President Obama visited Durant, Oklahoma yesterday. Durant is the headquarters for the Choctaws, the tribe to which I belong, and he was there to speak about his new initiative - ConnectHome, a program designed to connect 275,000 households to the Internet. The program targets those living in public housing in selected cities across the nation, as well as the tribal area of the Choctaws. These days, Internet access is essential, especially if we want students to have the tools they need to succeed.
I didn't have a ticket for the speech and wasn't planning to go to Durant until I heard that a group had decided to hold a Confederate flag "rally". What an awful way to greet the President and a total embarrassment to the decent folks in this state. I made a last-minute decision to go and quickly made a sign to take with me:
"Halito" is Choctaw for "hello" and I made up the hashtag - #NotAllOkies - which I have used on Twitter and Instagram.
I didn't think I'd get close enough to see anything but figured it was worth a shot. The event was held in the Durant high school. When I arrived in town I was able to drive by the school but all entrances were blocked by police and a huge line of buses lined the edge of the school property along the road as a barrier.
I drove on by and then to a nearby convenience store where I bought some iced tea. Up to that point I hadn't decided what my plan was but as I came out of the store I noticed that the parking area adjacent was filling up with vehicles. That's when I noticed that there was a reasonable view of the school from that location. With no better plan I decided to join these folks. I pulled up next to another Prius driven by a distinguished looking man who was taking photos with his phone. There were quite a few people, including several with children, no doubt wanting their kids to witness an important occasion.
And then these people showed up:
For the most part, everyone just ignored them and focused on the helicopters and Ospreys flying in and landing at the school. They played their annoying music loudly, waved their flags of racial oppression and were a stereotype come to life.
After all the aircraft had arrived the crowd disbursed. Still with no plan in mind, I headed back to the school but the road was blocked by that point. I drove around and came in from the other side. I found a good spot in a business parking lot on the other side of the school. A handful of others joined me and then we waited. Perhaps an hour later we were rewarded with a nice view of the various aircraft taking off from the school.
As I sat there I became intrigued with the gentleman in the truck to my right. I finally gathered my courage and went over to talk to him. He had driven all the way from Tahlequah which is about a three hour drive. He had heard that tribal members would be allowed in to hear President Obama speak only to discover that a limited number of tickets were available. He wasn't unhappy about it, however. He mentioned something about the "Great Spirit" and its guidance. He was very proud to explain his unusual headgear. The headband represented the United States and he had flags representing Oklahoma and the Choctaw Nation. He had tried to purchase a Choctaw flag when he arrived in town early in the day but couldn't locate one. That didn't stop him. He bought some purple fabric and stitched the emblem on it himself. He also turned around to show me the feathers in the back of his hair.
I couldn't help but think of the contrast between this man and the Confederate flag wavers I had seen earlier. Instead of a disrespectful display of ignorance and racism, here was a descendent of the nation's first inhabitants - people whose land and way of life were stripped from them - thoughtfully demonstrating love of his country as well as his heritage. It was such an honor to meet him and witness a historic occasion together. He asked if I had a card so I wrote my email on the back of our HMA business card and gave it to him. His grandmother is buried in Ada and he used to live here at one time. He said the next time he is in my area he will contact me and perhaps we will be able to meet. I do hope he does because unfortunately I was rather in awe of him and didn't think to ask for his contact information.
I drove to Durant on a whim. I did so because I have learned to listen to my inner voice. Yes, I saw people being idiots. But I also met someone who makes me proud to be Choctaw, proud to be an American, and yes, proud to be an Oklahoman. Despite what you see on the news, Oklahomans are good people. Yes, we have our problem children but they don't define us all. And that is why I tell my stories. I refuse to allow the ignorant to be the only voices heard.
I drove home with the windows down, something I rarely do in my air conditioned car. The sun was setting, the temperature had cooled and I just needed to soak up every bit of this place I love. I drove past small family farms, cattle grazing in lush pastures, the humid evening air scented by freshly baled hay. I smiled at the signs warning to watch for horse drawn vehicles as I passed through a small Amish settlement. I slowed to a crawl through tiny towns with a reputation for ticketing speeders, a major source of income for places with little more than a school, a gas station and a couple of churches. I considered all I had seen that day. The good, bad and the ugly. And I decided to focus on the good.