Voices of Our Region
A new series from Mid-America Arts Alliance
For nearly fifty years, Mid-America Arts Alliance has been sharing and advancing the work of artists and scholars in communities large and small. This work has included efforts to nurture the next generation of leading artists whose creative expression is grounded in authentic historic narrative.
Voices of Our Region tells their stories.
This online resource further acknowledges the contributions of M-AAA’s region by sharing the voices and stories of the artists, tradition bearers, scholars, and historians of our six-state service area (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas). These essential voices reflect the cultural, racial, ethnic, and lived experience of the artists and storytellers of our richly diverse region.
Hiba Tahir is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas, where she received the Carolyn Walton Cole Endowment Fund, the J. Chester and Freda S. Johnson Graduate Fellowship, and the James T. Whitehead Award. She is a 2020 recipient of an Artists 360 Grant from Mid-America Arts Alliance and a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council. She currently serves as senior editor of the University of Arkansas Honors College and is on the editorial board of Nimrod International Journal.
Women’s History Month
by Hiba Tahir
The 2021 Global Gender Gap report from The World Economic Forum found that the pandemic had significantly increased the amount of time it would take for the gender gap to close— 135.6 years instead of the 99.5 outlined in the 2020 report.
To be a woman is to be frustrated— and I’m no exception.
In high school and college, I was a journalist, a first-generation immigrant who learned the ins-and-outs of a career in journalism, graduated at the top of my class, and then— to maybe my parents’ dismay— left the field to pursue a poetry MFA.
Grad school was far removed from the newsroom, more concerned with critical theory than clickbait, but I was eager to trade in my press badge for a chance to live my wildest writer dreams. I saw no similarities between creative writing and reporting.
This is, until a poet visiting my program encouraged me to write about my birth country. I wondered, How can I write about a place I don’t remember?
At the time, I thought the answer lay in interrogating my mother and excavating answers from her tight-lipped responses. When I asked her about my nebulous memories of her mother’s death and discovered they were completely erroneous, I realized I couldn’t even trust my own memories.
I had begun to approach my poetry— and by extension, my heritage and womanhood— like a seasoned reporter chasing a particularly difficult beat.
In the end, I didn’t follow that poet’s advice.
Instead, I found myself writing poems about the very act of interrogation itself, central to journalism— a profession fraught with danger for women in particular, who face increased peril not only in the field, but also in their own newsrooms, according to a 2021 report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“We have a pressing obligation to defend journalism with all our strength against the many dangers that threaten it, of which gender- based and sexual bullying and attacks are a part,” wrote RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire in the report’s forward. “It is unthinkable that women journalists should endure twice the level of danger and have to defend themselves on another front, a many-sided struggle since it exists outside the newsroom as well as inside.”
I’ve been working on a novel-in-verse for my thesis, a culmination of four years of interrogation and rumination. There’s a line that reoccurs often and, without context, might give some readers pause: “Women are too fragile. They grieve too loudly.”
It’s a line first spoken by the main character’s mother— and my own— to explain why women aren’t allowed at funerals in her community. As it’s repeated, it crackles with its underlying anger, and the protagonist comes to understand the role her gender plays in the institutional subjugation she faces throughout the novel— a subjugation she realizes she has to interrogate despite its great personal cost.
There are sundry female characters in the novel inspired by the incredible women in my own life: a strong, rebellious best friend; a sage, quick-to-anger professor; and even a tight-lipped mother. I enjoyed writing them all. I enjoyed watching them become strong, and I loved, especially, that not a single one could be accused of lacking emotion.
By its end, the women in my novel acquire strength not in spite of their emotions but because of them. It’s an important lesson the women in my life— the journalists, poets, mentors, and mothers— have passed on to me.
This Women’s History Month, I’m celebrating those women who “grieve too loudly.” Who, despite great peril and inequity, strive to use their emotions to interrogate the systems that oppress them.
kYmberly Keeton is a native Texan, a nationally published writer, an art librarian & archivist, and genealogy curator. By day, the ALA Emerging Leader and Library Journal 2020 Mover & Shaker is the Chief Artistic Officer of NOVELLA MEDIA, LLC a creative multimedia production company and the founder of ART | library deco a virtual African American Art Library. Currently, the writer is pursuing a PhD in Information Science, Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of North Texas. The creative interdisciplinary mixologist can be seen on the regular with her dog, Roxy Blue. And if nothing else, Keeton is always taking time to read books, write hooks, and design the next…
Midwest History: The (My) Black Native Experience
by kYmberly Keeton, MLS, CA
I am a native of Fort Worth, Texas. Driving through Missouri and Oklahoma has always intrigued me with Black Native and African American history in the Midwest. As a former faculty librarian and professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri for three years, I learned a great deal about the region. Multiple stories fit into the narrative about the history of African Americans in the Midwest the Trail of Tears, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, and the Dred Scott Case. Traveling and experiencing history, reading archives and essays, and watching documentaries are the guides that provided an understanding of the lived experiences of Black people in the Midwest. You would never think that the Midwest is a cultural mecca that offers an experience that will have you wanting to come back for more, but it is one of the major areas to visit about Black history and culture.
African slaves and enslaved mixed-race individuals have a long history and cultural exchange with certain Native American tribes. European American colonists considered both races inferior and divided them by convincing Native Americans that Africans worked against their interests. Five tribes in the Southeastern region (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations) took on the European and European American model of African chattel slavery. Per the United States’ Indian Removal Act of 1830, the same tribes and their slaves were forced to leave their territories for the expansion of the United States. The forced gentrification of 60,000 Native Americans from the five tribes, their Black slaves, and Freedmen were integrated into what is known today as the Trail of Tears.
Native Americans and their slaves were led to present-day Oklahoma and ironically given free rein to build new environments without interference from 1894–1910, according to the US Census. The Black population of the Indian Territory increased from 19,000 to 80,000 between 1890 and 1907. (The state of Oklahoma was formed in 1907.) After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, African American slaves were free. The city of Tulsa was exclusively available to whites at that time and African American people were subjected to a section of the city. Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, thrived as a business and cultural community from 1865–1921. In 1921, the African American town was burned down because a white mob assumed a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. The race relations between African Americans and white people would never be the same in the state of Oklahoma.
In Missouri, the Dred Scott case is one of the defining factors in history that is a part of this experience. As the story goes, Dred Scott traveled with his slave-master from Missouri—a slave state, to Illinois—a free state. They then traveled to Wisconsin—a free state, and settled there. The death of his owner led his widow to move, and Dred Scott and his family found themselves back in Missouri. While there and with the possibility of being sold, Dred Scott decided to petition for his freedom in 1846 with the Missouri lower courts, based upon traveling through two free states and living in one for most of his life. In 1850, the Missouri (lower) courts awarded Dred Scott and his family their freedom. The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and overturned, and taken up by the United States Supreme Court. The final decision, in this case, was made in 1857, declaring that African Americans were not considered United States citizens. With this rhetoric emerged the Missouri Compromise and the igniting of a flame that resulted in the Civil War.
Now that I have studied the history of the Midwest more in depth, I understand why I felt those emotions that always crept up while driving through Missouri and Oklahoma. Black Native and African American people and their experiences from the 1850s to 1970 in the Midwest were never-ending battles to survive and be treated as human beings, and still today that fight continues. With this much history taking place in the Midwest, what does the Black experience look like today, in the twenty-first century? Through all my explorations, I found the Amtrak train to be one of the best forms of traveling to think for a while about the plight of Black people in the Midwest. A plethora of experiences and history are readily available to residents and tourists.
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City has a wealth of information about Bass Reeves, the first African American US Marshall. Three Historically Black Colleges and Universities that I visited in the Midwest: Harris-Stowe State University (1857), Lincoln University Missouri (1866), and Langston University (1897). As a librarian, I was very intrigued to learn and visit two African American libraries in the state of Missouri: Inman E. Page Library in Jefferson City and the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library in Sedalia. The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis, the George Washington Carver National Monument just west of Diamond, Missouri, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City provide archival collections and are landmarks open to the public for research. Having the opportunity to visit these institutions and cultural spaces, I still have places that I want to visit and learn more about that have to do with my family history in the Midwest; this is just a glimpse of what I have seen thus far.
Now some years later, I have learned that I have ancestors who are from and lived in the Midwest through this cultural experience. Langston Hughes wrote, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
Traveling through the Midwest puts these words in perspective about experiencing its culture and history. In hindsight, I ask of you: What do you know about your genealogical rivers in the Midwest?
Anonymous. (2021, February 15). The Relevance of Native America to Black History [Text]. Field Museum. https://www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/relevance-native-america-black-history
Commemorating the Tulsa Massacre and Black-Native History | National Council on Public History. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://ncph.org/history-at-work/commemorating-tulsa-massacre/
Essay 34 – May 28, 1830: President Andrew Jackson Signs the Indian Removal Act by James S. Humphreys. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/13825040/height/90/theme/custom/thumbnail/yes/direction/backward/render-playlist/no/custom-color/87A93A/
Fain, K. (2017, July 5). The Devastation of Black Wall Street. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/
Missouri Digital Heritage: Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/africanamerican/scott/scott.asp
The Revised Dred Scott Case Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from http://digital.wustl.edu/dredscott/history.html
Trail of Tears | Facts, Map, & Significance | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears
Cultural Landmarks and Resources Inspired by Keeton’s Essay
Jimmy Lee Beason II (M.S.W.) aka Pahuska, is a member of the Osage Nation (Eagle Clan), from Oklahoma and currently lives in Lawrence, KS with his family. His writings, lectures, presentations and research focus on Decolonization, Native empowerment, traditional values, radical social work and social justice advocacy for Native communities.
He is also a professor in the Indigenous & American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University, where he acquired his B.A. in American Indian Studies and is also a graduate of the University of Kansas, receiving his masters degree in Social Work Administration & Policy Advocacy. He is the author of Native Americans in History: A History Book for Kids.
The Meaning of Civilization
by Jimmy Lee Beason II
The colonization of North America was and continues to be a legacy steeped in European and Christian supremacist ideology. Indigenous people in North as well as South America were viewed as nothing more than naked savages in desperate need of clothing, an appreciation for materialistic greed, individualism, and Jesus. To rectify the problem, colonial empires wielded the perfect policy to bring these “red devils” to heel.
After Americans rebelled and won their civil war with Great Britain (typically called the Revolutionary War), they reaped the rewards of doctrine principles and simply inherited Great Britain’s “title” to the land regardless of what the Indigenous population had to say about it. Once Americans inherited the “right” to hold title over North America, they continued the colonization process of plundering loot that was sanctified by Pope Alexander VI nearly 300 years earlier.
Thus began the colonial invasion we have come to recognize today in the creation of the United States. Undoubtedly, these circumstances have been extremely debilitating for Indigenous people all over the Western Hemisphere historically and presently as demonstrated through the loss of a land base, the fragmentation of language, culture, and spirituality as codified in federal Indian laws and policies concocted for the purpose of diminishing Native self-determination.
There have been many responses through acts of resiliency and resistance initiated by Indigenous people all over the Western Hemisphere. Some went to war. Others pursued diplomacy. Some even collaborated with colonizers to reap the rewards of being on the side of the “winning team,” acting as lateral oppressors toward fellow tribal communities. War, land loss, famine, disease, and religious persecution were all brought to us under the banner of “civilization.”
Civilization is an interesting concept. It denotes a group of people as having attained some kind of superior standard of living compared to the uncivilized. But civilization as a concept is faulty and really a falsehood by those who promote civilization (in the case of North America, European-Americans) in order to justify domination over the land, resources, plant, and animal life as well as the people who live according to traditional values and philosophies as human beings.
If we look at what Euro-Christian Americans consider “civilization,” it simply means separating oneself from the natural world. If you sleep in a willow lodge, on an animal skin, next to a fire, hunt for your food, then one is considered uncivil or savage. If you sleep in a house with 90-degree angled rooms, a roof, carpet on the floor, and sleep on a bed placed atop a bed frame, then you are considered civilized or superior to the person living in a lodge. Therefore, this lifestyle is considered “better” and more “advanced.”
But to accuse the human beings who live in accordance with their natural environment of being improper, while those who live in a house with all the amenities they could desire are considered civilized, is to be inherently mistaken. The rhetoric of American civilization is closely tied into the rhetoric of freedom. In the search for individual “freedoms,” they have essentially imprisoned themselves. They have become consumerist slaves beholden to their sense of comfort and convenience, having removed themselves from the natural world and even the items they are using to support their livelihood.
In today’s American society, most people have not made their own furnishings. They are solely reliant on outside manufacturers to provide these items to them. Reliance is not freedom. Those who were called savage and uncivilized maintained a higher sense of freedom and self-determination, at least to an extent. Our ancestors recognized they were one part of a broader universe where they needed to adapt. The philosophy of “all my relations” and being connected is at the core of many of our worldviews. In Euro-Christian American worldviews, the world is meant to be subjugated, measured, weighed, and calculated in order to control it. Naming something gives you a sense of control over it. If we name this plant, we can assume ownership over it, dominate it, and then throw it in the box with all the other species collected to pull out and use whenever the need or prospect of making a profit determines it necessary.
These outlooks are the very reason “Western” society is so incompatible with Indigenous teachings and understandings. Where one set of values seeks to control and dominate what surrounds them, the other’s cultural values try to live in balance and promote a relationship of reciprocity. Native teachings focus on the need to acknowledge that humans are not superior. Indeed, as Phillip Deere, Muscogee Creek medicine man, stated, the first teachers were the animals. We had to learn from the animals, plants, weather, sky, and all that was around us, and our actions, via ceremony and ways of giving thanks and acknowledgment, were based on mirroring the universe around us. The concept was, if we lived in that manner, we would have balance in our lives.
More First Peoples in Our Region
ExhibitsUSA is touring Savages and Princess: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes across the country. The exhibition features twelve Native artists from Oklahoma and was organized by 108 Contemporary in Tulsa.
Interchange Fellow Elisa Harkins was awarded a grant for her project Teach Me A Song. Teach Me a Song is a series of exchanges wherein Harkins invites Indigenous collaborators to teach a song, and includes the 6 Moons Indigenous Concert Series, which showcases six artists from all over the world.
Interchange Fellow Chelsea Hicks was awarded a grant for her project Words of Our Ancestors: An Indigenous Language Creative Writing Conference. Learn more about Words of Our Ancestors.