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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


In many ways Oklahoma is truly a land of transition. The Red River Valley, with its warm, humid climate, is an appendage of the South's lowlands. In the eastern part of the state the rugged Ouachitas and Ozarks resemble the highlands of adjacent Arkansas and to a lesser extent the southern Appalachians. Westward, the terrain becomes more level, and trees thin out, giving that part of Oklahoma the landscape that resembles much of the country's interior. Finally, the Panhandle's open spaces and vastness typify the West. Oklahoma's cultural patterns are as varied as its physical features. The state has been characterized as Native America, as the Upland South, as the Lowland South, as the Midwest, as the Southwest, and as the West, and also as a region of uncertain status or affiliation.

Present Oklahoma's first inhabitants were the American Indians. At European contact the major tribes included the Osage, Caddo, Wichita, and Kiowa. In the 1820s and 1830s the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) were relocated from the southeastern part of the nation into the part of the informally designated Indian Territory (I.T.) that is present Oklahoma. After the Civil War the federal government moved other tribes there also, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Apache. Long before 1907 statehood non-Indians outnumbered American Indians, who were a definite minority by the twenty-first century. However, their cultural impact on Oklahoma continues to be considerable. Native tongues survive, and Cherokee language signs are common within the Cherokee Nation's historical boundaries. Indian place-names are numerous, especially in the proposed State of Sequoyah, an area that took in all of eastern Oklahoma. Traditional wild onion dinners, hog fries, and Indian tacos are still common foods. Seasonally American Indians gather wild food plants. In addition to wild onions, these include hickory nuts, greens, and mushrooms (called kenuche, cochanie, and wishi, respectively, by the Cherokee). Moreover, American Indians surreptitiously continue their ancient tradition of fish poisoning. Indian medicine men still heal the sick with knowledge handed down from elders, and many firmly believe that they possess supernatural powers that can be used for good or evil. Superstitions abound, such as a belief in "little people." Stomp dances and powwows still exist, and Indian smoke shops and gaming facilities dot the Oklahoma landscape.

The Five Tribes had adopted much southern culture before they arrived in Indian Territory. During the Civil War some tribes offered strong support for the Confederacy, but others were divided. There are numerous Confederate monuments in Oklahoma. Before the Civil War small parties of southern migrants began to arrive in Indian Territory, and in the following years a trickle turned into a flood. Many of these people relocated from Arkansas and Texas.

Geographically, eastern Oklahoma is generally considered to be part of the Upland South. That region spans the South's more rugged parts, and its economy was characterized by yeoman farmers who worked their own land without slaves. Elements of the Lowland South were present largely in the Red River Valley. Here the plantation system developed, and cotton was cultivated by slaves and later by former slaves and their descendants. Indeed, some individuals in the Five Tribes were of this tradition. Currently Southern culture is strongest in "Little Dixie" of southeastern Oklahoma, with its "capital" of Durant. After allotment of Indian land and 1907 statehood southerners became dominant in the lower one-half to two-thirds of Oklahoma. East-central Oklahoma is now considered part of the "vernacular" South, which means that residents recognize it as such.

Folk architecture of the Upland South is still part of the Oklahoma landscape. Included in this category are variety of log structures, single-pile cottages (one story high, one room deep), and I-houses (two full stories high, one room deep). Many Oklahoma courthouses are located in a central square, which is a trait of the Upland South. Present also is the Upland South's folk cemetery, with its homemade markers, bare-earth graves, grave sheds, burial with feet to the east, and other characteristic features. Also observed in Oklahoma are the single- and double-shotgun houses and the pyramidal-roofed house, both of which are southern forms. The small country church, with its clear glass windows and small, or nonexistent, steeple, common in the South, is also abundant in the area.

The dialect spoken here has been referred to as South Midland, Mid-Southern, Plains Southern, Highland Southern, and Hill Southern. All of these are associated with the Upland South. Hollow ("holler") is a characteristic toponym, or terrain-generic place-name, in the Upland South, and the term is abundantly used in Oklahoma. Of the generic toponyms in Oklahoma that have a regional affiliation, those of the South and South Midland are most numerous.

Generally, the state's food choices, religious preferences, musical fare, and political affiliation are southern as well. There is a significant southern element in the region's diet. Included in Oklahoma's bill of fare are pork in all forms, chicken-fried steak, barbecue, cornbread, catfish, hush puppies, okra, and biscuits and gravy. Several of these items are included in the official state meal. In terms of religion, most of Oklahoma is an extension of the South. Here Baptists are dominant, Methodists are significant, and Roman Catholics are now relatively scarce. In addition, many observers consider Oklahoma to be part of the Bible Belt, with its ardent fundamentalism. The Bible Belt is not confined to the South, but it is strong there. Country music, a product of the South, has long been popular in Oklahoma. Of particular interest in Oklahoma and Texas was Western swing, which combined various traditions but remained country music. Since statehood, much of Oklahoma has displayed traditional southern voting patterns. Until recently, all but the northern part of the state generally supported the Democratic Party. This was especially true of Little Dixie, which voted straight Democrat for generations.

The Middle West is also represented in Oklahoma. Nineteenth-century land runs witnessed the settlement of many midwesterners across the future state's north-central and northwestern sector. These settlers raised wheat, their place of origin's signature crop. Middle West church affiliations differed from those of the South. Methodists were more numerous than in the South, and Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and other Protestant sects were significant. Midwesterners brought a concern for higher education. They generally preferred the Republican Party. Many Oklahomans still interpret their state as part of the Midwest. Most of Oklahoma, except for the southeastern part, is within the domain of the Middle West, even if the more concentrated core stops at the southern boundary of Kansas. Northeastern and north-central Oklahoma are part of the vernacular Middle West, that is, residents view the region as midwestern. Most scholars also include northern Oklahoma in the cultural Middle West.

A number of scholars have contended that the West begins between the 98th and 100th Meridians, which in Oklahoma extends from slightly west of Oklahoma City to the edge of the Panhandle. This region is the Great Plains' eastern border, the climate is subhumid to semiarid, and trees are scarce. Here the Plains Indians erected their tipis, and, later, settlers constructed sod houses rather than traditional log buildings. The Santa Fe Trail passed through the Panhandle. Two of the best-known cattle trails of the nineteenth century, the Chisholm Trail and the Western Trail, traversed this sector. The latter led to Dodge City, Kansas. Oklahoma is part of the hearth area that gave rise to the late-nineteenth century rodeo tradition, and rodeos remain popular in the state. Oklahoma is proud of its western tradition. Oklahoma City is the site of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the Museum of the Great Plains is in Lawton, and the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum is in Woodward. The University of Oklahoma houses the Western History Collection, a large, nationally recognized archive and library devoted to Western history, and the University of Oklahoma Press publishes many books dealing with Western themes. Gulch, butte, draw, and badlands are all western generic toponyms that are present in the Sooner State. Furthermore, northwestern Oklahoma is part of the vernacular West, that is, people who live there consider themselves westerners.

Oklahoma is sometimes included in the Southwest. This, no doubt, is partly a result of its proximity to Texas. Canyon and mesa are Southwestern generic toponyms present in Oklahoma. A significant Hispanic population has been in Oklahoma for well more than a century. Mexican restaurants are the preferred ethnic eatery. The state's southern half is part of the vernacular Southwest. Furthermore, the Association of American Geographers includes Oklahoma in its Southwestern division.

In terms of culture Oklahoma is a hybrid that displays the characteristics of a number of peoples and regions in diluted form. While it is true that American Indian languages, foods, beliefs, and other traits survive, the tribes are by no means isolated from mainstream American culture. Most American Indians speak standard Oklahoma English, adhere to the religious sects common in the region, and practice a lifestyle that is very similar to that of their non-Indian neighbors. Eastern Oklahoma is part of the South, largely the Upland South, but it is not quintessentially southern. While elements of midwestern culture are present in Oklahoma, it is not typically midwestern. Parts of the state might be perceived as western or southwestern, but better examples are found elsewhere. If there is anything distinctive about Oklahoma it is its unique blend of elements from a number of cultural regions.

John Milbauer


George O. Carney, "Bug Tussle to Slapout: Place Names on the Oklahoma Landscape," Places 3 (July 1976).

Raymond D. Gastil, Cultural Regions of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975).

Terry G. Jordan-Bychkov, The Upland South: The Making of an American Folk Region and Landscape (Santa Fe, N. Mex.: Center For American Places, 2003).

John A. Milbauer, "Physical Generic Toponyms in Oklahoma," Names 44 (September 1996).

George Milburn, "Oklahoma," in "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, ed. Davis Joyce (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

John W. Morris, ed., Geography of Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).

John W. Morris, Charles R. Goins, and Edwin C. McReynolds, Historical Atlas of Oklahoma (3d ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

Michael Roark, "Searching for the Hearth: Cultural Areas of Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Winter 1992–93).

Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill, eds., The Culture of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). Thomas Wikle, ed., Atlas of Oklahoma (Stillwater: Department of Geography, Oklahoma State University, 1991).

Thomas Wikle and Guy Bailey, "Oklahomy Folks Says 'Em Different: Axes of Linguistic Variation in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 75 (Spring 1997).

R. Todd Zdorkowski and George O. Carney, "This is My Land: Oklahoma's Vernacular Regions," Journal of Cultural Geography 5 (Spring-Summer 1985).

Wilbur Zelinsky, The Cultural Geography of the United States (Rev. ed.; Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
John Milbauer, “Cultural Regions,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CU001.

Published January 15, 2010

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