillars: land, our language and our cultural history,” Standing Bear said. 

Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend said the Wyandotte people haven’t been able to visit a church on ancestral homelands due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, making the land reclamation the tribe’s been able to accomplish all the more important. 

The church where Wyandotte ancestors once learned to read, write and worship was given back to the tribe from Methodists in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. The tribe in 2015 purchased 16 acres of ancestral homelands in what is now Brownstown, Mich., and then, Friend said, in 2018 began efforts to reclaim the church in Ohio, which came to fruition in 2019. 

Billy Friend, left, preaches at the Wyandotte Indian Mission Methodist Church; also pictured are the reclaimed Ohio church and the Wyandotte Indian Mission Methodist Church information sign. (Photos provided by Bill Friend.)

Friend said the Wyandotte people will visit the church in July for the first time since the pandemic began. Not visiting these past two years, he said, has been difficult.

“I think it’s had a really big impact on many of us and especially those that are getting older, to not be able to go back and relive that experience or have that experience for the first time,” Friend said.


Nancy Marie Spears, a Gaylord News reporter, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories from Gaylord News visit GaylordNews.net