Skip to main content


The 75th anniversary of the State of Oklahoma's admission to the Unites States - its Diamond Jubilee - was celebrated at the 1982 Festival with the presentation of cultural traditions that Oklahomans nourish and support. Music and craft traditions associated with diverse ethnic groups in Oklahoma were presented, as well as skills, knowledge, and lore associated with two major Oklahoma institutions - horses and oil. Indeed, a horse-racing track and show ring were created in the center of the National Mall to host programs spotlighting Oklahoma horse culture.

The strength of folklife in Oklahoma stems from contrasts in the state's landscape and diversity of its cultures. The original settlers in the area now Oklahoma were the Osages, Quapaws, Caddos, Pawnees, Wichitas, Comanches, and Kiowas, but in the 1820s as the Indian removal from the South became the national goal, the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly marched to "Indian Territory." During the next fifty years, additional tribes were removed to the Territory until today over fifty-five tribes are represented within the state.

In non-Indian culture Oklahoma is a late-comer. White settlement did not start until 1889 with the first land run, and for the next fifteen years additional Indian lands were opened through other land runs, lotteries, and allotments. Oklahoma became the melting pot of the nation. Because it offered free farm land for many new European immigrants, more people moved into Oklahoma in a shorter period of time than any other migration in American history. Also, mining - particularly coal mining - was developed by Indians in the eastern Territory, which attracted many Italian, as well as Mexican and Welsh immigrants, to the new coal fields, and communities that were predominantly Italian grew up around them. Other communities predominantly of one ethnic group, such as Polish, German, Russian-German, Czech and Slovak, were established in the free land areas of central and western Oklahoma, and their Old World traditions continue to flourish until now.

Next to Anglo, Mexican, and Indian cultures, blacks compose the largest ethnic group, but even some black traditions were transported to Oklahoma by Indians. Many citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes were plantation slave holders in their southern homes, and when they were removed to Indian Territory, they took their cotton farming traditions and slaves with them. When the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves of the Indians, they became known as Indian Freedmen and congregated into all-black settlements. Later, a movement was started to make Oklahoma an all-black state.

Music has played a strong role in all areas of Oklahoma folklife. Fiddle music is widespread and its various styles reflect the state's diversification. Western swing and dance music developed into what is often referred to as the Texas-Oklahoma style, in which a "breakdown" is slowed and the full bow is used; still, a hybrid Oklahoma fiddler has the ability to play almost any style. Places where Saturday night dances are held can be found in communities of all sizes as well as in the country, miles from the nearest town. A cultural blend of musical styles, western swing has one primary characteristic - a danceable beat. While country and bluegrass music primarily emerged as listening traditions, the principal audience for western swing is a dancing crowd. If the listeners on a Saturday night outnumber the dancers, the band has failed at playing good western swing.

Not all music is secular, for gospel is also very much alive. The tradition of shape-note singing was first introduced among the Five Civilized Tribes and taught to the Indian Freedmen. Shape-note singing became widespread among Christians, and, as whites settled in the state, the singing schools expanded. Indian crafts proliferate in Oklahoma. In the past decade, increasing numbers of persons from many tribes have moved to Oklahoma, often as a result of marrying a person from an Oklahoman tribe, but just as often to relocate to a good crafts market. The crafts of Oklahoman tribes include baskets, pottery, flute making, woodcarving, headwork, hidework, patchwork, appliquework, featherwork, quilting and German silverwork. They continue to flourish as old ways are increasingly appreciated and practiced.

Sue Manos served as Oklahoma Program Coordinator.

Previous | Next >

Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.