The Heritage Trees

by Spencer McCoy


On a rolling hill, wedged between downtown Tulsa and the mixed residential of Carson Heights, sits a small park with a well-manicured lawn surrounded by a low, wrought-iron fence. There are a few benches, some greenery, and a small set of statues frozen in action around a pole with an animal skull on top. Directly across the street, another sculpture—this one of a fire, large metal tendrils climbing toward the sky, cold brass forever burning. Odd though they are against the backdrop of cramped apartment complexes, these figures are not what make the corner of Cheyenne Avenue and 18th Street memorable. The memory lies in the Council Oak tree, the mature burr oak standing as a silent sentinel over the flames.

Around the U.S. there are many “heritage trees” marking the ceremonial and cultural importance of a specific place. Many of these trees—mostly over 100 years old—have beheld drastic overthrows of civilizations, often accompanied by bloodshed. As Michael Harkin, the chair of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, says, “The landscape bears traces, both physical and linguistic, of past events. In some instances this process alters the actual topography … in other cases, it is linguistic practice.” Through the establishment, naming, and narrative of the Council Oak and its brethren, the trees are imbued with meaning, and affect the present.

Once, the Council Oak stood taller than almost anything in Tulsa—limbs spreading wide over the plains—but now it is overshadowed by middling office buildings and condos. From the base of the tree the Spirit Bank building is easily visible, with its neon green highlights and large American flag merrily waving high overhead. Cars drive by, hurrying home from work. Mere feet from the Council Oak, the light from a TV flickers through a window.

* * *

Our soil is soaked in Native American blood. As the nation attempts to re-establish social and cultural roots, we encounter the severed roots of those that were here before us. And often we just attempt to thrust past them in our search for an unsullied heritage.

When I first heard of the Council Oak, my knowledge of the homeland was primarily experiential. In the acres of forest behind my house, I had pondered upon the best thinking rocks, gazed from the tops of the toughest climbing trees, scouted and built upon the hills suitable for fortifications. The base of my knowledge was physical and concrete; I did not comprehend the heritage of the land my feet ran and jumped upon. For me, Native American identity only resided in movies and the names of street signs. So, my first brush with the memories of the Council Oak created quite an impression.

My 9th grade Oklahoma history class was making a tour of the Art Deco buildings of Tulsa—remnants of an era commanded by oil barons—with a brief stop at the founding site of the city: a big oak tree. As the group began to gather in a semicircle around the teachers jointly guiding the trip, I didn’t give the tree much thought. Beyond that it was pretty and climbable, my attention was elsewhere. The teachers talked a bit about something or another, but I was more interested in what my friends had to say. Still, certain words trickled down through my consciousness and began to resonate. Disease. Exhaustion. Death march. When they began to discuss the horrors of the Trail of Tears—which the tree in part commemorates—I was aghast. The abandonment of the Native American Creek tribe’s traditional home in 1834, the spoiled meat “provided” by the U.S. government, the forced marches, the harsh weather, and the thought of seeing grandfathers and daughters and friends wither and die upon the trail sickened me. It was not as though I had not heard the tales before, but that day there was the tree— the tree that watched as the remnants of the Mvskoke tribe rekindled the live coals from their last fire from their home in Alabama into flames—commemorating their dead. The tree that saw the remaining 469, whittled down from 630 by affliction after affliction, tribe members promise not to forget their fallen comrades. The tree, swallowed up in the rumbling of cars, apartment doors opening and closing, and animated chatter of high school students, whispered even louder its recollections.

A common thread in the establishment and continuation of sacred sites, especially heritage trees, is described by Carolyn Prorok, a specialist in cultural geography:

“… many sacred sites were destroyed or built over by the conquering party, especially in the Western Hemisphere, and especially those of indigenous peoples whose lands were being absorbed or who were forcibly removed from favored lands. Add to this the inundation by foreign migrants who arrived by the hundreds of thousands and brought with them their own notions of what constituted a sacred place …”

This concept is reflected in the devaluation of living memorials, like the Council Oak, whose branches almost brush against the apartments of downtown Tulsa, whose memories are ignored by almost all but the Mvskoke, and whose sacred grounds are often used as a dog park.

But, there is hope. As in the case of the Treaty Oak, the power of the physical tree, a witness to a multitude of human interactions, can be appreciated. It is the last of the 14 oaks regarded as tree-gods and temples by the Comanche and Tonkawa of what is now Austin, Texas. The bands would gather under its widespread branches for sacred ceremonies; the tree was a witness to religious and tribal ritual. Legend goes that the Tejas Native American women would settle at the base of the tree and brew a tea to ensure the everlasting love and safety of the male warriors. The same Comanche bands that prayed under the tree would later be killed or driven from their home—their sacred places—to be quarantined in Oklahoma—forced to live cramped against other traditionally hostile tribes.

The Treaty Oak contains collective memory—experiences and meaning and importance, remembered and passed down from generation to generation. Yet, as in the tradition of our nation, those whom did not take time to appreciate the cultural significance—or did not want to appreciate—have threatened the tree again and again. The Treaty Oak has survived 13 of the original 14 trees in the sacred grove. But many who understood the importance have rallied around it, trying to save it from harsh, ignorant hands. The sacred land was up for sale, and the tree was almost cut down in the late 1920s. It was saved by pleas from women’s and children’s groups and other institutions. In 1989, in an act of vandalism, the tree was deliberately poisoned with enough herbicide to kill a hundred trees. Infuriated by the treatment, the Austin community came together in an act of solidarity and raised enough funds and supports to save the tree. Although half of the crown was lost to poison, the tree still stands, memories etched into its scarred bark.

Recently, I encountered a young man named Austin showing his very drunk older cousin the Council Oak site. They were the first people that I had met there on my many visits. Austin said that Creek tribe members,who were friends of his parents, had originally brought him to the tree when he was 12. He had been touched when they told him the tree was a peace tree, saying, “No war should take place here.” While he explained this to me, his cousin pulled out a beer from his backpack, and opened it, spilling a good portion over the bag. The cousin stumbled over his words as he said, “I have a house right over there,” pointing vaguely toward downtown, “and I have friends there,” he gestured to the University Club apartments, spiraling over the landscape. “But I never knew this was here—I went by and thought it was not open to anyone—then he brought me here and I was like, cool!”

Austin patiently tolerated his cousin’s drunkenness, trying to get him read to the brass placards relaying the history of the Mvskoke Creek that encircled the statue of the flame. His cousin said it was too dark, and commented aside to me, slurring, “by my choice I wouldn’t be here.”

* * *

The land we live in is drenched in blood. Every inch and acre of it has been the subject of conflicts, arguments, and wars. The heritage trees established by the indigenous peoples of America often commemorate this blood—blood that remains when all else fails. But often, less value is placed on these treesby a nation trying to forget than trees marking current catastrophes afflicting the United States.

One such case is the tree known as the Survivor Tree, an American elm that rests in the memory of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On that fateful day one cold April, glass from 258 nearby buildings was shattered, cars were torn apart, virtually everything in the vicinity was obliterated. Except the Survivor Tree.

Before the bombing, the Survivor Tree was the only shade tree in the building’s parking lot. After the explosion, pieces of evidence were removed from the tree’s branches, blasted there from the force of the bomb—thus marking the tree as a witness. The tree was blackened, torn apart, and heavily damaged, but a year later, the tree began to bloom, a sign of hope. Now, the tree is featured prominently in the memorial, its seeds are collected and sown each year to create hundreds of saplings. The tree has become venerated for the collective memory that dwells in its branches. Bits and pieces of glass and debris still scar its trunk, still denote it as a living witness of terrorism. The inscription surrounding the trunk reads “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”

The Survivor Tree is admirable, and worthy of commemoration. But many American people focus more attention on the trees denoting current catastrophes and less those trees whose roots dig deepest. Although the Treaty Oak served to unite the Austin community, it is only a mere shade of the symbol the Survivor Tree is to many people, although it holds more history in its trunk. It is too easy to overlook the living witnesses found in the heritage trees of the Native American culture preceding us.

It is a tragic and convenient forgetting.

The Council Oak is still standing on the corner of 18th and Cheyenne. Yet, as the condos and parking lots and cars and shadows of downtown Tulsa encroach ever closer, it is in danger of falling. Falling not to any physical affliction, but rather by the weight of unappreciated memories; tilting in bloodsodden ground.