Manifest Destiny in the KCA (Kiowa Comanche Apache) Rez

by JOSHUA CODYNAH | 2nd Place, student prose contest

Having a life sentence in prison can break most men, especially when they sit in the cell and think about what they done, why they done it, and knowing they will be in prison for the rest of their lives. Not me. I know I have a path to follow that has been laid out before for me even if I wanted to walk it or not. I am a Kiowa tribal member of Oklahoma serving a life sentence. But this story is not about what happened that night or the lives that were changed forever that night. No, this story is about something bigger than our families and, to be honest, bigger than all of Oklahoma.

Growing up in rural Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Caddo County, means, no matter what color you are, you grow up Kiowa. Like my best friend who always claimed to be part Cherokee but is white as milk: my family and friends treated him like he was part of the tribe. Like my friends, some being white who would eat with my family and go to pow wows: my family always gave them a place to stay or help with whatever they needed. Teachers and parents used our Kiowa culture as a living tool. Even the head coach for the high school football team played at being Kiowa. He heard us kids talking Kiowa, so he used that to his advantage by calling plays in Kiowa, so the other teams wouldn’t know what we were doing. I mentioned that Carnegie, Oklahoma, is in Caddo County because I grew up in a couple of other towns in Caddo County too: Apache and Anadarko. Those towns were mostly the same as Carnegie, adopting tribal ways, but I did see the occasionally ignorant racist in those towns. Not in Carnegie. Everyone in Carnegie, everyone, even the pale faces, knew it was Kiowa country.

But to me, there are different ways to grow up Kiowa. A Kiowa can learn the slang and run around with other Kiowas, but a traditional Kiowa learns the music, dance, and ceremonies. And then there’s Kiowa like me. I am a traditional Kiowa and O-Ho-Mah Lodge Kiowa. The O-Ho-Mah Lodge is a clan of the Kiowa tribe that began as a secret warrior society when the U.S. government made laws here in Oklahoma that prohibited tribes from maintaining their heritage and performing their ceremonies. Back then, the Lodge members would go to secluded areas to practice what was passed down to them from their elders. But not every Kiowa can be part of this clan because members have to be tagged in; we have five or six new members—maybe—a year. I have been a part of this clan as far back as I can remember, and, when my son was born, I tagged him in, making another generation for the Kiowa O-Ho-Mah clan. Most southern Native American music derives from our society because our music is old, dating back to the 1800s. It’s so beautiful when sung. The Lodge is not a secret now, but as a kid hearing those stories of a secret Kiowa society (that I was a part of) inspired me to keep going, just like my elders, even in the face of prosecution from the government.

I’m sad to say that I can’t start a Kiowa song, but I can still dance. I can fancy dance, hoop dance, eagle dance, and shield dance. Growing up, dancing was as natural as learning to use the restroom. And dancing took me all over this country: Louisiana, Washington state, California, New Mexico, Florida, and even Massachusetts. I was able to show people what I was taught growing up because what was natural to me was new to them. I never thought that learning to tie a bustle or making hackles was different. I just assumed growing up everyone learned these things, too. But they didn’t, so when I danced for others, they got to see what they only had read about in books or learned in a classroom.

I forgot to mention I can also two-step. Our two-step is not the same as the country-western two-step. Ours is a social dance: a guy asks a girl to dance, and if she says no, she has to pay him one dollar. I was always broke. One time, my grandpa Thuke (not my grandpa Kiowa-ways) asked my mom if he could take me to Gallup, New Mexico. She was a bit uneasy knowing her son would head out west without his mother or father, but I was excited. Before I left though, the family gave me all kinds of traveling advice, like, “Don’t shake a Navajo’s hand because he will take your steps away,” “Don’t buy any turquoise,” and “Stay away from them Navajo girls because they will make you eat goat.” So, I headed out west with all that. When the time came to perform, I noticed there were other tribes besides Kiowa. Later, when it was time to two-step, I saw the most beautiful Navajo girl I had ever seen. You know when a guy sees a girl in the movies and her hair is blowing back? Yeah, that was the moment I had with her, with her hair blowing in the wind, turning guys down left and right. I kept looking and my aunt (not my aunt Kiowa-ways) said, “Why don’t you ask her to dance? At the very least, get a dollar.” So I asked that girl if she would like to two-step, and, to my surprise, she said yes. “I wondered when you was going to ask,” she said. To this day, I don’t know if she was really into me or if she was just broke when I asked.

Dancing has not only taken me places but given me employment. When I was in high school, I had a part-time weekend job performing my heritage at Indian City USA in Anadarko, Oklahoma. The headquarters to the Apache tribe at Indian City was such a cool place, sitting up there on top of a big hill that looked over Anadarko. It was a tourist attraction with different villages and live dancing by fancy dancers. There was also a dance ground below where we used to have our O-Ho-Mah lodge dances. I mention this place because it is where the Tonkawa tribe was massacred, abolished from this earth in that same place known as Indian City.

It was at Indian City that I had a profound experience. I went to work one day at Indian City, but we didn’t have a tour group, so I found a place to wait and fell asleep. When I woke up I heard Native American music blasting loud, which I assumed was coming from the gift shop. There still wasn’t a tour group, so I went in to get a soda in the gift shop. I noticed there was no music playing. I went to hang out at the snack stand with another guy and said, “Man, you guys were blasting that music loud, I could hear it all the way outside.” He looked at me and said, “We was not playing music. You might have heard that dead tribe singing. They don’t sing much anymore. You’re lucky you got to hear them.” It is a rare thing to hear a ghost speak but to hear a whole tribe singing just to me is an amazing experience. Things like that happened around there, but people usually keep that stuff to themselves because, honestly, who is going to believe a guy who heard a whole dead tribe sing? I wouldn’t believe it if I did not experience it for myself.

I want to mention Apache, Oklahoma, the hometown of the Rattlesnake Festival, and my Comanche/Apache/Kiowa grandma. My grandma was a proud member of the Comanche nation tribe of Lawton, Oklahoma. When I say proud member, I mean proud to be Comanche. She made fun of me for being Kiowa like my mom. Apache sits right in the middle of all these other towns I’ve mentioned, on the border of a mountain called Mountain Scott, which separated three of the most feared tribes in U.S. history. There were the Kiowa who roamed these plains from Wyoming, and not only did they have the O-Ho-Mah clan but they also had some of the toughest warriors ever known: the Black Legging society. They were called Black Leggings because the black soot from the villages they burned down would get up their legs and looked like they had black leggings. Then there was the Comanche tribe, known as Numunuh, but also known as the Lords of Plains. I cannot deny my Comanche side. The Comanches did what their name said: they maintained borders from South Dakota in Lakota and Cheyenne territory to El Paso, Texas, in Spanish territory. The Comanche warriors were excellent horsemen who could fight just as well on horseback. I compare them to the Hun people of China who could cover vast lands on horseback, but the Comanches may have been deadlier than Hun warriors. Finally, there is the Apache tribe. I am Apache myself but not the same Apache as Geronimo. The Apache tribe that sits in Anadarko is a different clan of the Apache. They’re captured Apache. It is so awesome to grow up in the area of the last of the fighting Native American tribes, the Apache. The last of all of us to defy the government, and a tribe that could have waged war on the U.S. government for as long as they wanted but simply got tired of fighting, and instead started thinking about the future of their people. Imagine, three of the deadliest and most feared tribes in all the U.S. were put in one area, with the Town of Apache and the mountain that separated it all.

The government knew what they were doing when they put all three tribes in the same area. They knew what each tribe was capable of, so they put them together to fight it out. They were right. Well, not so much with the Apache, because their leader Geronimo put his arms down and was held at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he later died. So that left the Kiowa and Comanches to have it out like the old days. And they did. The Kiowa warriors were off on a war party when the Comanche and U.S. soldiers came into the Kiowa village to slaughter the old, the women, and the children. They even had the audacity to cut off the heads of the Kiowa dead and put them in frying pans and on spears. I remember going to a statue ceremony in memory of Kiowas who lost their lives at the hands of the Comanche and Fort Sill soldiers. The place with that statue is known as Cutthroat Gap. I don’t know if the Comanches had any part of the beheadings. I like to think not and believe instead that they were just taking the scalps. So this is why my Comanche grandma made fun of me for being Kiowa. A feud that dates to the 1800s is still strong today. I’m explaining this now, but I usually say it’s just an Indian thing.

Growing up as a Kiowa boy in Carnegie is like growing up in a village. The other Kiowa families there are just like mine. They welcomed me with open arms, called me nephew or son, and helped me when I was in trouble. When I was a young kid, we lived way out in the country, but later we moved closer to town, and then I could run or walk to hang out with my friends all day. Now, summers in southwest Oklahoma get hot, like cook-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. And not just for a day or two, no; it carried on to September. So in the summer, after we moved closer to town, I would run early in the morning, not to hear the wind in the trees, feel the heat of the sun on me, and still smell nature, but to get to the town pool early and hang out with my friends. When the pool closed in the evening, we would dry off naturally because who carries extra clothes around. Sometimes we dried off by playing basketball at the courts. The courts were in the middle of town and were the meeting spot if you could not find your friends elsewhere. People were amazed we would play basketball in the heat, rain, or snow. But basketball in Carnegie is like church. Carnegie to this day has numerous district titles, six runner-up state championships, and three state titles in basketball. Seeing a Kiowa boy taking state in basketball inspired me to become just like the Kiowa boys before me. (I only made it to the semi-finals though.)

The next school year after we went to the semi-finals, I met a girl who would forever change my life for the good and the bad. Her name was Cheyenne. I met her at a school dance, and I had my best dance moves then. Dancing was the native in me. I was having a good time dancing with my friends when I saw this girl I had never seen before. She had the most beautiful smile, and her dancing wasn’t bad, either. So, it was the last dance of the night and it was a slow dance. I still remember the song: “YO” by Chris Brown. We danced and I tried to play it cool by not asking her name or saying goodbye to her. Turns out she already knew who I was. We talked, laughed, had a great time, and we fell in love. We started getting serious after that night. After high school, we started to see each other even more, even spending the night with each other. When I started staying the night with her, I began having dreams of dying. Vivid dreams to the point of me waking up gasping for air. I told my mom what was happening to me and that it had been happening for weeks. She was concerned, as any parent would be, so she took me to go see a medicine man. He said, “You are stepping into a new journey, and it could lead to your death.”  I didn’t know then that what I was seeing was not my death; I was seeing someone else’s death. People may or may not accept something like that, but we as Native Americans believe in such things. The dreams stopped after that. Not too long after, I had my first and only son, who we named Anthony. A dad always wants a boy, and I fell even more in love with this woman who gave me a son.  I knew I had to be a better person for my son and raise him the Kiowa way, as I was raised. Four years later we had a daughter named Laci. She was born during a snowstorm. Our car got stuck in the snow, so we had to call an ambulance. From the beginning, I knew I would have to show my daughter what a man should be. We had a big and beautiful family, but it seems good things do not last forever.

I will not tell what happened the night that changed everything for a lot of people. Just know that at the end of it, I was accused of murder. An appeal is in the works, but I ask for forgiveness every day. The first day of my new journey was in the city jail. I was so ashamed and hurt about what happened and what my family was going to go through because I was selfish, greedy, and just plain stupid. I decided to commit suicide and just be done with it. Why go through all the trouble of court and being labeled a monster? It’s not who I am, but it’s what they are going to call me. I did not want to deal with the hurt and pain. As I was saying my silent goodbyes to my family and asking forgiveness for what I was about to do, a guard told me I had a visitor. I assumed it was my aunt, mom, or—God rest her soul—my grandma. But it wasn’t any of them. My visitor was a preacher from Apache who was also a family friend. He did not ask me how I was doing or if I was okay. Instead, he told me not to do anything else to hurt myself or my family. How could he have known to say what he said, and to say it at that moment?  I was shocked then and still am when I think about it. But not in the ways some might think. See, I am Native American. I can see the signs, especially when dah kee (the creator) is speaking through somebody. I guess I was shocked because the dah kee was with me. I had not been abandoned and left for the wild hogs to tear apart.

I then moved to county jail. I was nervous but not scared because I knew I had dah kee at my side. I saw the other side, how criminals lived and embraced this new life. As I was adjusting to this new life, upstairs in the courtroom they were deciding my fate. I was assigned a lawyer provided by the state, hoping and praying she could help me out. I’d been in jail for about seventeen months when I finally had my day in court. I saw all the news cameras and people. The victim’s family and mine. I saw the big projector screen that was going to show the most gruesome angles of the victim’s death. I decided at that moment I would spare the victim’s family and mine the story of what happened that night. I entered a blind plea moments before court started. A couple of months later I was sentenced, and everything I tried to avoid,—the whole reason I took this blind plea—happened anyway, because I had to tell the story anyway. At least I did it without the gruesome pictures being projected on the big screen. I was sentenced to prison for life with the possibility of parole. Yes, I questioned dah kee: I thought you were going to help me. Why did you abandon me when I needed you more than ever, dah kee?

I was then sent to the worst prison in Oklahoma. The maximum-security prison, an Oklahoma state prison, the Walls. It reminded me of a Shawshank Redemption prison. A nineteen-year-old kid from Tulsa also accused of murder came in with me and when we were getting processed in he asked, “Can you feel that?”  I could. It was death, no hope, and misery. We eventually went our separate ways, but I will never forget that kid.

So, I was in prison and adjusting to it when I met a lawyer who wanted to take my case. She said, “Everything is going to be okay. Just stay out of trouble and we will get through this.” I believed her and she was right. People at the Walls told me I was not going to win my appeal because nobody wins their appeal here in Oklahoma. With all this negativity and misery I got from different prisoners, I started to believe them. Turns out I did win my first appeal for ineffective assistance counsel. My previous lawyer defended one of her non-actions by saying, “The reason I could not get the cell phone records was that would have cost the state too much money” and my new lawyer responded, “You know there are grants where the state gives you money to get the cell phone records.” My former lawyer said she knew about the grants. I felt so sick to think another person could treat someone in need so badly.

In my next appeal, I argued that the state did not have jurisdiction to prosecute me because the crime was on Native American land, and the victim and I are Native American. I argued that the land was still a reservation and the government argued it was not. Turns out I was making the same argument that the Cherokees had already made and won—a historic victory for our Native American people, that the land where the government put the tribes was still a reservation. During this time, I learned that this legal argument is about more than just who prosecutes who or who has jurisdiction. The real argument is about money. The state will lose a lot of money if they continue to lose these arguments about jurisdiction. Their conviction rates will drop and they will lose the money they receive for keeping the Native Americans prisoner. The state government wants to scream that losing jurisdiction will put monsters back out on the street. They want to scare the public into believing the boogeymen will be at their doorsteps if the Native Americans win this jurisdictional fight. But the truth is that if the Native Americans win, they will also win EPA, land, taxation, and mineral rights, worth a lot of money. That’s the real reason the State of Oklahoma is fighting so hard to say Native Americans do not have a reservation and must be prosecuted in U.S. courts. This fight is not about public safety.

I commend the Cherokee chairman for not bending or breaking to the State of Oklahoma. I hope he does not settle, as our ancestors did. I say to him, “Do not make the same mistake our ancestors did and sign something that would put us again at the mercy of Oklahoma.”

The KCA reservation is my home, but I understand now why I am here in prison. I am here to give something back to my tribe, to make right what was wrong, and to show people the true face of Oklahoma. As long as I have been locked up, from the city jail to the maximum-security prison, I have never gotten into a fight, been stabbed, or even received a write-up from the staff. The creator is still with me. I am at peace being in prison knowing this. And there are three things I told myself to do that would truly bring me peace: talk to a preacher about what happened that night, get cedared off with good medicine, and tell the victim’s family what happened, so they can have closure and hopefully peace. I have done the first two.

I was and I am Kiowa. I danced in the hot sun in July for my people. I climbed the Rainy and Longhorn Mountains to get my cedar. I still speak Kiowa and practice my heritage. I did not decide one day to be Kiowa because it will help me avoid prison. Other people can play at being Kiowa, but I was and am living it. Ah ho dah kee.


Joshua Codynah comments: “When I was free, I lived in Apache, Oklahoma, with my two incredible children, Anthony and Laci Marie. However, I am now incarcerated at the Dick Conner Correctional Center (DCCC). While I pay my debt to society, I attend Tulsa Community College (TCC) and work as Diet Chef for breakfast. I passionately love listening to music and playing basketball and PS4 once a week in the gym. Since I have a voice right now, I want to use it to thank DCCC and TCC for allowing me to further my education.”