Statehood for Oklahoma

Oklahoma was known as Indian Territory from 1834 to 1890 when the Oklahoma Territory was founded, and only became a state in the 20th century. Indian Territory was a new homeland for the Native American people who were “removed” from their homes in the states. In 1889, new settlers were allowed to move into the “unassigned lands” which became Oklahoma Territory.

New settlers coming from the States wanted statehood. They were used to having representation in Congress, and they immediately began working to get the rights and benefits of statehood. The Native American population initially resisted statehood, but changed their minds in the 20th century.

Four statehood plans

The settlers in Oklahoma knew that they wanted statehood, but there were four different possible plans.

  • They could join with the remaining Indian Territory and become a single state.
  • They could join as two states: Oklahoma and Indian Territory, which could have become the state of Sequoyah.
  • Oklahoma could become a state, with the Indian Territory joining when they were ready.
  • Oklahoma could become a state, and each Native American tribal group could be admitted in a gradual movement toward statehood for the Indian Territory as a whole. 

In 1905, there were two territories:  the remains of the Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory. Indian Territory held a constitutional convention and decided to request admission as the state of Sequoyah.

Both Oklahoma and Sequoyah lobbied vigorously for statehood, and both had statehood bills introduced in Congress without success. Politicians from the East worried about introducing two Western states at once. They thought the West might get too much power.

Admitting states in pairs

Before and at the beginning of the Civil War, Congress specifically wanted to admit states in pairs to keep a balance between states that allowed slavery and states that did not. While it is a strange idea now, at that time the leaders of the nation believed that the enormous controversy over slavery could best be controlled by having an equal number of representatives for each position.

The tradition of managing power in Congress clearly still had some influence. Easterners feared the influence two Western states might have.

As late as the 1950s, the last time a territory became a state, people still had the idea of admitting states in pairs. In the case of Alaska and Hawaii, it was expected that Hawaii would be a Republican state and Alaska would be a Democratic state. In fact, things turned out exactly opposite.

There are still people today who believe that states have to be admitted in pairs. This is not a law, just a tradition. Oklahoma became the first 20th century state by itself.

A Native American state?

The bills for statehood went to committee, just as Puerto Rico’s Admission Act has gone to committee, and the committee invited expert witnesses to discuss the various statehood plans. Some testimony centered on the legal issues involved in having a state controlled by the various Native American nations.

Since those nations were sovereign, their position with the United States was complicated. The treaty for the Creek nation, for example, specifically said that they wouldn’t be part of any state.

States are sovereign, as territories are not, but it was not clear how a group of Native American nations could share political power as a state. Only about 13% of the population of the proposed state of Sequoyah was Native American at that point, so the government had to work for the settlers as well.

A single state

Railroads and other business interests were in favor of having one state instead of two.

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt spoke up in favor of making the two territories into a single state. In 1906, the Oklahoma Admission Act came before Congress.

When the bill ran into controversy, residents of Oklahoma Territory sent letters and telegrams to Congress. “I beg of you,” one said, “as a citizen of Oklahoma, to concur in the late action of the Senate and give Oklahoma and Indian Territory the greatly desired well deserved relief.”

That relief was statehood.

The constitution written for Sequoyah ended up being very influential in Oklahoma, and the single state movement became the popular choice. But it wasn’t until September of 1907 that Oklahoma held a vote on statehood. It was the final formality before Oklahoma’s admission.

Oklahoma became a state in November of 1907.

Lessons for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is going through some of the same things Oklahoma went through. The Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018 is not the first statehood bill, and it may not be the last. Many territories had to work for years to become states.

Oklahoma had some serious political issues to deal with. Some people wanted different outcomes from others, and compromises were required.  The question of sovereignty came up for Oklahoma, as it has for Puerto Rico. Decisions had to made about languages, since there were 50 or more different languages spoken in Oklahoma and Indian Territories.

Puerto Rico will work through the complexities of becoming a state, just as Oklahoma has. Tell your legislators that you want statehood for Puerto Rico.

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