Tonkawa is one of many north central Oklahoma towns who's founding story goes back to the celebrated Cherokee Outlet Land Run. As it's often re-told - at noon on September 16, 1893 over 100,000 would be landowners readied themselves at the Outlet's eastern border/starting line. A shot was fired into the air and the race to lay claim to sections of the 6.5 million acre area was on.
But the story is not that simple, because the Outlet like much of the Oklahoma Territory, had been for many years the federally designated home to Native Americans of many tribes including the Tonkawa, and the opening of this area to new settlement meant that those tribes had to give up most of the land promised to them in perpetuity . Amber, Nicholas and I were fortunate to get a brief illustrated history of this from Tonkawa Tribal President Don Patterson during our visit to the Tribe's community center just east of town. At a dry erase board in his office, Don described the ever shrinking parcels of land Native Americans have been 'given' by the U.S. government, including the Tonkawa, who in 1885 were living on 96,000 acres. Today, Don told us, that 96,000 acre reserve has been whittled down to only around 1,000 acres of fragmented allotments.
Over and over during our research we have heard that the land, how it's settled and the resources it provides are fundamental to the identity of Tonkawa. At our last mural design team meeting, residents reflected on the legacy of the oil boom & bust years, the coming and going of the railroad, memories of the Salt Fork and Chikaskia rivers, and the steadfastness of local farmers some of whom have passed their land on to descendants for more than a century. And although there was a certain sense of pride expressed in what had help establish Tonkawa, some on the design team wondered aloud if looking backward in time, the way many murals in the area do, was enough, especially in light of ongoing economic challenges facing both the tribe and town. A few folks suggested that the mural might be more meaningful to young people if it expressed an acknowledgment of present circumstances, cultural diversity, and a vision for the future in addition to references from the past.
Our initial research is just about finished. Now comes the tough part - trying to coax out a picture story, both meaningful and visually captivating, that conjures the spirit of our conversations, the facts and figures we have gathered, and the input from people in the community that has been shared with us. It is an imperfect process, and as I keep reminding everyone who asks whether this or that will be in the final design - This is just the first mural. There are lots of great walls in Tonkawa just aching for a good idea and a little color.