Osage Religious Traditions

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OSAGE RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Osage people (wazhazhe or ni u konshka ) were the aboriginal occupants of a large territory in the center of the present-day United States located between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers west of the Mississippi, with reservation lands located today in northeastern Oklahoma. The Osage people are a part of a larger family of American Indian communities including the Poncas, Omahas, Kansas, and Quapaws and related linguistically to the Lakotas and Dakotas.

The Osage were the focus of study by an American Indian ethnographer who was fluent in a closely related dialect. Francis La Flesche, himself an Omaha, published some two thousand pages of ethnographic descriptions of the Osage for the Bureau of American Ethnography, recording substantial parts of many ceremonies. His publications include ceremonial descriptions and extensive recitations in Osage collected from several older practitioners with whom he worked in the early 1900s. His compilation has been called the most complete record of North American Indian ceremonies. Although La Flesche had the advantage of language skills in his study of the Osage, even these extensive documents need to be read with a critical and discerning eye.

La Flesche published five lengthy treatises describing seven significant ceremonial rites, but these are only a partial sampling of the full array of Osage ceremonial life, as he himself clearly notes. He only alludes, for instance, to the ceremony performed before engaging in a community buffalo hunt, commenting that it was in "all respects" similar to the war ceremony (namely, taking a period of some days to complete); likewise, he barely mentions the ceremonial structures attending to the agricultural activities of planting and harvesting. There are other key factors for which he fails to give any deeper explanation or interpretation, such as the central role of the sacred pipe (nonníonba wakondagi ) in all Osage proceedings.

Osage Ceremonial Structures

Like other indigenous nations in the Americas (and especially in North America), Osage people understood the world as an intricate and sophisticated, interconnected organic whole structured as a thoroughgoing dualism of reciprocity. They came to know the universe as a complementary pairing of above and below, sky and earth, the two great fructifying forces of the universe, and recognized a cosmic source of power that made itself manifest with the same dualistic reciprocity. As a result, they carefully modeled themselvespersonally and sociallyas a mirror-image reflection of this universe, dividing themselves and their clans between the two sociopolitical divisions of tsízhu (sky) and hónga (earth).

The numerous ceremonial structures of the Osage peoples, along with their underlying cultural philosophy, were remarkably complex, like those of most American Indian nations. They required enormous physical preparation and intense ceremonial acts as well as extensive memorization, since the ceremonies were detailed, lengthy, and required considerable verbatim recitation. Their religious traditions were thoroughly interlaced with their cultural values and daily practices, but were especially characterized in these carefully structured and intricately detailed ceremonies involving a widely dispersed number of key participants and leaders, upon whose cooperation the success of each ceremony depended.

There were ceremonies engaged in by the tribal community as a whole that involved key participants from all or many of the clans, such as ceremonies preparing for war or hunting, certain initiation ceremonies, or marking the beginning of a new year. Other ceremonies were personal, family, or clan ceremonies and might still involve a significantly large number of participants. The smoking of a sacred pipe might take a short period of timean hour or less. The war ceremony might typically have taken up to a dozen days, while the ceremony for initiating someone into the ranks of the Little Old Ones could stretch over several years before its completion.

The importance of these ceremonies is already evident in the personal spiritual practices of Osage people, noticed historically by many Western observers. Daily prayers were a constant among the Osage, beginning with the personal song each member of the community sang to greet the rising of the sun, a discipline practiced by other Indian communities as far away as the Ojibwa in Minnesota. These personal prayers were then repeated at noon and sundown each day.

Osage Cosmology

Much of our knowledge of these ceremonies comes from La Flesche, who uses two translations that pose continuing problems for our understanding of Osage religious traditions. His use of certain convenient English language glosses as a device to connect with his readership of seventy or eighty years ago has biased understandings of Osage culture and religious traditions ever since. Each of these is a Western concept that is so loaded with connotative meaning as to render it less than helpful in talking about any non-Western culture. The first of these is his use of the word god to describe the Osage notion of the Sacred Other.

Spiritual concepts

Wakonda was the spiritual force or energy that Osages saw permeating the whole of the world, and which they experienced in a great variety of manifestations at any given moment and especially in any given place. This was the insight that lent itself to the Osage conception of the interrelationship of all things on the earth and in the universe. Wakonda was the Osage word used by the early missionaries to express their Christian concept of god, and indeed La Flesche most often translates wakonda as god. Treated thus, however, the word, like great spirit, is simply used as a popular gloss and conveys misinformation rather than real knowledge. La Flesche's second entry in his Osage Dictionary begins to get at the real heart of the matter: wakonda "is the name applied by the Osage to the mysterious, invisible, creative power which brings into existence all living things of whatever kind. They believe that this great power resides in the air, the blue sky, the clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the earth, and keeps them in motion" (p. 193).

This wakonda is ultimately an unknowable mystery that only becomes knowable in particular manifestations. It makes itself manifest first of all as Above and Below, as wakonda monshita and wakonda hiudseta, corporealized as sky and earth, and called upon as Grandfather and Grandmother. Wakonda, which has no inherent or ultimate gender, becomes visible as the necessary reciprocity of male and female.

It needs to be emphasized that these two are not different wakonda, but rather manifestations of the one wakonda, even though they have specific personality traits similar to those which traditional Christian trinitarian doctrine asserts. While they are manifestations of the same wakonda, they represent power in different forms, both of which are necessary in order to have some balanced understanding of the Otherness that is the Sacred Mystery. Indeed, wakonda has manifested itself in a great many other ways, all of which help the Osage people to better understand the Mystery, the world, themselves, and their place in the world. Since wakonda permeates all life in the world, Osages readily conceived of themselves as kinfolk to the buffalo, eagles, spiders, rocks, and other manifestations of the cosmic energy that makes up the world. To assume that the simplistic gloss "god" somehow is adequate to translate and classify wakonda in English immediately falsifies the internal cultural meaning of wakonda for Osage peoples by imposing a historic Western category of cognition.


The second problematic translation is La Flesche's use of the word priest to refer to a group of initiates who functioned as a village council. To get at this concern, we need to look at the structures of leadership in Osage civil and religious life, which was organized around a great diffusion of civil and religious leadership and authority. Osage cultural organization allowed for a variety of voices to be involved in each ceremony and any decision-making process and provided for the exercise of authority by different people in different community situations. While there were two appointed civil leaders (gahiga, called "chiefs" in English) in every village, one from each of the two principle divisions or moieties, they had only limited authority, which was exclusively focused on internal affairs and lacked any formal role in the external affairs of the tribe, such as military activities. The limitation of their authority can be seen implicitly in the practice of shared authority, with each taking leadership on alternate days during a tribal hunting expedition.

The most significant religious and political leadership (but not day-to-day governance) in an Osage village was exercised by a council called the Little Old Ones (nonhonzhinga ), a group of mature adult men and always some women who coordinated the life of the community, conducted the ceremonies, and were the source and the keepers of the esoteric and abstract knowledge of the community. They held the greater decision-making power in key situations. Selected because of their character, intelligence, abilities, and spiritual gifts, members of this council had each gone through rigorous initiation rites into one or more of the different ranks of ceremonial responsibility and leadership. This council was, as a whole, the community's repository of wisdom and its members functioned as the principal ceremonial actors in every major ceremony. These council members are the public personalities that La Flesche calls priests.

In the course of a war-preparation ceremony and subsequent military expedition, more than a dozen different members of this council, each from different clans, would typically exercise leadership, either in the war ceremony itself or as tactical leaders in the actual engagement, with a sharp differentiation between the two. The one who is usually referred to as the war leader (dodon honga ) was always a member of this council because of the religious function of the position, and was most critical to the success of the military endeavor. Most strikingly, this war leader was a noncombatant who had no responsibility or authority for determining actual battle strategy even though he (or occasionally she) accompanied the military detachment. The responsibility of this dodon honga was to be in constant prayer from the beginning of the war ceremony until the completion of the military engagement.

One of the most striking aspects of the Osage war ceremony was the commitment of this war leader to undertake a serious regimen of isolation, prayer, and dry-fasting (without food or water) for up to seven days in a ceremony called in English the Vision Quest or Rite of Vigil. His fast continued even while on the march until the excursion was fully completed and he returned home with the detachment. Then his role as war leader ended. The spiritual role of war leader could be filled by any one of a hundred or more nonhonzhinga who might potentially serve this function.

While the nonhonzhinga underwent significant rites of initiation into their formal eldership and held key roles in all the ceremonies, they were not priests, and the use of this word becomes terribly misleading. La Flesche reports the existence of two other categories of religious leadership, which seem to have had more day-to-day religious importance. These include those who were keepers of the Great Bundles and whose responsibilities extend to tattooing and certain kinds of healing. The other category is one that he only mentions, without interpretive description, but must have included those healers who are sometimes called "medicine" people by Western observers (whom James Dorsey calls "shaman," using the Tungusik word). Officially, La Flesche calls them the keepers of the "great medicine bundles." While these latter two categories might more logically fit the Western category of priest, neither of them had specific roles in the main public ceremonies of the tribe.

Social Structure

From all that can be pieced together of earlier Osage life, this was a diametric dualistic society, of the sort Lévi-Strauss contended did not exist, but which anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz demonstrated so thoroughly for his own Tewa community at San Juan (see On Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society, 1969). Every detail of social structure, even the geographic orientation of the old villages, reflected a reciprocal duality of all that is necessary for sustaining life. Like the Omahas, Poncas, Quapaws, and other related peoples, an Osage village was divided into two parts: the tsízhu, or sky moiety, and the hon'ga, or earth moiety.

An east-west roadway divided community architecture (both permanent towns and hunting camps), with the tsízhu constructing their lodges to the north and the hon'ga to the south. These two divisions represented female and male, matter and spirit, war and peace, but they functioned as a unified whole because they were always paired together as a reciprocal duality who together represented balance and completion. Spirit without matter is motion without substance; matter without spirit is motionless and meaningless. This spatial arrangement is carefully repeated in the seating of the nonhonzhinga , the council of elders, inside the lodge kept for their meetings and in all ceremonial observances.

Just as the Osage perceived the necessity of the two manifestations of wakonda participating together to sustain life, so the two grand divisions sustained the life of the whole, so that what ethnographers would classify as "religion" pervaded marriage customs and even the habitual acts of sleeping and putting on clothing. To preserve the principles of spiritual and political unity in this duality, Osages were mandated to marry someone from the other grand division. To further enforce this religious sense of wholeness, the two grand divisions developed personal habits that helped each individual remember her or his part in this communal whole. Hence, those from the hon'ga grand division customarily slept on their right side and put on the right shoe first, while those from the tsízhu grand division functioned in the opposite manner, putting their left sleeve on first and sleeping on their left shoulder. As a result, even in sleep the two divisions performed a religious act that maintained their unity in division, as they lay facing each other asleep across the road that divided the whole community.

Much of the cosmological mythology of the tribe consists of accounts of the different origin of the two divisions and how they came to be together. The tsízhu division represents the tribe's origins in the sky itself, where the first Osages were created as incorporeal entities who needed to attain corporeality. In the course of this process they are eventually sent down to earth by wakonda, "dropping like acorns from an oak tree." In their wanderings on the earth they soon discovered another community of hon'ga who called themselves the Isolated Earth People. After some negotiation these two decided to live together as one, bringing together the distinct qualities of each, and symbolically and functionally representing the whole of the Osage cosmology. To preserve the memory of their origins, the group maintained the division between sky and earth, and appointed two of three original divisions to live with the Isolated Earth People as the hon'ga moiety. Mandated intermarriage then functioned to hold the two divisions together. At the same time it symbolically held together the universe in microcosm and brought the opposites together both in the whole and in each individual. Thus it is that this dualism dominates even the material and ceremonial structures of Osage architectural geography and lends itself to the political and social cohesion and balance of every historic Osage community.

This symbiotic dualism, spatially configured, is not the oppositional dualism of good and evil that is typical in Judeo-Christian thought, but is, rather, a necessary reciprocity. It functions at a much more deeply spiritual level that still pertains for a great many American Indian people today, including Osages, even as they have abandoned the explicit structures of their historical past. While an Osage person may have been either tsízhu or hon'ga, she or he was always a child of parents who come from each of the divisions. Thus, each individual recognized herself or himself as a combination of qualities that reflected both sky and earth, spirit and matter, peace and war, male and female, and each struggled personally and communally to hold those qualities in balance with each other. These value structures begin with spatial designs of existence and are rooted in those spatial metaphors as fundamental mores of communal behavior and social organization.


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Tink Tinker (2005)