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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Milton Oskison (Cherokee)

John Oskison was born at Vinita in the Cherokee Nation, to a Cherokee mother and a white father. He began his college career at Willie Halsell College in his hometown; one of his classmates was the future movie-star cowboy Will Rogers, who became his lifelong friend. Leaving Indian Territory, Oskison embarked upon an exclusive education, finishing his B.A. at Stanford in 1898, then going to Harvard to study literature. He had already written for Cherokee Nation publications and for the Stanford magazine Sequoia, but Oskison's career as a writer took off while he was at Harvard. In 1899 he submitted his short story "Only the Master Shall Praise," which borrowed its title from Rudyard Kipling, to the Century magazine competition for college graduates. Oskison won the coveted prize, which brought him to national attention, and he embarked upon a long, flourishing career as a writer.

As an adult, Oskison was removed from Cherokee and other Native American populations by both geography and education. He drew upon his childhood in the Cherokee Nation for his material; his regionalist stories are set in Indian Territory and reproduce the cultural idiosyncracies and dialects of the many people who struggled to make the Territory their own. Published in the early years of the twentieth century, his short stories brought to national attention the particular culture and the peculiar conflicts that characterized Indian Territory in the last days before native governments were dissolved and the state of Oklahoma was created in their place. Oskison had a keen eye for the painful ironies that often surface in cultural conflict; his storis are populated with a miscellany of full and mixed-blood Cherokees as well as white cowboys, outlaws, ministers, and missionaries. His tales of Indian Territory, such as "The Problem of Old Harjo," "The Fall of King Chris," and "When the Grass Grew Long," were widely published in national magazines such as Century, North American Review and McClure's. In spite of his success, Oskison didn't continue writing short stories. Beginning in 1903, he devoted his time to journalism, which he pursued until 1912. Across those years he edited a daily newspaper, wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, and climbed the editorial ladder at Colliers, ending up as financial editor. His writings on finance were syndicated in several publications, and he was often called upon to write about Indian affairs.

The First World War interrupted Oskison's peaceful professional progression. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, and upon his return to the United States he began a third writing career, this time as a novelist. Again, he turned to the now long-gone Indian Territory for inspiration. Wild Harvest and Black Jack Davy, the two novels he published in the 1920s, concern white heroes. They evoke the desperate and ruthless mood that pervaded the final years of native government in Indian Territory; Oskison condemns the greed of both whites and mixed-bloods who took advantage of the chaos to line their own pockets. In 1929—an ironic year in which to publish the biography of a rich man—Oskison produced A Texas Titan, which told the story of Sam Houston. During the Great Depression, Oskison turned his eyes again to native subject matter, publishing Brothers Three, a novel that traces the tragedy of mixed-blood siblings who give up a traditional relationship to the land in order to pursue the American dream of individual wealth. Although Oskison's novels are not as appreciated as his shorter, earlier works, they round out a lifework concerned with the problems of mixed-race people struggling to make sense of a homeland and politics that were changing more quickly than their own abilities to adapt. In 1938, Oskison published Tecumseh and His Times, a biography of the Shawnee leader who led a confederacy of Native American nations to resist white encroachments on land and sovereignty. That biography was Oskison's last completed work. When he died in 1947, he was at work on an autobiography.

Bethany Ridgway Schneider
Oberlin College

In the Heath Anthology
The Problem of Old Harjo (1907)

Other Works
Wild Harvest: A Novel of Transition Days in Oklahoma (1925)
Black Jack Davy (1926)
A Texas Titan: the Story of Sam Houston (1929)
Brothers Three (1935)
Tecumseh and His Times: The Story of a Great Indian (1938)

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Diverse Tongues: A Sketch
Oskison's short essay online (provided by the UVA Electronic Text Project).

Native American Authors Project
Biographical sketch and links.

Secondary Sources

Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and James W. Parins, "Short Fiction Writer of the Indian Territory," American Studies 23 (Spring 1982):23-38

Gretchen Ronnow, "John Milton Oskison, Cherokee Journalist: Singer of the Semiotics of Power," Native Press Research Journal No. 4 (Spring 1987):1-14