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Symbol Wars: Oklahoma's state symbols have been ceremonial, controversial

Symbol Wars: Oklahoma's state symbols have been ceremonial, controversial

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Photo gallery: Test your knowledge of Oklahoma’s state symbols

Oklahoma boasts more than 30 state symbols and emblems, including some you probably didn’t realize existed.

State amphibian? State fossil? State percussive instrument? State flying mammal?

Ideally, state symbols should be a source of pride.

They’re supposed to be ceremonial, not controversial.

But never mind good intentions, some caused division in the ranks.

Oklahomans drew a line in the dirt (port silt loam is the state’s official soil) and butted heads over — ready for this? — watermelons, mistletoe and songs.

Also, the Oklahoma flag isn’t our original flag.

You can probably blame the commies for that, and for a dispute over a state rock song.

On this weekend before “Captain America: Civil War” arrives in movie theaters, let’s revisit Oklahoma: Symbol Wars.

State rock song

Rolling Stone, MTV and the Los Angeles Times were among media outlets who took notice seven years ago, when, despite harrumphs from lawmakers, the Flaming Lips song “Do You Realize??” became the state’s official rock song.

A panel of experts nominated 10 songs for the honor and more than 21,000 voters participated in an online poll. More than half of voters endorsed “Do You Realize??” over other songs written or recorded by Oklahomans, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “After Midnight” and “Never Been to Spain.”

The Senate backed the voters’ selection, but — oops! — Flaming Lips bassist Michael Ivins wore a shirt with a star-and-sickle logo to the Capitol when results were announced.

Things all of a sudden got political, and the House voted against approving the song.

Then-Gov. Brad Henry rode to the song’s rescue April 28, 2009, when he signed an executive order that made “Do You Realize??” Oklahoma’s official rock tune.

Gov. Mary Fallin did not renew the executive order (a spokesperson said she had bigger priorities) after succeeding Henry, which means the state’s official rock song is no longer the state’s official rock song.

Being rock-less apparently doesn’t put Oklahoma at any sort of state symbol disadvantage. Washington (“Louie, Louie”) and Ohio (“Hang on Sloopy”) are among the few states with official rock songs.

Oklahoma’s official country song is Bob Wills’ “Faded Love.”

State floral emblem

Oklahoma was at the forefront of the state symbol movement, adopting an official floral emblem before statehood.

Why the hurry? It was suggested that states (in Oklahoma’s case, a territory) choose floral arrangements for representatives to wear at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Mistletoe was selected because of a legit role in Oklahoma history. Mistletoe was used to provide color on decorated graves when early settlers died.

Mistletoe continued to be the state’s floral arrangement after statehood.

Problem: Mistletoe isn’t a flower. It’s a parasite. And detractors took notice.

“It is not proper that this state should have for its emblem a mistletoe, a plant that clings to others and feeds upon them,” J.B. Thoburn, curator of the state’s historical society, said when voicing his objection in 1930.

Mistletoe remained under siege for decades. But mistletoe had enough supporters to retain its status as the state’s floral emblem in 1986, when lawmakers doubled down and made the Indian Blanket the state’s official wildflower, and in 2004, when the Oklahoma Rose was promoted to state flower.

A 1967 attempt to make the Oklahoma Rose the state flower fizzled, as did an early statehood movement (endorsed by the Oklahoman) to make alfalfa the state flower.

State vegetable

Eyebrows were raised when watermelon was pitched as the state’s official vegetable in 2007.

This seemed to be a consensus reaction: Really?

Debate raged over whether the watermelon was a fruit or a vegetable.

The Senate approved the measure by a 44-2 vote, despite concerns from Tulsa-area lawmaker Nancy Riley, who contended the watermelon is a fruit.

You’ll find dictionaries and text books that agree with her, but Oklahoma had already chosen a state fruit — the strawberry. So legislators in favor of hyping the watermelon made a case for it being a vegetable.

One of those was Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, alias the “watermelon capital of the world.”

“Some people used to think the Earth was flat,” Dorman told the Tulsa World. “They have been educated and things became much better.”

Steve Thompson of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry wrote a letter to the editor explaining that growers in the U.S. consider the watermelon to be a fruit and a vegetable. Botanically, the watermelon is a fruit. But he said it’s also a member of a gourd family, making it a relative of vegetables like cucumber or squash.

All clear?

The issue lingered until 2015 when Sen. Nathan Dahm of Broken Arrow abandoned efforts to revoke the watermelon’s state vegetable status. Dahm said he realized the state had more important issues to deal with, such as the budget.

“I didn’t want people to think we were working on something people consider trivial,” he said.

State flag

The original Oklahoma flag looked nothing like the one we have today.

The state’s first flag (adopted in 1911, four years after statehood) was red with a white star in the middle. The number “46” was inside the star, signifying Oklahoma’s status as the 46th state.

Oklahomans didn’t exactly cozy up to the flag.

Some referred to it as the “red rag.”

Some said they didn’t like to hang the flag at their home because neighbors would think someone inside had scarlet fever.

Others thought it bore similarities (red, star) to the Soviet flag, which came along in 1923. According to a 1988 Oklahoman story, an Oklahoma Education Association newsletter in the 1920s referred to the first Oklahoma flag as “the red flag of sedition.”

In 1924, a state chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a contest for a new state flag design. Shawnee High School graduate Louise Funk Fluke crafted a winning entry that reflected Oklahoma’s Native American heritage. Her creation became the new state flag in March of 1925.

State song

In hindsight, it seems a slam dunk that “Oklahoma!” should be the state song.

But there was objection to the idea because Oklahoma had a state song before the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ever hit Broadway.

“Oklahoma — A Toast” was written by Harriett Parker Camden of Kingfisher in 1905. It became the official state song in 1935.

In 1953, George Nigh introduced a bill to make “Oklahoma!” the new state song. An older legislator stepped to the microphone after the bill was read, softly sang the old state song and started crying, according to a transcript of an Oklahoma Memories podcast by historian Michael Dean. Of course, that gained him sympathizers.

Nigh responded by tabling the bill and enlisting the help of fellow McAlester native Ridge Bond, the only Oklahoman to play the role of Curly in the original production of “Oklahoma!” on Broadway.

“He got me together with the choir from the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha,” Bond was quoted as saying in the podcast. “We had a quick rehearsal and then went into the Legislature and sang the song for the Legislature, and they passed it. I think I had as much to do with getting that song passed as anyone, and I’ve always been proud of that.”

Among legislator complaints lodged before “Oklahoma!” got approved: It was too hard to sing. The lyrics included “slangy language.” And “Oklahoma!” (which opened on Broadway only 10 years earlier) wasn’t as steeped in tradition as the first state song.

In pleading the case for a new state song, Nigh predicted the marching band wouldn’t be playing “Oklahoma — A Toast” when the Notre Dame football team visited Norman.

Jimmie Tramel 918 581-8389


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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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