During the day, she helped pick the fruits and vegetables that fed post-war America. At night, her bed was beneath the canvas-covered, flat-bed truck that had brought her and her family from eastern Oklahoma to the migrant fields of California, Oregon and Washington. Each time the family moved to pick a new crop, she found herself starting over in a new school, where teachers placed her in the back of the room because they expected her to lag behind all the others.Today, Glenna Wallace looks back on that experience and also her years growing up poor in rural Oklahoma and recalls one of the important lessons she learned at an early age: without education, there are few choices in life.
“I can recall as a child looking at my mother and even at the age of 11 or 12, realizing that she had very few options in life,” Wallace said. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, I just knew I wanted options and the only way to do that was through education.”
By any measure, Wallace achieved her goal. A wife and mother of three, Wallace earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and an education specialist degree from Pittsburg State University. She spent nearly 40 years as a community college teacher and administrator and to top it off, in 2006 she was elected the first female chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
It is not a life most people would have expected for a poor Native American child in northeastern Oklahoma.
“I was born in Ottawa County – actually born at home in a log house down by a creek and lived there most of my growing up years,” Wallace said. “I went to a rural school called Moccasin Bend Rural School Dist. No. 5.”
Wallace’s life story begins like that of so many other members of her tribe. Her mother was Eastern Shawnee. For a time, her father, who was not Native American, worked in the lead and zinc mines at Picher, Okla., but it was impossible to get ahead, especially with five children. When Wallace was about third grade, the family pulled up stakes and joined thousands moving west in search of a better life.
“There was always that dream of doing better elsewhere,” Wallace said. “So he (her father) cashed in his mining settlement and purchased a big, flat-bed farm truck. He put poles up on it and tossed a tarp over the top. Remember that picture of Granny with the “Beverly Hillbillies” with the rocking chair going out to California? Well that’s what we did.”
All together, there were 11 who made the trip, including Wallace, her four siblings, her parents, an aunt and uncle and their two children. They parked the truck in abandoned barns and city parks, working the harvest from south to north. After three difficult years, they returned to Oklahoma.
“We didn’t find that rich land that we thought we were going to find and my father’s health had gone bad by that time,” Wallace recalled. “So he (Wallace’s father) came back and had surgery. We returned to the same place we had left. I returned to the rural school and graduated from the 8th grade there.”
By the time Wallace graduated from high school – the first
female in her family to do so – she was also married.
After high school, Wallace worked and had three children, but the drive to continue her education kept nagging at her. With the support and encouragement of her husband, Wallace enrolled at NEO A&M in Miami when her youngest was a year old.
She earned 56 hours of credit at NEO before transferring to PSU to complete a bachelor’s degree. She immediately began work on a master’s degree.
“I never thought that would be possible,” she said.
In 1968, with her master’s degree in hand, Wallace landed a teaching position at Crowder College. Over the years at Crowder, she taught English and served in a variety of administrative roles. She also began work on her education specialist degree. Her husband, who had been so supportive of her educational endeavors, died in 1988, just as Wallace was completing her Ed.S.
Although she was not “raised actively” in her Native American culture, Wallace’s interest in the tribe, its culture and its history had grown during her adult life as she watched her mother get more involved with the tribe.
“My mother became secretary-treasurer of the tribe,” Wallace said. “Seeing her work in that naturally brought me in.”
Another thing that sparked Wallace’s interest was the tribe’s growing focus on finance and business.
“I was interested in finances, Wallace said. “So I ran for the business committee. I was on the business committee for more than 15 years.”
In 2006, she decided to run for election as chief and won, becoming the first woman to ever hold that position. She was re-elected in 2012.
Since then, Wallace has found herself very busy.
The tribe had operated Bordertown Casino for years but took a gigantic leap into the competitive resort casino business in northeast Oklahoma with the opening of Indigo Sky, an $85-million resort hotel and casino just southwest of Seneca, Mo.
“When my mother was the secretary-treasurer, our income was $50 a year,” Wallace laughed. “When you go from that to undertaking an $85-million project, that’s a great accomplishment.”
In addition to the casino, the tribe manages other business investments, including banks.
“We own 57 percent of the People’s Bank of Seneca,” Wallace said. “We just opened a new branch close to Joplin on Highway 43. It’s a beautiful facility. We’re now looking for a third location.”
This growth is helping the tribe address some of its most intractable issues, Wallace said.
“The tribe has been so poor since we came to Oklahoma,” Wallace said. “In the 1930s, we had such a difficult financial time that many of our people left. ”
Given her own attitude about education, it is no surprise that one of the tribal initiatives that Wallace is most proud of is its support for higher education.
“We encourage our youth, even our adults to go back to school,” Wallace said. “We pay up to $4,500 per semester. If they graduate and go on to graduate school, it’s $8,000 per semester for master’s and above. We now have approximately 300 of our tribal citizens in those higher education offerings. That’s something we’re proud of. We long for the day – and again this is beginning to happen – that our own tribal citizens are able to complete those training courses and come back and work for us, so that they can have a nice wage and make a contribution to the culture and to the success of our businesses.”
At the same time the Eastern Shawnee have worked to build on their financial success, they have also been working to strengthen their cultural heritage.
“We were forced out of Ohio in 1832,” Wallace said. “We basically lost everything. By 1900, we were down to just 63 people. With 63 people, we did not retain our language. We lost our ceremonials. We lost even our history about that removal.”
Today, 180 years after they were forced from their homelands in Ohio, the tribe is working to recover as much of its history as possible, Wallace said. Their goal is to pass it along to a new generation of Eastern Shawnee.
“In the appropriate months we have social dances,” Wallace said. “Animals are a very large part of Native American culture and we have many social dances that are named after animals. We teach our young people those dances and the elders come and watch and more and more some of those elders are getting up and dancing.”
Wallace said other tribes have helped the Eastern Shawnee recover some of their culture.
“It had to be inter-tribal,” Wallace said. “Other tribes taught us.”
“When (the powwows) first started, I can think of only one person who wore Shawnee regalia or knew any of the dances,” Wallace said. “When we had our powwow this year, I wouldn’t have been surprised if we didn’t have 40 or 50 of our own tribal citizens who were dressed in regalia and who were participating, some of them in competition.”
Wallace said the tribe has received a grant to research the tribes’ removal from Ohio.
“We’re hoping to learn more of our history,” Wallace said. “We’re learning more of the stories and learning more about how the Ohio people felt about our leaving. It’s exciting, not just for us as Eastern Shawnee, but for the nine federally recognized tribes in Ottawa County.”
Wallace believes the future for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe is bright.
“There’s an enormous growth in pride and we have a belief in ourselves,” Wallace said. “I have to give credit to the United States. Although we still have bias and although we still have prejudice, more and more ethnic groups are able to retain their identity and retain their culture and the world is realizing that it makes a richer heritage for all of us.”
Wallace said she hopes that pride spreads, both among those Eastern Shawnee in eastern Oklahoma and those scattered across the U.S.
“I often hear the expression, ‘It’s in the blood, it’s going to call you back,’” she said. “I suppose it’s about always wondering who you are and who those people were who came before you. So there is a calling. If you ever go to a powwow, and you ever hear that drum, then there’s no return.” •