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Oklahoma

Oklahoma

Often ridiculed by the rest of the country as dust-filled and boring, Oklahoma has had a traumatic and far from dull history. In the 1830s all this land, held to be useless, was set aside as Indian Territory ; a convenient dumping ground for the so-called Five Civilized Tribes who blocked white settlement in the southern states. The Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi, the Seminole of Florida, and the Creek of Alabama were each assigned a share, while the rest (though already inhabited by indigenous Indians) was given to the Cherokee from Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, who followed in 1838 on the four-month trek notorious as "the Trail of Tears". Today the state has a large Native American population - oklahoma is the Choctaw word for "red man" - and even the smallest towns tend to have museums of Native American history.

Once white settlers realized that Indian Territory was, in fact, well worth farming, they decided to stay. The Indians were relocated once more, and in a series of manic free-for-all scrambles starting in 1889, entire towns sprang up literally overnight. Those who jumped the gun and claimed land illegally were known as Sooners; hence Oklahoma's nickname, the Sooner State . White settlers didn't have an easy life, however, facing, after great oil prosperity in the 1920s, an era of unthinkable hardship in the 1930s. The desperate migration, when whole communities fled the dust bowl for California, has come to encapsulate the worst horrors of the Depression, most famously in John Steinbeck's novel (and John Ford's film) The Grapes of Wrath , but also in Dorothea Lange's haunting photos of itinerant families, hitching and camping on the road, and in the sad yet hopeful songs of Woody Guthrie. After the slump of the early Thirties, improved farming techniques brought life, and people, back to Oklahoma. Today the state is known for its staunch conservatism; as the Bible Belt stronghold, bars and liquor stores close early, while tattoo parlors are banned altogether.

Oklahoma is not the flat and unchanging expanse of popular imagination. Most of its places of interest, such as attractive Tulsa, lie in the hilly wooded northeast; only the sparse and treeless west is devoid of appeal, on the far side of the central "tornado alley" prairie grassland which holds the state's revitalized capital, Oklahoma City . The lakes and parks of the south, which bears more than a passing resemblance to neighboring Arkansas (complete with mountains, foliage and bluegrass music), have made tourism Oklahoma's second industry after oil.