Way down Yonder in the Indian Nation: Writings from America's Heartland

Way down Yonder in the Indian Nation: Writings from America's Heartland

by Michael Wallis

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A deeply sympathetic, colorful evocation of life on the American prairies

In Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation—a title inspired by the lyrics of Woody Guthrie—best-selling author Michael Wallis creates a brilliant tableau of America’s heartland.

Featuring a new introduction by the author, this collection of sixteen essays


A deeply sympathetic, colorful evocation of life on the American prairies

In Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation—a title inspired by the lyrics of Woody Guthrie—best-selling author Michael Wallis creates a brilliant tableau of America’s heartland.

Featuring a new introduction by the author, this collection of sixteen essays reflects the finest examples of Wallis’s writing and harkens back to a time before fast food and malls replaced family-owned diners along Route 66. From tales of the notorious Oklahoma panhandle, where “the only law was the colt and the carbine,” to the fate of Woody Guthrie’s mother Nora, who, burdened by depression, set fire to her kids and spent the last years of her life in an asylum, Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation brings to life some of Oklahoma’s most memorable characters—the famous and infamous, the ordinary and down-home.

“Enclosed within the covers of this book are some of my favorite spoonfuls of Oklahoma,” says Wallis. The result is a quintessential American book—a crazy quilt of stories and a powerful portrait of Okie identity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Oklahoma is suffering an identity problem, according to Wallis ( Route 66 ), due to a denial of its history and an enduring second-class citizen attitude. Seeking to shatter some of the stereotypes and to find the essence of our 46th state, Wallis offers an engaging piece on Americans. He writes about Woody Guthrie, about Pretty Boy Floyd, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller and Frank Phillips of petroleum fame. Escorting us mile by mile down America's highway, Route 66, he tells us about the Miller family's ranch and its touring Wild West Shows of the pre-WW I era. Wallis pays triubte to the Thunderbirds, the Army's 45th Infantry Division, and to its leaders. He also points out prime barbecue emporiums in this vivid portrait of Oklahoma and its inhabitants, past and present, which should spark strong local and regional interest. Photos not seen by PW. (June)
Library Journal
In the style of Will Rogers, Wallis gives a moving tribute to Oklahoma--its colorful history and inhabitants. Composed of 16 essays, this work reflects the spirit of Oklahoma by focusing on the individual towns and cities that make up the state, such as Texahoma and Tulsa, along with interesting characters that have called Oklahoma home. Featured are such notables as oilman Frank Phillips, balladeer Woody Guthrie, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, cowboy Freckles Brown, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Wallis, a Southwestern reporter and author, has also written biographies of Floyd and Phillips. The essays included in this work are enjoyable to read. Recommended for those libraries with an interest in Oklahoma and Americana.-- Terri P. Summey, Emporia State Univ., Kan.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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4.90(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation

Writings from America's Heartland

By Michael Wallis


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3824-4



The lands [of the planet] wait for those who can discern their rhythms. —Vine Victor Deloria, Jr.

Oklahoma is tallgrass prairie and everlasting mountains. It is secret patches of ancient earth tromped smooth and hard by generations of dancing feet. It is the cycle of song and heroic deed. It is calloused hands. It is the aroma of rich crude oil fused with the scent of sweat and sacred smoke. It is the progeny of an oil-field whore wed to a deacon; the sire of a cow pony bred with a racehorse. It is a stampede, a pie supper, a revival. It is a wildcat gusher coming in. It is a million-dollar deal cemented with a handshake.

Oklahoma is dark rivers snaking through red, furrowed soil; lakes rimmed with stone bluffs. It is the ghosts of proud Native Americans, crusading Socialists, ambitious cattle kings, extravagant oil tycoons, wily bandits. It is impetuous and it is wise. A land of opportunists, resilient pioneers, and vanquished souls, the state is a crazy quilt of contradictions and controversies, travails and triumphs. It has been exploited and abused, cherished and fought over. It is a puzzling place.

Forever, Oklahoma is American through and through.

It is difficult for most folks to comprehend what Oklahoma is all about. Mention the name and all sorts of images, mostly pure cliché, flitter in people's minds. They are hard-pressed to even acknowledge that Oklahoma actually has telephone service and paved streets, let alone traffic lights and flush toilets. These people would be more inclined to believe that on a daily basis Oklahomans are forced to reckon with outlaw ambushes, cantankerous rattlesnakes, and beds of quicksand. Some only need to hear "Oklahoma," and thoughts of cowboys and Indians, oil derricks, evangelists, dusty plains, and overflowing football stadiums come to mind. Just say "Oklahoma" to someone, then step back and wait for the reaction. Most responses are predictable. Many are negative.

Sometimes they picture John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family. They envision paltry Dust Bowl "Okies" dodging windswept tumbleweeds as they flee their parched tenant farm in a rattletrap jalopy crowned with a mattress and crammed with tattered belongings and faded dreams. It's a grim and enduring impression, as haunting as one of Woody Guthrie's ballads, as indelible as a Dorothea Lange or Russell Lee photograph.

Still others confess that Oklahoma causes them to conjure up notions of "good ol' boys" cruising in their pickup trucks, complete with gun rack, six-pack, and, of course, a National Rifle Association membership decal prominently displayed on the window. Typically, those with this particular image in mind steadfastly believe that Oklahoma's louts behave every bit as sexist, racist, and homophobic as other surviving Neanderthals scattered across the country.

Then there are those individuals who imagine Oklahoma as the primary stomping ground for behemoth-like athletes—the kind with thick necks and puny IQs who fuel themselves on whole sides of beef seasoned with liberal doses of steroids. Football, the public has been led to believe, and with ample reason, is much more than a contact sport in Oklahoma. To a whole host of adoring disciples, football is considered an extension of every citizen's God-given rights. Some of them even relate to it as they do to their religion. For that reason, it has been said that the football field is simply another place of worship for considerable numbers of rabid Oklahoma sports fans.

And, while on the subject of religion, there is the classic perception of Oklahoma as a haven for legions of puritanical religious fundamentalists and social conservatives—the types who thrive on intolerance, censorship, and public posturing. The types who enjoy nothing more than a barbecue over a heap of banned books set ablaze. Or, perhaps the name Oklahoma sparks thoughts of those oily televangelists whose main concerns are Bible thumping, preaching in tongues over the diseased, and bilking old ladies with blue-tinted hair out of their pension checks.

Surely, all of these Oklahoma stereotypes possess a grain of truth. An examination of the record quickly proves that.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma farm families, exactly like the Joads in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, made their sad exit during the terrible 1930s. The Great Depression took its toll just as the rains stopped, causing the earth to dry up and blow away. That is when, it is often said with tongue in cheek, Bakersfield, California, became the third-largest city in Oklahoma after Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Anywhere inside the state's borders it's also relatively easy to locate an exemplary redneck complete with narrow mind, "gimme cap," and a cheek or lip bulging with tobacco. The macho "Old West" man's man—the John Wayne variety—is alive and well in Oklahoma. The state has never experienced a shortage of false patriots and manly men who go through life secretly burdened with every insecurity in the book.

And, as far as ultra-right-wingers go, oftentimes it seems that every religious zealot and political conservative drawing breath resides within the borders of Oklahoma, frequently referred to as the buckle on an ever-expanding Bible Belt. Wearing personal religious beliefs on one's sleeve in public is de rigueur in all quarters of the state, as it is in other parts of the nation. Curiously, many of those obsessed with uttering their prayers at public rallies prior to sports events have already reached a euphoric state by swigging beer. The concoction of religion, politics, patriotism, and football is as unhealthy and dangerous as a combination of alcohol and gunpowder.

Not a locale much associated with intellectual enlightenment or social and spiritual forbearance, despite much historical evidence to the contrary, Oklahoma seems to be a metaphor for the kind of hypocrisy found in Dallas, Virginia Beach, and other bastions of self-righteousness that thrive in the born-again hamlets and cities of the South and Southwest.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma remains susceptible to a full array of less-than- flattering axioms, derisive snickers, and snide commentary.

But in reality, and in the state's defense, Oklahoma doesn't deserve such a hackneyed image. Much of it is unwarranted. Many of the unfavorable stereotypes are either no longer appropriate or applicable, or else they generally overshadow and cloud a more tenable view of the state. As is often the case, the chief stereotypes are much more complicated than they appear on the surface. Some are nothing but misconceptions and distortions that have never been corrected.

Ironically, a great deal of the adverse image problem Oklahoma suffers from actually begins at home. Oklahomans do not have a proper sense of themselves or their state's history. Critical eras from the past, such as the Dust Bowl years, have been blurred or forgotten or, even worse, shunned because they seem to cast a poor light on the land and its people. There is a wholesale denial of history. At times it seems to be a conspiracy.

That is certainly not the case just south of Oklahoma, across the Red River in that sprawling state of mind named Texas. Lone Star State citizens are confident when it comes to their homeland. Make that smug. They relish their state's colorful past and accept its history, whether bitter or sweet. Walk into either a funky beer joint in Odessa or, at the opposite extreme, a fancy restaurant in Dallas and the folks there without hesitation will boast that they're damn proud to be Texans. No inferiority complexes in Texas.

On a smaller scale in the other states bordering Oklahoma, the same seems to be true. Certainly Arkansas has made positive steps in the right direction, such as launching successful economic development measures and nurturing its natural and historical resources in order to overcome any "poor Arkie" or "Dogpatch" image. For the most part, the residents of Missouri, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado appear confident in themselves and are cognizant of their heritage.

But for many years there has persisted this kind of second-class-citizen attitude in Oklahoma. It endures. Despite the riches and limelight brought the state by the once-phenomenal oil and gas industry and many other notable achievements, a feeling of being poor country cousins to the rest of the nation, especially the state's regional neighbors, thrives throughout Oklahoma. Money, the old adage goes, cannot buy respectability. State government hasn't been much help. For many years, stamped on motor vehicle license plates was the rather insipid motto, "Oklahoma is OK." Not "Spectacular," not "Diverse," but only "OK." Mediocrity at its best.

This apparent deficiency when it comes to appreciating the true value of the state's rich history is further strengthened because Oklahoma has never really been defined as a place. One journalist described the state as "a large flat piece of ground covered with oil wells, wheat fields, and a crop of rangy individuals." Even the people who live there have never been quite sure what Oklahoma is all about. To say the state suffers from a lack of identity is an understatement. With rare exceptions, the media and political and civic leaders historically have done little or nothing to help shape Oklahoma's image and identity. If Oklahomans have no sense of their state's history or place, how can others?

In the mid-1980s, an Oklahoma City advertising agency commissioned an informal national survey to find out how others perceived the state. Surprisingly, instead of encountering the typical stereotypes, those conducting the survey found few of the respondents connected Oklahoma with oil, cowboys and Indians, or even the Dust Bowl. Many of those polled claimed they had no impression at all of Oklahoma. Not only that, but most of the survey participants had real difficulty in pinpointing the state's location or in indicating any of Oklahoma's preeminent features. Some thought that Oklahoma was "near Texas" or "along Interstate 40," but not one person placed the state in the Southwest or the South—two of the regions that have had a profound impact on the state. Very flat, windy, and dusty were frequently the words used to describe Oklahoma. The survey also showed that few people associated Oklahoma with the Great Plains region.

The results of the survey informed state leaders that in some respects not much had changed, although in recent years many of the traditional stereotypes about Oklahoma seem to have reemerged. Apparently people either have some vague notion of the state based on one of those conventional opinions or else, and perhaps worse, they don't have an inkling about Oklahoma. Ask any reasonably intelligent-looking person on the street in Buffalo, Seattle, or Tampa to provide the location of Oklahoma and, likely as not, after one or more of the clichés about the place registers in their mind, they are hard-pressed to give a precise answer. It's really not that difficult.

To find Oklahoma, simply start by looking toward the midsection of the nation. Oklahoma lies slightly south of the geographic center of the United States. A huge plateau, the state tilts down generally from northwest to southeast, ranging from about 5,000 feet above sea level at Black Mesa in the far northwestern corner of the Panhandle to the less-than-325-feet level in the southeastern corner on the Red River.

Oklahoma has common boundaries with six states—Colorado and Kansas on the north, Missouri and Arkansas on the east, Texas on the south, and Texas and New Mexico on the west. It is part of what is known as the Great Plains region. The state is shaped roughly like a meat cleaver or a saucepan, with the pan's bottom formed by the winding Red River and the conspicuous Panhandle—a treeless region, once known as "No Man's Land," that is only thirty-four miles wide and juts out to the west for 166 miles in length.

Surely geography is a major contributor to Oklahoma's identity problem. It is a state without any strong sense of place in national thinking. Perhaps that is the reason Rand McNally—the venerable geographer—even forgot to include Oklahoma in one edition of a U.S. atlas. Too many times, Oklahoma is simply described as being west of Arkansas, south of Kansas, and north of Texas. Because of Oklahoma's geographic location and patterns of development, some people identify it as a southern state while others assign a western-state status. Lots of other folks, including natives, ask if the state is midwestern or southwestern. What is it? Oklahoma, they finally decide, is just out there somewhere.

The fact remains, the total area of 69,919 square miles, or roughly 45 million acres, makes Oklahoma the eighteenth-largest state in geographical size in the United States. It is bigger than any state to the east aside from Minnesota and, with the exceptions of Hawaii and Washington, smaller than any of the states to the south, north, or west. Oklahoma is one-eighth the size of Alaska, and more than twice as big as all of New England.

Situated between 94 degrees 29 feet and 103 degrees west longitude and 33 degrees 41 feet and 37 degrees north latitude, Oklahoma's latitudinal location, coupled with its great size, had a noticeable influence on the cultural activities of its citizens. So did the land itself.

Contrary to popular belief, Oklahoma is far from treeless. A fourth of the state is covered with forest, representing 133 varieties of native trees. In central and eastern Oklahoma, blackjack and post oak are prevalent. These trees grow so closely together that the first travelers through the region found the going difficult. Later, during the heyday of the Chisholm, Shawnee, and Texas trails, it was a chore to drive herds of cattle through the cross timbers.

The terrain of Oklahoma is like its fabled weather. It changes completely as it crosses the state. It varies from the Great Salt Plains to verdant forests and unceasing seas of wheat. Oklahoma ranges from cypress bayous, pine forests, and woodlands filled with hardwoods—oak, honey locust, hickory, pecan, and sycamore—to the high plains and semiarid desert sprouting cactus, mesquite, sage, buffalo grass, salt cedar, and willow. Principal streams include the Arkansas, Cimarron, North Canadian, Canadian, Washita, Illinois, Verdigris, Grand, and Red rivers. There is also an abundance of lakes. Eastern Oklahoma has an even higher ratio of square miles to water surface than Minnesota, the state known for its many lakes. Oklahoma's not all flat, either. There are also plenty of mountains and hills—the Arbuckles, the Wichitas, the Kiamichis, the Winding Stairs, the Ouachitas, the Jackforks, the Cooksons.

The state is in the transition zone between the humid Midwest and the drier Southwest, between the grasslands of the West and the forests of the East, between the low elevations of the coastal plains and the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountain foothills, and between the long growing season of the South and the shorter growing season of the North. It is in limbo. Some say the whole state, and not just the Panhandle, should be called No Man's Land.

To be sure, Oklahoma is a land of contrasts—social as well as natural. Within the state one can find cowboys and Native Americans, wild mustangs and thoroughbreds, dogtrot cabins and Art Deco palaces, rodeo and ballet, opera and country-western music, tuxedos and blue jeans, pickups and polo ponies, beer joints and country clubs, street preachers and pagans.

Oklahoma is the nation's great mixing bowl. It is a little bit of all six states that surround it plus much more. There are parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia in Oklahoma. Great swarms of white immigrants and countless numbers of Native Americans came to what became Oklahoma from those and other southern states. Early oil barons and petroleum executives moved into Oklahoma from New York and Pennsylvania and points east. Perhaps that is why the upper-rust neighborhoods of Tulsa, with their manicured lawns and gardens and elegant residences, greatly resemble some of the exclusive enclaves in the eastern portion of the country.

Oklahoma is a microcosm of the nation. Yet it remains a land that has misplaced its sense of rhythm. It needs to be rediscovered. As the venerable Dame Edith Sitwell put it: "Rhythm is one of the principal translators between dream and reality. Rhythm might be described as, to the world of sound, what light is to the world of sight. It shapes and gives new meaning."


Excerpted from Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation by Michael Wallis. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Wallis is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Route 66: The Mother Road and Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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