Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles, and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.
“We cannot stay another year; we want to go now, before another year has passed, we may all be dead, and there will be none of us left to travel north.”
—Chief Morning Star of the Cheyenne. Oklahoma, 1877
We all came from the wound. Dry red dirt on the soles of their feet, the families of the fighting Cheyenne escaped an Oklahoma prison camp in darkness. Big land, Oklahoma, and fertile like the arms of a lover. But in the dawn of that age a tide of destiny was made manifest and rode west like a beast of prey, and none were safe and none secure and all were eaten and devoured and scattered. “North, we must go north,” said Dull Knife, “and if we die we die north. Not here, where we die like dogs.” And so Dull Knife’s band gathered their small number and fled under cover of night, fighting at the rearguard with pursuant Cavalry, advancing with the vanguard back to the home country. Their teeth dry and white, they moved fast, and water pulled at their wind-torn eyes and night went to day and day fell again to night.
Farther north and farther west they met their end in an unholy place made desolate with body and bone and blood.
Northward, flurries of snow placed white ledges on the limbs of trees and as the band progressed the sky turned densely opaque until land and sky were one and the edges of the world had smoothed into a blanket under which their dreams and desires slept like animals of a forgotten country, like bears under the dark pull of den and body and breath.
Split and split again, the band was small, and tracked and cornered, captured. Imprisoned a second time, the shadow of a raven’s wing fell on the heads of women and men. Led by Big Bear, the number only 30, the people undestroyed, they stood together and pronounced what must not be pronounced. Surrounded by sentinels at Fort Robinson, locked in, starved, the men were separated from the women, and the women on occasion allowed to go to them. Here the women spoke fiercely to their husbands, “Take your stand. Die fighting. We cannot go back. We cannot go forward. Die with dignity. We are with you. We love you forever.” And Big Bear answered, “Yes. I have lived enough. I am ready.” And together, the men said, “If our women are willing to die with us, who is there to say no? If we are to do the deeds of men, bring us our guns.” And the women smiled and in their hearts they sang the dying song, and aloud they said, “We have hidden your weapons in the folds of our clothing,” and under concealment of night and sky the women brought forth pieces of the weapons, and the men assembled the weapons and stored them under a floorboard for the appointed time.
The men killed the sentinels first, and took their guns. Then the Cheyenne fled to the nearest gully, women and men and children, and braced themselves. The blue soldiers came on with vengeance in their eyes and rage in the marbled pillars of their necks, hordes of men alive in the predawn dark.
The Cheyenne warriors raised their guns until the bullets were gone.
Then they bared their chests to the enemy.
The women stood and held their children up toward the oncoming light.
They died together in that place. Black wound against the winter white.
Shann Ray holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Alberta. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Narrative Magazine, Story Quarterly, and other publications. He played college basketball at Montana State University and Pepperdine University, and played professional basketball in Germany. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches Leadership and Forgiveness Studies at Gonzaga University.