By Bailey Lewis
The Norman community is shrouded in crimson and cream to watch OU football play on its home turf. Soon 85,000 erupt as the Sooners score a touchdown.
The sound of the “Boomer Sooner” fight song blares in celebration as the Sooner Schooner rolls out of a tunnel pulled by two horses — Boomer and Sooner — onto Owen Field and runs in a loop.
In the name of school spirit, OU students, faculty, staff, fans and community members sing along and watch the horses run without a second guess.
But the meaning behind these words and actions strike a different chord for many of the 366,706 Native Americans in Oklahoma. In a semester filled with more efforts for inclusivity and acknowledgment of the Native American community, OU traditions still represent a period of history that devastated their people.
“The university is steep in Land Run culture,” Sarah Adams-Cornell, an OU alumna, citizen of the Choctaw Nation and Native advocate in Oklahoma, said about the university’s traditions.
Beginning in 1817, what was then known as Indian Territory slowly became a new home for tribes relocated by the U.S. government. But in March 1889, President Benjamin Harrison agreed to open nearly two million acres in the territory for white colonization, which eventually took away Native American control and ousted many from their homes.
The Oklahoma Land Run, or Land Rush, began on April 22, 1889, when white settlers entered Indian Territory to stake claims in the land, which created towns like Oklahoma City, Norman, Guthrie and Kingfisher.
Settlers who entered the territory to claim land before the designated time were called “Sooners,” and the effort in the late 1870s that led to the Land Run was called the “Boomer” movement, which supported white settlement of Indian Territory.
The Sooner Schooner is a replica of conestogas, or covered wagons, used by settlers around the time of the Land Run, according to Sooner Sports.
“The fact that the Land Run is re-enacted every time the football team scores a touchdown is a slap in the face,” Adams-Cornell said. “And the fact that the call there is ‘Boomer Sooner’ — that’s also indicative of Land Run history.”
Adams-Cornell said there needs to be a greater level of responsibility in higher education to move away from traditions that represent “institutionalized racism.”
However, the uptick in efforts throughout the semester to better serve OU’s Native American community started in the Undergraduate Student Congress.
On Sept. 10, the Indigenous Land Acknowledgment Act, which was authored by SGA President Adran Gibbs and co-director of SGA’s inclusivity department Taylor Chiariello, was passed. The act implemented a statement that is now read before all SGA events and thanks indigenous people for allowing them to gather, acknowledging that OU students are “visitors on this land.”
“While this land acknowledgment isn’t something that’s going to solve Native problems, I think it raises the awareness of what land we’re on and how we’re intentionally engaging with that community,” Gibbs said.
In fall 2018, there were 1,160 Native American students enrolled at OU, which made up 4.1 percent of the student body, according to the 2019 OU Factbook. OU Native American staff and faculty made up 3.7 percent of the workforce in fall 2018 with 463 Native American employees.
The act created a template for the statement, Gibbs said, to fit any event it is read at. It was created in collaboration with the former American Indian Programs and Services adviser, Gibbs said.
“I can’t speak on behalf of anyone, but Native Americans or American Indians have long been underrepresented and marginalized in Oklahoma,” Gibbs said. “And I think this is just one thing to show that we’re serious about recognizing that and trying to find ways to reconcile with that history.”
While the passing of an indigenous land acknowledgment statement in SGA applies only to SGA events, on Sept. 26, OU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion held a town hall for students to give input about implementing an official OU land acknowledgment statement.
During the town hall, students discussed how the story of OU’s founding should be changed to recognize that indigenous people were on the university’s land before OU was created and that when OU’s first President David Ross Boyd arrived in what would become Norman, it was not vacant.
A narrative often told during campus tours, according to OU’s website, is when Boyd came to Norman in 1892, he saw “a barren expanse of prairie, no tree in sight,” and said, “What possibilities!”
Two other town halls were also held in early November — one with faculty and staff on the Norman campus and the other with faculty and staff on the Health Sciences Center campus, Warren Queton, OU’s tribal liaison and citizen of the Kiowa Nation, said.
“We talked to our Native faculty and staff on the Norman campus and the Health Sciences Center campus, and they understand what we’re trying to do, but they want to make sure we are bringing people together around this issue versus dividing people,” Queton said. “All three of the town halls have been a really good discussion and dialogue. There have been some really great ideas exchanged.”
So far, the town halls have consisted of listening sessions, Queton said, and they are only in the initial stages of creating the statement. Queton said the focus right now is to continue educating the OU community about Oklahoma’s Native American history.
“(At) the University of Oklahoma, we celebrate this idea of pioneer culture and colonialism that really paints an inaccurate picture of our Native people,” Queton said. “I think that it glosses over the true history of Oklahoma — that Oklahoma was once Indian Territory and home to these people who were forcibly removed here.”
Queton said OU administration has been supportive of the Native American community’s efforts and has shown that “they’re wanting to listen.”
“The fact of the matter is this idea of colonization over indigenous people was very traumatic to our communities,” Queton said. “So I think our students have raised a concern that they want to see OU do some sort of truth and reconciliation to really teach and educate people about this idea of colonization over Native people and how traumatic it was.”
Following the November town halls, on Nov. 12, Undergraduate Student Congress passed another act authored by Gibbs to change the name of the Sooner Freshman Council. Gibbs said he created the act because the words Boomer and Sooner are offensive to the Native American community and to expand on the indigenous land acknowledgment statement.
“We wanted to make sure that we are being consistent with the language we are using,” Gibbs said. “And essentially, we’re just going from there. We’re just using it as an example, if you will, as a way to be more consistent with the language we are using.”
Efforts to eradicate the use of Boomer and Sooner took place in fall 2015 when members of Indigenize OU asked for them to be removed from the university’s identity.
In response to the group’s outcry, former OU President David Boren said in a statement that the only way the university could change the words is if the nearly 245,000 alumni at the time asked for it.
“The university was not even in existence when the western lands of Oklahoma were open to settlement by homesteaders,” Boren said in the statement. “The term today stands for a spirit which is very inclusive, sets high standards of excellence and represents a strong sense of a common family.”
In the statement, Boren also said he believed the “vast majority would be opposed” to changing Boomer and Sooner.
“The history of the term is not nearly as important as what it stands for today,” Boren said in the statement.
During the SGA meeting, Taylor Broadbent, University College representative and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, spoke to give the historical context of the words Boomer and Sooner.
“President Gibbs and really all of the Student Government Association has really taken a real interest and initiative in making the University of Oklahoma strive to be the most inclusive place for not only Native students but all students,” Broadbent said of the acts that have been passed during the semester.
Queton said many people are not aware of what the words Boomer and Sooner mean in their historical context.
“People see (Land Run settlers) as go-getters or can-doers,” Queton said. “Those Boomers and Sooners went in and took Native land via land runs. So to our American Indian students who understand that history, it’s like you’re stealing the land every time you hear Boomer and Sooner being yelled, and you see the Sooner Schooner run across the field.”
Broadbent said there have been other examples of acts that have been passed in SGA that reflect more inclusivity of the Native American community as well. A resolution co-authored by Broadbent passed during SGA’s Oct. 15 meeting to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 14.
During the same meeting, another resolution co-authored by Broadbent passed to support Kimberly Teehee’s appointment as the first Cherokee Nation delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the resolution, the Treaty of New Echota allows the nation to appoint a representative, but Teehee has not been “officially received” by the House.
“I think that Native people as a whole have gotten more recognition,” Broadbent said. “At OU, I think it is in part due to our efforts to develop a more diverse and inclusive environment at OU.”
Gibbs said the goal of all the acts has been to show the Native American community that it is supported at OU.
“I know that sometimes change like this just seems unattainable,” Gibbs said. “And I think what we’re trying to say is that it’s not, and it takes a collective effort for those who are not Native to pick up the torch and fight for them.”
On Dec. 4, the Native Peoples Initiative was launched to strengthen Native Nation research and relationships with OU and included the creation of three new Native American Studies Department faculty positions and two endowed chair positions.
Amanda Cobb-Greetham went from chair of the Native American Studies Department to the director of the Native Nations Center, Queton will serve as the chair of the new Native Nations Center Advisory Board and Native American Studies professor Raymond Orr is now the interim chair of the department.
The initiative includes four primary goals: To provide a digital and physical clearinghouse for those interested in Native initiatives, create a research hub or think tank, and provide research opportunities and better OU’s relationship with Native nations.
There have also been other efforts to better serve OU’s Native American community, including the creation of indigenous education programs in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, the opening of the Native American student lounge in Copeland Hall, the hiring of Antonia Belindo by the Office of Student Life as the coordinator of American Indian Programs and Services and Admissions and Recruitment’s hiring of Jared Wahkinney as an admissions counselor.
Next semester, Queton said OU’s Native American community and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will continue to hold town halls and take more steps toward implementing a land acknowledgment statement.
“I don’t think you make sustainable change by shocking people, in my personal opinion,” Queton said. “I focus on educating and trying to help people understand the problem before they can actually render an opposing opinion. So I think that’s what the institution needs to kind of see to change that rhetoric and train people on how this does impact our Native community.”