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Where the buffalo abides

Tragedy and farce at the Perryman Ranch

On a mound of Oklahoma moss rock, his black eyes fixed on a gravel road, stands a statue of a mythical beast known as Yvnvssv Hetke (pronounced Yuh-nuh-suh Hect-ee), Mvskoke for “white buffalo.” The white buffalo of the Perryman Ranch has been gracing southern Elwood Avenue for decades, a silent observer to the encroachment of suburbia on what was once the richest cattle land in the Creek Nation. 

From Yvnvssv Hetke’s perch, the tops of new houses look like giant mushrooms popping up in a landscape of tall grasses, blackjack and pear trees, the latter planted by Mose Perryman in the 19th century. The houses are an invasive species for the American buffalo, an animal brought to the brink of extinction in the recent past, and now, in a twist of irony, reborn as the symbol of all things Okie. 

Yvnvssv Hetke resides within the jurisdiction of Jenks, USA, where Native American history sells at a deep discount to subdivisions and big box stores. Only about a month ago, this white buffalo witnessed history being carried away by the truckload during an auction of Perryman Ranch artifacts. Among those artifacts was a massive wooden mortar and pestle known as a keco kecvpe in Creek. During the ranch’s heyday—when cattle, not oil, was king in Tulsa—this keco kecvpe was a sort of proto-blender for sofke, a staple of the Mvskoke diet. 

On a rainy spring day in 2016, Robert Trepp told me to pick up this particular keco kecvpe. Imagine a wood baseball bat designed for the half-giant Hagrid. I was barely able to lift it, but then I dropped it on the mortar of dense bois d’arc wood. It made a dull thud. “Put hominy in that and pound it till it cracks,” Trepp said. “Then do it all day long. That was how women made sofke back then.”  

Trepp was a descendant of the founder of the Perryman Ranch, and did what he could to maintain its character in the face of the deterioration of the early 20th century house and its ever-shrinking number of livestock. A number of structures date back to pre-statehood days. The original ranch house, built by Mose Perryman in 1898, had welcomed visitors from “the States” (as the U.S. was referred to in the Creek Nation) to Indian Territory, functioning as a sort of guest house in the area. The house burned to the ground, but was rebuilt in a grander fashion in 1910, when several families lived on the property. 

One of the oldest buildings—called the bunkhouse—was home to a freedman family who had most likely been descendants of Mose Perryman’s Creek slaves. And here we come to a difficult subject in the story of Tulsa’s “first family.” Before Emancipation, Perryman had many slaves, and there are stories about Creeks of African ancestry intermixed into even the most prominent members of the family. 

Slavery practiced here, on this relatively far-flung outpost along the Arkansas River, was unrecognizable to white slave owners from the Deep South. One visitor described the Perryman slaves as having houses with clapboard roofs, wood plank floors, glass windows and stone fireplaces, their cabins in better condition than those of many white sharecroppers back east. The slaves also had no overseer, and one white visitor from Arkansas was perplexed to find Perryman’s slaves planting vegetables for their own consumption. “The Chief treats his Negroes like hired hands,” the Arkansan mused. 

*  *  *

If you own a house anywhere in southern Tulsa County, the name Perryman might be familiar to you. On the first page of my abstract to a midtown property there are two Perrymans, along with a notation that, in 1852,  President Millard Fillmore issued title to this land to the Creek Nation “for as long as they shall exist as a nation.” Perrymans served as Principal Chiefs, lawyers, landowners and postmasters before the discovery of oil changed everything in Tulsa. 

The Perryman family is often said to be Tulsa’s founding family. But the family’s history, and the ranch itself, are an anomaly. After the Civil War, the federal government began pushing a scheme known as allotment, forcing the Five Tribes to exchange their sovereignty for a title to 160 acres. The discovery of oil turned allotments into sites for plunder and crime. Kidnappings, killings and swindles happened all around Tulsa as 90 percent of Creek land made its way into white hands in the first decade after allotment. Only a tiny fraction of allotments today remain in the hands of the allotees’ descendants. The Perryman Ranch, meanwhile, was handed down in an unbroken line of succession for at least five generations, surviving “the orgy of exploitation” (Angie Debo’s words) of the early 20th century and the rebirth of tribal sovereignty in the past half century. All of that is on the verge of changing now. 

When Trepp’s grandmother died, the ranch’s heirship was contested, bringing about a bitter legal battle. Decades later, the fight over what was once eastern Oklahoma’s wealthiest ranch still stung. In 2016, I asked Trepp about the fallout. The normally voluble man went quiet. He took in a deep breath. “It got sold,” he said finally. “It was all about the money.”

In the 1980s, a caretaker brought a white bison calf to the ranch. The American Bison Association estimates one in 10 million American buffalo are born white. In some Native American traditions, this calf was a sacred symbol of either an impending age of harmony or—depending on the tradition—an omen of tragedy. Among the Lakota it is the most sacred of animals. The birth of a white bison on a farm in New England in 2012 occasioned a voyage by a delegation of Lakota to see this rare calf. The event was national news.

So what to make of the low profile of Jenks’ own white bison? There may have been more to Yvnvssv Hetke than one might first suppose. Looking closely at old photos of Yvnvssv, one sees a few striking features. His horns look more like those of a steer, and he’s missing the telltale beard of a bison. He has a hump, yes, but it’s more like an Oklahoma hill than a Montana peak. It is entirely possible that Yvnvssv Hetke was actually a mixed-breed ‘Beefalo.’ We will never know—all his owners and caretakers have died. 

Before the mushrooms of subdivisions, this Yvnvssv Hetke roamed the 80 acres that remained of the land, becoming a sort of local eccentricity among suburbanites. The caretaker wanted to sell off Yvnvssv Hetke. Robert Trepp would not allow it. He bought the bovine and showed him off to Native Americans from around the country who came to visit. Then, one day in the late 1990s, the white buffalo escaped the grounds and wandered down Elwood Avenue, a mythical lone bison lost in exurban America. Yvnvssv Hetke was recaptured and put back in his proper place, where he would live another dozen or so years feasting on pears from Mose’s trees. 

*  *  *

Last spring it was announced that the entire Perryman Ranch would go up for auction. A piece of Tulsa’s history would be sold to the highest bidder. Then, Shaw Homes announced designs for a subdivision of new houses and wetlands. In preparation for destruction of the ranch, an auction was held in early November. A description by Mr. Ed’s Auctions listed, among other things, a “primitive mortar and pestle,” for sale. That was the keco kecvpe I once held. 

As news of the Perryman Ranch auction spread, social media rang out with an outcry among Creek people and local preservationists. It seemed impossible that such a pivotal place could be so quickly plowed under. As recently as 2010, Sen. Jim Inhofe, along with city and state officials, had proclaimed a Perryman Ranch Day to celebrate the house’s centennial. But the spirit of fatalism that hangs over so much life in Oklahoma started to settle in. The inevitable march of progress, some sighed.

On Nov. 7, however, Jenks Planning Commission announced that plans were on hold. Planning director Jim Beach said in an email that city staff was waiting on answers from the owner. “When staff is satisfied that anticipated questions from citizens [have been answered], we’ll set it for hearing and give public notice as required by Jenks ordinances,” Beach said.

The Perryman Ranch is not on any sort of historical registry—incredible, considering its significance in Tulsa’s origin story. To qualify for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, a place needs to be assessed by State Historic Preservation Office. Oklahoma has hundreds of sites listed, but only one related to the Perrymans: an oil pumping station behind a chainlink fence down the road on Elwood from the ranch. Tulsans might be selectively amnesic about their history, but they never leave out the oil. 

Before Monetta and Robert Trepp died, they dreamed of starting a cultural center in Tulsa that would form as a common meeting point for the members of the 70-odd tribes whose citizens live in the city. They started to fundraise, but things started to fall apart after Monetta died in 2013. Although they have passed on, their property remains in limbo, a piece of Tulsa’s history unrecognized by the state, national or tribal institutions that could save it. 

Although many of its artifacts have been sold off, Yvnvssv Hetke still stands on his mound of moss rock, a look of curiosity filling his black eyes. As buyers carted off the remains of this once wealthy ranch, this white buffalo might have contemplated the old dictum that history repeats itself: first time as tragedy, and second time as farce. 

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