The history of North America is a crime. Thousands of Native Americans lie forgotten in between the pages of history books, murdered by white colonizers for their land and resources — something that still happens today, as we continuously strip away Native American lands and undermine their basic rights.
In Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld, crime and cultural history writer Michael P. Daley centers one of the many Native Americans who, in the early 20th century, were forced into assimilation, disenfranchised at the socioeconomic and political level, and imprisoned for doing whatever was necessary to survive.
This immersive, narrative history is told primarily through the point of view of BlueJacket himself — sourced through several interviews conducted by phone and in person over a period of five years — with corroboration from law enforcement records, court documents, prison records, periodicals, books, multimedia sources, and interviews with others. It is part biography, part cultural history, part prison study.#BobbyBlueJacket centers one of the many Native Americans who are forced into assimilation, disenfranchised at the socioeconomic and political level, and imprisoned for doing whatever is necessary to survive. Click To Tweet
Bobby BlueJacket was born to a Shawnee man, Clyde BlueJacket, and his wife, Ethel Welch (a white woman of Irish, Welsh, and English descent), in 1930. Bobby came into the world on the BlueJacket allotment along the Spring River in Oklahoma, on Eastern Shawnee land. Shortly after his birth, Ethel — “fleeing the poverty, alcoholism, and punishing work that comprised her days on their family allotment” — took Bobby and his older sister, Marjorie, to live in Tulsa.
BlueJacket’s older brothers, Junior, Dennis, and Tommy, would meet them when they got out of the Seneca Indian School that summer. The school, located in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, was part of a larger acculturation effort that sought to remove Native American children from their homelands and assimilate them into Western (read: white) ways of life.
Bobby BlueJacket grew up on the streets of Tulsa, where he began “hustling” at just 7 years old. He wasn’t one for school; he spent the majority of his time with his friends, learning from older, more notorious criminals so that he could better his situation and survive.
In Daley’s book, BlueJacket talks about hawking newspapers, shining shoes, gambling, and stealing “everything that wasn’t tied down.” He says, “We had one aim, and that was to better ourselves financially. And you did what you had to do to make money.”
BlueJacket’s history of petty crime led to a few run-ins with police, including several stints in juvenile detention centers.
Then, in 1948, BlueJacket was convicted for killing another teenager (who was white) in one of the most sensational court cases Tulsa had ever seen. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, a sentence that would have left him in prison until 2047 — with a probation date in the 1990s, at the absolute earliest. For an 18 year-old kid, it was effectively a death sentence.The implementation of rehabilitation programs in Oklahoma prisons gave incarcerated criminals access to sports equipment, printing materials, education courses, and more. #BobbyBlueJacket took advantage of them all. Click To Tweet
Eventually, BlueJacket’s lawyer was able to reduce his sentence — allowing him to pursue a mostly normal life following his release. His time spent in prison is well-documented through his work as a prison journalist and editor, working for one of the many prison publications that cropped up across the country during that time.
These publications were part of a larger shift in focus to rehabilitation in prisons, which happened to coincide with BlueJacket’s 1948 incarceration. The implementation of rehabilitation programs in Oklahoma prisons gave incarcerated criminals access to sports equipment, printing materials, education courses, and more. BlueJacket took advantage of them all, learning to express himself behind bars — something that would serve him throughout his life, as he gained notoriety for his work.
By the 1970s, BlueJacket had acted as a journalist, editor, prison rodeo emcee, political impresario, and used tire salesman. By 2016, as Daley was wrapping up research material for Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld, BlueJacket had become a respected tribal elder and a dedicated Eastern Shawnee activist. He is also a family man whose generosity is distributed to anyone in his life who needs help — something that happens often, especially following the Great Recession.
Through BlueJacket’s words, Daley is able to craft a narrative that makes this nonfiction book read very, very smoothly. Daley also provides context for BlueJacket’s interviews, including information about acculturation efforts, prison reform, and statistics that make the emotional impact of BlueJacket’s experiences all the more powerful.
Bobby BlueJacket is an intense reading experience. The way BlueJacket speaks borders on flippant throughout much of the book, which is striking both because it underscores how normal his experiences are to him and because it highlights how these experiences shouldn’t be normal for anyone.Through #BobbyBlueJacket's words, Daley is able to craft a narrative that makes this nonfiction book read very, very smoothly. Click To Tweet
As I read this book, over the course of about one week, I repeatedly told people who asked me about it that it was emotionally, mentally, and physically heavy. The size and scope of Bobby BlueJacket adds literal weight to the book, which — including notes — is over 700 pages long.
Although many books of this length can get bogged down in unnecessary details, poor narrative structure, or uninteresting subject matter, Daley manages to keep the book moving from the first page to the last. Each time I picked up Bobby BlueJacket, I got lost in its pages, even at the points where I was utterly horrified by what I read.
It’s especially important, in the current cultural climate, to understand histories like BlueJacket’s, as well as their contexts. I highly recommend this book for anyone and everyone, not only because it is fascinating, well-written, and incredibly well-researched, but because it provides layer upon layer of indispensable information told primarily through a first-person account of lived experiences. It’s the kind of narrative history we need more of, especially centering marginalized voices, especially today.
Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld Rating: ★★★★½
Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld by Michael P. Daley is available from First to Knock now. In Full Bleed received an advanced reader copy from Holly Watson PR in exchange for an honest review.