“… young Sanora sought refuge with the Otoe people…”

From Jan Lisa Huttner (Editor-in-Chief of FF2 Media): 

Poet Iris Jamahl Dunkle, having completed a masterful biography of Charmian Kittredge London, is now doing in depth research on her next subject: Sanora Babb. And FF2 Media is proud to announce that we will be traveling with her!

We have several reasons for embarking on this journey with Iris. First and foremost, Iris is a well-respected writer who delves deeply into the lives of women writers who deserve to be better known than they have been heretofore. By traveling with her, we will not only learn more about her subjects, but we will also learn more about her process. How does one talented woman go about exploring the life and work of another? What will Iris see on her journey that others have overlooked? How will Iris convince us that we need to learn more about Sanora Babb too? When will Sanora Babb reveal herself to us as someone pointing the way forward?

For background, click on link to read Iris’s FF2 feature Once Eclipsed, Sanora Babb’s Dust Bowl Novel Demands Our Attention which we posted on 9/9/21.

On the Road with Sanora Babb: Part 1, Origins and Oklahoma

The rising sun glinted off of the tall buildings in Oklahoma City as I turned off I-35 to head up route 66 towards Red Rock, where Sanora Babb had spent the first five years of her life.

The day before, I’d flown over Oklahoma – the land beneath me like a worn carpet – thinking what part of Babb’s story; what part of Oklahoma’s story; what part of my ancestral story had been erased because the single story of the Dust Bowl found in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath had been so widely accepted as the truth about this place?

My grandmother, who left her family’s ruined farm in Hinton to seek work in California, always told me that Steinbeck didn’t get our story right. And driving down these back highways I wished for her ghost, wished to tell her that I finally understood. The land is beautiful. Large expanses, dotted with giant rolls of hay, bordered each side of the road. Cattle lingered and looked up at me from green fields. Oklahoma didn’t look like the site of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Instead, clean rivers ran. White herons flapped their wings and rose into the sky.

Carole Angier wrote, “biography is always a matter of joining holes together like a net.” I’ve been writing Sanora Babb’s biography for the past year and I am here in Red Rock to find a way to stitch the holes together, to find the narrative of her early life. And thankfully, this morning, Sanora Babb wasn’t hiding. I could feel her childhood – its story – press up against me in the morning air.

When I finally reach the town of Red Rock, it is 10 a.m. I don’t know what I expected, but it isn’t what I find. There are no businesses. Few houses. In a word, Red Rock is destitute.

The large grain elevator loomed tallest next to the railroad tracks. On the streets, trailers were set in between the ruins of the past. Rotting brick buildings were collapsing in on themselves behind trees and vines. I walked up and down the street taking photographs and a small dog ran up to me. When I reached down to pet it, a voice called out from inside a trailer, “Watch out, he might bite you!”

Besides that curt warning, no one spoke to me. The clouds bruised the sky above. It was difficult to see the layout of the old town. Where was McSweeney’s Café where Walter Babb (Sanora’s father) had first worked as a baker for Doc, his first baseman? Where was the Yellow Dog Saloon where Walter had gambled away everything Jennie (Sanora’s mother) tried to earn running their bakery?

On my way out of town, I am chased by two pit bulls. They grow and lunge, but I just look down and keep walking.

The road that exists today is not the same as the roads and trails Sanora would ride her pony, the pony given to her by Chief Black Hawk. She would ride bareback, clinging to his mane through the tall singing grass to the safety she found on the Otoe reservation. As she remembered in a letter, “[on the reservation] I was very happy. There was much violence at home.” Sanora’s father Walter had not wanted children. So, when Walter abused her mother Jennie, young Sanora sought refuge with the Otoe people.

Today, over 1,500 enrolled members of the tribe live in Oklahoma. The reservation, which now hosts the Seven Clans Casino, is just north of Red Rock. I drive down to the summer encampment grounds where the Otoe still gather for a week each summer.

In Sanora’s time, they had both winter and summer encampments, and they were located south of where they are now. The Otoe would buy hundreds of cakes and pastries from the Babb’s bakery for the encampments, so many that they would need to deliver them by the wagonload. To Sanora, the part of her childhood that stuck with her the most was not the small town of Red Rock itself, but the Otoe people who kept her safe from the violence of her family.

Sanora treasured the pair of moccasins that Chief Black Hawk gave her when she was five for the rest of her life. You can still find them in her collected papers at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin (TX).

As I leave the reservation, I head east toward the Cherokee Strip Museum in Perry, where I’m hoping they’ll have more information on the early history of Red Rock. Perry is one of the towns that grew overnight from the Land Runs of 1889. The tiny museum is just off the road, and I am the only one inside.

Signage leads me past photographs of the Otoe summer encampments from June 1906, then more photographs of Red Rock’s train station as well as the Yellow Dog Saloon. There is also a display with some of the gear carried by the Land Run boomers. The curator promises to send me what she can find in the archives about the early history of the town, and I leave to drive south back to Oklahoma City not sure which ghost travels with me: my grandmother’s or Sanora Babb’s.

Later that day I’ll find Walter Babb’s grandfather’s homestead claim at the Oklahoma Historical Society, and I’ll be brought to tears listening to the history of Oklahoma Native Americans at the newly opened First American’s Museum. When I return to my hotel and prepare to board a plane back home the next day, I feel I have found the threads I need to sew this net of Sanora Babb’s early life together.

© Iris Jamahl Dunkle (11/5/21) Special for FF2 Media

PHOTO CREDITS

Featured Photo: An image of the Otoe-Missouria Creation Myth Depicted at the First American’s Museum in Oklahoma City.

Bottom Photo: The 1906 Summer Encampment of the Otoe-Missouria.

Photos taken inside the First American’s Museum in Oklahoma City were taken by Iris Jamahl Dunkle for FF2 Media © FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as the link to FF2’s webpage is included in the credit.

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Iris Jamahl Dunkle wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian Kittredge London (wife of American author Jack London) Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2020. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry and Translation Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her fourth collection of poems, West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing in 2021. She is currently writing a biography about Sanora Babb.

Tags: Cherokee Strip Museum, FF2 Media, First American’s Museum OK, Harry Ransom Center, International SWANs, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, iswans, John Steinbeck, Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma Land Run, Otoe People Oklahoma, Perry OK, Red Rock OK, Sanora Babb, Support Women Artists Now, The Grapes of Wrath

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Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet who lives in Northern California. She wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian London, Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020). Her fourth collection of poems, West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing in 2021. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry and Translation Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference and is currently writing a full length biography of the author Sanora Babb.
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