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A Conversation with Russell Cobb

Earlier this year, the Netflix documentary Tiger King briefly dominated American culture. In doing so, it shone a rare spotlight on Oklahoma, the setting for the wild, almost unbelievable antics of its characters. But for many people familiar with the history of Oklahoma, Tiger King is just another anecdote in a culture packed with contradictions, fraud, wealth, and swindles. Russell Cobb focuses on this last aspect of the state in the new book “The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State.”

Cobb tells a fascinating story of his home state that balances between memoir and history, revealing a hidden past that many Oklahomans rarely acknowledge. This is one of many ways that Cobb understands Oklahoma as a microcosm for many of the issues facing Americans today.

BackStory recently spoke with Russell Cobb as May’s featured author for our monthly BookStory book club. We discuss writing and making history, and get to the bottom of the Oklahoma swindle to discover how Oklahoma got to where it is today.

 

BackStory: What was the inspiration, the catalyst for this book?

Cobb: It started with a feature article I was working on for The Guardian newspaper. I had seen so much bad news about Oklahoma, where I grew up. It had fallen to the very bottom of education funding, and risen to the very top in levels of incarceration. I started to think of it like a failing state. After I wrote that article, it became clear to me that the next step was to understand how it got that way. How is it possible that a place that is so wealthy – it sits on one of the richest oil deposits in the world, it used to be known as the oil capital of the world – can have so many miserable social and health indicators?

BackStory: In the book you have a lot of really fascinating anecdotes or broader stories, and I’m curious how those came to your attention, and how you incorporated those into your writing?

Cobb: I have a wealth of experience growing up in Oklahoma and visiting a lot. It wasn’t just that I grew up, I had generations and generations of family in Oklahoma, back to the beginning of the land run. That was the real beginning of the white settlement of what used to be known as Indian Territory. I have family that were rural, poorer Oklahomans, and a lot of them left during the Great Depression. I also have a wealthier side of the family that was connected to the oil boom of the 1910s and 1920s.

So I took an approach of doing a history through a personal lens. I would think about a lot of these things that I grew up with and stories I heard, and try to push them a little bit further. To push them beyond the idea of lore, or family tradition, or just stories that you hear. What really became shocking is how much of it was either covered up, couched in lies, or misstated, and that gave me a broader window into a lot of issues that I hadn’t taken seriously before.

Workers stand beneath large wooden oil well structure, cloud of oil droplets hangs overhead.

Oil well gusher in 1922 — Okemah, Oklahoma.

BackStory: We received a question from one of our BookStory readers, Stephanie Pounds. She is curious about the balance that you struck between writing a personal memoir and a history. Were there any challenges that you faced here? Were there any advantages to this approach?

Cobb: I’m not a historian by training, I’m part journalist and part literary critic by training. Years ago, I started to work on a memoir and the people who read it went, “There’s some really weird stuff in here that just doesn’t make sense to me. Can you tell me more about that?”

A lot of it is about oil and land swindles and things that I hadn’t really considered would be interesting to anyone else. I thought people would think, “Oh yeah, of course your great-grandparents made a fortune in oil, and then completely lost it, and killed themselves. Isn’t that the way it goes with everybody?” 

The methodology, if I can put it that way, is, “Okay, here are some things that people talk about, and that I’ve heard a lot about. Let’s see how far we can push that. Let’s take a documentary approach to it. What kind of documents can you find, and where is the real truth?”

Here’s a good example. My wife is from the Bay Area of California, from a liberal background. I was telling her about how in grade school in Oklahoma, we always had a Land Run day to mark the creation of the state of Oklahoma. It gets recreated all the time. A girl named Miss Indian Territory is wedded to a boy named Mr. Oklahoma. There’s a whole speech that’s pronounced where the girl, a beauteous maiden endowed with natural abundance, is going to be wed to an industrious young man who’s going to bring civilization. 

This is a serious affair. People do it at the historical society, they recreate it at the Capitol, they do it in grade schools. My wife went, “That’s crazy. That’s celebrating an illegal invasion.”

And I thought, “Yeah, it’s pretty weird. You’re right.”

BackStory: This book is such a tangle of different themes, and mythologies. It’s difficult to  establish what is true and what’s false. What’s folklore and what’s fact. A major theme is the idea of the history of Oklahoma as a swindle. You describe the taking of the land from the native populations, and stealing the oil from them and from the earth with all of these dishonest machinations. 

But it also seems like a swindle of the state’s history itself. How the actual events of the past are often intentionally hidden from the present observer, and how Oklahomans have propped up a false narrative of their own history. 

Settlers with horses and wagons stand waiting among large tents.

Settlers waiting to stake their claims on the unassigned lands.

Cobb: As I say in the very beginning of the book, the state is founded on a swindle. The only reason Oklahoma is Oklahoma is that a treaty was violated that gave the Five Tribes the land, as long as the waters run, and the grass is green. And that was just the beginning, there were all kinds of promises that were broken.

The first settlers, some of them really colorful characters, came in with all of these promises of making cities overnight. Oklahoma City was created overnight by a bunch of illegal land pirates, issuing fake certificates of land to people. They were often arrested, some by federal troops. 

The way that the story is told in the present is to make the ugly side of it look like a victory. To make the Boomers and Sooners into heroes, when really they were outlaws. Then there’s the continuing swindle, which is the political class promising that if we just lower taxes and deregulate industry a little bit more, we’re going to be a top 10 state.

When the current governor, Kevin Stitt, was elected in 2018, his big campaign promise was that Oklahoma’s going to become a top 10 state during his administration. It’s widely acknowledged by all these indicators that Oklahoma is somewhere in the bottom 10. Well, how do you categorize that? What empirical data are you using? Stitt offered none. He continues to offer no empirical data, just vague promises of the good times that will happen. And it’s like a snake oil salesman. Just fake promises.

BackStory: It seems like you’re telling another other story, too, of the process of myth-making. How the US has told myths about itself, especially with the American West.

Cobb: That’s definitely a place where this story links up with a broader story of the American West. Manifest Destiny, and the conquests of the wilderness, overlooking all the different peoples that were there, the violence that it implies, and the continuing injustices that were created by that original trauma. 

But the myths that spring up around oil men in particular are fascinating. There’s some real skullduggery going on that is every bit as fascinating and crazy as a movie like There Will be Blood, or the novel it’s based on. In the end they didn’t need to fictionalize it. 

BackStory: It’s incredible how powerful an economic driving force oil has been in Oklahoma’s history.

Cobb: The more I researched it, the more I found that you can’t understand Oklahoma’s past and where it went wrong without understanding the oil industry. 

Most of the oil in Oklahoma was found on what happened to be part of the allotted Indian Territory. Before it became Oklahoma it was Indian Territory, and the federal government parceled out tracts of land and gave the best tracts to the most well-connected and whitest passing people. That’s river bottoms, black soil. Then they gave the remaining land to the Native peoples, even those who didn’t want an allotment.

That land happens to be on an oil field called The Cushing Dome. Readers may have heard of Cushing because to this day it is the place where the price of oil is set on the New York Mercantile Exchange. 

Map depicting Native American territories across Texas and Oklahoma.

Map of Indian Territory (Oklahoma) 1888 from Britannica 9th ed.

BackStory: I want to bring up another major idea you have laced throughout the book, which is this question of identity and racial codes. You talk about the “wannabe tribe,” and the complexity of claiming native ancestry. You also share your own personal story, and describe how between the eighties and nineties people didn’t want to be Native American, and then suddenly everybody…

Cobb: …wanted to be Native American. I could have written a whole book on that. It’s so tricky and it’s also so current. I remember growing up with that commercial of the crying Indian, Iron Eyes Cody, where he’s canoeing down the stream.

He sees the pollution and somebody throws a piece of garbage at his feet. The narrator comes on and is like, “Some people have an abiding respect for the beauty that is the United States. Some people don’t.” And then he sheds that tear. 

I was writing for an Oklahoma magazine and they asked me to find out more about Iron Eyes Cody. It didn’t take long to figure out that Iron Eyes Cody was a fraud. He was an Italian immigrant from Louisiana who was mistaken for a Native American and then realized if he played his cards correctly, he could leverage that into success in Hollywood. 

Growing up in Oklahoma, the native influence is extremely important. My grandmother’s partner was Choctaw. I just assumed that I was part Native American. I would unthinkingly repeat stories like that. So many people claim very slight Native American ancestry.

My research brought me to a pretty negative view of that. It’s not an indictment of those people, but the historical context for it is not positive. It’s not something that is innocent. 

It goes back to the swindling of land of the tribes in the South, in the 1820s and 30s, and then later on in Oklahoma. In many cases, when they were allotting lands, if you could claim Native ancestry you could get free land. There are many, many instances of people buying their way onto tribal rolls, or finding some sort of a way of fraudulently getting on there.

They never had any intent of becoming a part of the community, of going to ceremony, of preserving the language, anything like that. It was purely a way to gain access to the land for fraudulent purposes. And the flip side of that is that many people who were a native “by blood” were kicked off tribal rolls. A lot of people whose ancestry was clearly native were kicked off. And a lot of people who were clearly not native at all were included on there.

So I certainly don’t claim ancestry anymore. I think a lot of people do so in the way I used to do it, not innocently, but at least they don’t really know what they’re saying. There’s probably a reason they claim that. And it probably had to do with taking part in a fraud.

 

 

Headshot of author Russell CobbRussell Cobb is an associate professor in Latin American studies and creative writing at the University of Alberta. His nonfiction writing has won many national and regional awards. He is the editor of The Paradox of Authenticity in a Globalized World and the reporter of the This American Life story that served as the basis for the Netflix film Come Sunday. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the GuardianSlate, and the Nation, and on NPR.

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