The United States Census Bureau estimates that there are some million and a half Americans of Czech ancestry (and about 300 thousand more who declare Czechoslovak ancestry). Although few of them still speak the language of their forefathers, they still keep their traditions alive. Vít Pohanka visited some of the Czech communities in Oklahoma.
You can still hear Czech polka on the windy prairies of the American Midwest. Czech and Moravian farmers started settling in states like Nebraska and Texas in the second half of the 19th century. When the federal government in Washington, DC, decided to open the Indian lands at the end of the 1880s, the Czechs like immigrants of many other nationalities made their way to Oklahoma and took part in what was called the „land run" or „land rush". Michael Dean works for the Oklahoma Historical Society:
„In the central part were three and a half million acres of land that had not been settled and that was owned by the federal government. Originally, that was land where the Indian tribes were to be placed. By 1889 that land had not been opened, had not been settled by Indians the government was keeping people out of there and there was a tremendous pressure to open it up for settlement. But how do you do that? How do you divide the land? Somebody in the president’s office in Washington, DC, came up with the idea of a ‚land run‘“.
Thus, the legend of Oklahoma settlement was born. By the way, you can find a very vivid depiction of such a „land run“ in the film Far and Away starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Historian Michael Dean confirms that it was, indeed, a very dramatic scene:
„Guns sounded, the canons were fired and the settlers came rushing into this area. Some on horseback, some in buggies and carriages, others on foot. They tried to stake out what they thought would be the best land that would become theirs and then they hurried to officially record their claim in the land office. That is how it happened and it had never been done before or again, certainly in the United States and probably anywhere on the face of the planet.“
No one knows for sure how many Czech families got their farms in the land runs of 1889 and 1891. But they certainly formed one of the major, visible ethnic groups of settlers:
„They were very strong politically, very religious, they brought in a work ethic that is still there. They came here for the opportunity that they did not have in their old country: to own land, to have their own businesses, start homes where they would have a lasting influence. And all that came to be true.“
In the city of Prague some 50 miles east of Oklahoma City, I meet Mary Ann Sevcik-Pritchett, a typical representative of the present day Czech community. She does not speak the language of her ancestors, but is active in the Historical Museum of Prague:
„In 1890, the Sac and Fox Reservation was opened up for settlement. If you came, settled on 160 acres (about 65 hectares) of land and improved it, you could own the land free of charge. So many Czech families did just that: they were mainly farmers and craftsmen, they settled mostly in groups, socialized together and kept their customs. That is how the city of Prague here in Oklahoma was born, even though it was officially incorporated only later in 1902.“
„Oh, it is very important! We have a Czech Festival once a year, always on the first Saturday in May. We organize a ‚Czech Queen Competition‘, bake “kolache”, have a parade, dance polka, and waltzes in the street. So we try really hard to preserve our heritage so that the young people know where they came from.“
Prague might remind you of the old Czech capital. But the real center of Czech community in this state is actually the city of Yukon, part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Here you can find the Czech Hall, where volunteers are baking kolache and one of them is Milo Schedeck – originally Miloš Žídek. His family has been living here for some 130 years:
„There were four sons, mother, and a father. The father got run over on a railroad track right before they left for America. The four brothers were all farmers and they tried their luck first in Ohio and Nebraska. Then they made the ‚run‘ here in Oklahoma and they each got a quarter section (160 acres) from the government and started growing mainly wheat. Generations followed and as the families were growing, we had to start looking for work elsewhere. So I started working on my grandmother‘s and uncle’s farm but later went into the banking business. Then I worked for electric services company, but now I am retired. So I have time to bake kolache and play with my own polka band. We are called „Bohemian Knights“, play Czech music, all the favorites. During the Czech Day in October, we usually have about 500 to 600 dancers. All the kids dress up, we have the queen contest, there is a grand parade, people come in costumes, it is really great!“