The New Old Half of Oklahoma: On The Open History of Cows in America and The Consequences

Delegates from 34 Native tribes at the Creek Council House in Indian Territory, now called Oklahoma, 1880
The fact that you read this newsletter means that you get and read at least one email newsletter. I’m so glad that you have decided that a newsletter from your tallow based skincare provider is worth your time. But I’m sure you get more than one newsletter in your inboxes as well. It won’t shock you to hear that I also get newsletters and some of them are also from (the very few) tallow based skincare products. There aren’t many of us so I know a good chunk of them from in person intersections or correspondence.

This week one of these was one promoting her ‘favorite new voice for advocating for grass fed beef and tallow’ and then wrote her name and shared some of her latest social media posts in the newsletter, one of which was this shirt with some text from the post beneath it which I have edited out. It made me wince. It hurt my heart. This willfully blind jingoism conflated with affection for grass fed beef. But so much not included. I mean, it’s a t-shirt slogan, I get it…but it is so bad.

And then came the ruling from the United States Supreme Court – McGirt v. Oklahoma.

Truthfully I didn’t even know this case was in front of the court until it got there and was argued a few months ago. I had zero predictive power of what was going to happen (I’m not a court watcher and don’t follow treaty law in any close way) but I recall thinking at the time “Well, the US has violated every single treaty it has ever made with Native Americans and this is a conservative court…this probably won’t go well.”

The decision made the news in a kind of lopsided way in the last few days because it was a surprising victory but also because the ramifications for its implementation are potentially wide-ranging and it is far from implementation. Now the eastern half of Oklahoma is a federally recognized Creek/Mvskoke reservation with jurisdiction over all criminal law there.

What came to pass for this to become so? And what does it have to do with grass fed beef and tallow? Well, let me gather in some threads.
The first cattle were brought in waves to North America on ships from Europe. Columbus brought cows to Santa Dominica in 1493. Some of those stock were brought to Mexico later and then a herd of those were driven north in 1690 or so into Texas which became the root of the famous Texas Bighorn stock.
Ponce De Leon brought cattle to the North American mainland in 1521 in Florida. The English brought Devon cattle to Plymouth Rock in 1623 and other colonies subsequently. Cattle were part of small hold farms and traveled with settlers as they found new places to inhabit. While the cows provided dairy, meat and leather there wasn’t really a cattle industry until much later.

The making of and the expansion of the cattle industry was only made possible by the railroads which were able to safely transport the cattle to railhead cities such as Ft Worth and Chicago instead of relying on dangerous cattle drives. Once the cattle arrived, they were fattened up, slaughtered and sent on ice to the large cities of the East. The growing demand for beef helped fuel the need for fenced ranch land with access to water, which had the effect of destroying the nomadic lifestyle of the Plains Indians and the buffalo.

And so here is the beginning of the ache with “The West Wasn’t Won With Eating Salads: Eat Beef” – the west was won by near genocide.

Dwanna L. McKay, Assistant Professor of Race, Ethnicity, and Indigenous Studies, Colorado College writes:

“From 1492 to 1900 settlers pushed inexorably westward across the North American continent, burning Native villages, destroying crops, committing sexual assaults, enslaving people and perpetrating massacres. The government did not punish these atrocities against Indigenous Nations and their citizens.

Citing the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” and Manifest Destiny, U.S. policymakers argued that the federal government had a divine duty to fully develop the region. Racist in language and logic, they contended that “Indians” did not know how to work or to care for the land because they were inferior to whites.

Oklahoma was born of this institutionalized racism.

Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations – known as the Five Tribes – were forced from their ancestral homelands in the southeast and relocated to “Indian Territory,” as Oklahoma was then designated. Half of the Muscogee and Cherokee populations died from brutal and inhumane treatment as they were forcibly marched 2,200 miles across nine states to their new homelands in what most Americans call the Trail of Tears

Some Oklahomans are expressing trepidation about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that much of the eastern part of the state belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. They wonder whether they must now pay taxes to or be governed by the Muscogee.

In fact, the landmark July 9 decision applies only to criminal law. It gives federal and tribal courts jurisdiction over felonies committed by tribal citizens within the Creek reservation, not the state of Oklahoma.

Any shock that tribal nations have sovereignty over their own land reflects a serious misunderstanding of American history. For Oklahoma – indeed, all of North America – has always been, for lack of a better term, Indian Country.

Indian Territory, which occupied all Oklahoma minus the panhandle, was almost 44 million acres of fertile rolling prairies, rivers and groves of enormous trees. Several Indian nations already lived in the area, including the Apache, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Osage and Wichita.

Legally, Indian Territory was to belong to the tribal nations forever, and trespass by settlers was forbidden. But over the next two centuries, Congress would violate every one of the 375 treaties it made with Indian tribes as well as numerous statutory acts, according the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

By 1890, only about 25 million acres of Indian Territory remained. The Muscogee lost nearly half their lands in an 1866 Reconstruction-era treaty. And in 1889, almost 2 million acres in western Oklahoma were redesignated as “Unassigned Lands” and opened to “white settlement.” By 1890, the U.S. Census showed that only 28% of people in Indian Territory were actually “Indian.”

With statehood in 1907, Oklahoma assumed jurisdiction over all its territory, ultimately denying that the Muscogee had ever had a reservation there. That is the historic injustice corrected by the Supreme Court on July 9.”

An injustice partially corrected, I’d add. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 but plenty of other trains covering shorter routes were long completed by then. Shooting buffalo from trains was used specifically to starve Native Americans and these starved tribes were easier to move and take advantage of. And as soon as the buffalo were killed and the natives moved away…cattle ranches started cropping up in the vacuum.

Buffalo skulls to be ground into fertilizer, 1892, Rougeville, Michigan
We are lucky to have access to cows that are raised well and on grassland which, well managed, can do great ecological good. And at the same time these cows graze in the shadows of dead buffalo and displacement of indigenous people. So that t-shirt and the language of that ‘Instagram influencer’ are particularly thudding on my heart because none of this is wrestled with. Not that there is some perfect phrasing that somehow makes it all okay…it isn’t okay. None of it is.  But to dodge it completely makes it too easy to think that we are just on the graceful receiving end of juicy t-bone steaks and good ol’ American freedom. Because we aren’t. Knowing that good management of cows with regenerative agriculture and bio-char soil reclamation and mixed use permaculture and biodynamic applications and and and…are a mighty and desperate attempt to address a historical and ecological hole. Our best foods come from this hole. This best tallow I can get my hands on comes from this hole. And I get it to your hands in the form of Primal Derma and try to remember the hole along the way. There is no back to go back to. But we can remember well that which we never had a lived experience of – the fertile rolling prairies,  the green ox-bowed rivers and those groves of enormous fruiting and nut-heavy treeswells. And those heaving, grass pounding buffalo that ran there. And the peoples that lived there too. They are still here. Obscured to our Western eye but still here.

So I couldn’t say what will emerge into the culture with this new map of Oklahoma. I cant say who or what will be remembered or reclaimed. Or made new. But I’ll keep my ears a bit more open to what grows there now. This kind of looking and remembering and lacing grief into some kind of semblance of loving life is dear to our manner of procession here at Primal Derma.

Thanks for your ongoing support.

Talk soon enough,


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