Osage (pronounced OH-sa-je ). The Osage called themselves the “Little Ones” and Ni-u-ko’n-ska, or the “Children of the Middle Waters.” At the time of European contact the Osage were divided into two groups. One group was called the Tsishu, or “vegetarians.” When the French encountered the second group, the Wazhazhe (pronounced Wah-sha-she or Wah-Zha-Zhi ; “meat eaters”), they translated this name to “Osage.” Osage has been the name that European-Americans have used to identify the tribe ever since.
For hundreds of years the Osage controlled a vast territory in parts of what are now the states of Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. Today they live on or near the nearly 1.5-million-acre Osage Reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The town’s name comes from the name of an Osage chief.
In the late 1600s there were possibly seventeen thousand Osage. In 1815 there were twelve thousand. In 1871 there were about 3,679 full-blooded Osage and 280 mixed-bloods and intermarried citizens. By 1906 there were only 2,229 Osage, about half mixed-bloods and half full-bloods. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 10,430 people identified themselves as Osage. According to the 2000 census that number decreased to 7,648; however, 17,831 people claimed they had some Osage heritage.
Origins and group affiliations
Long ago the Osage belonged to a large Siouan group called the Dhegiha. The Dhegiha were mostly farmers who lived in settled towns and cities along the lower Ohio River. Their culture was related to the mound-building communities of the Mississippian culture that flourished from about 700 to 1751. The Dhegiha gradually moved west, broke into five groups, and settled at various spots along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
In 1802 American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1836) identified three groups that made up the Osage tribe: the Great Osage, living on the Osage River; the Little Osage, dwelling farther up the same river; and the Arkansas band, which settled on the Vermilion River. The group who settled along the Little Osage River became the Osage people. The Osage most likely lived with the Kansa, Ponca, Omaha, and Quapaw in the Ohio Valley. Later they drove the Caddo and Wichita out of their territory. The Shawnee and Chickasaw also feared them. They often fought with other Native Americans, and in the 1700s they allied themselves with the French against surrounding tribes, such as the Illinois.
The Osage were a proud, well-organized, adaptable, and often ferocious people who for decades were forced to give up land to the United States. They finally settled in northeastern Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). When oil was discovered on their lands in 1906 they became some of the richest people in the world. Wealth brought tragedy and decades of infighting, but it has also allowed them to maintain their culture in a way few other tribes have been able to do.
Forced to move westward
The Osage are generally thought of as Plains people, a culture known for its powerful warriors, skilled horsemanship, and buffalo hunting. Actually the Plains culture lasted only about two hundred years. It emerged in the late 1700s as a result of tribes being pushed eastward by American pioneers. Osage ancestors had farmed for hundreds of years along the Ohio River before they, like so many other Native groups, moved out to the Great Plains in the early 1600s. The Osage had settled on the Little Osage River by the mid-1600s.
The French first appeared in Osage territory in 1673 and remained there until the 1760s. The French found a tribe that famous American writer Washington Irving (1783–1859) later described as “the finest looking Indians I have ever seen.”
Osage men were of gigantic proportion, often reaching from six feet, five inches to seven feet in height. The Osage (who shaved their eyebrows) called the French “the Heavy Eyebrows.” According to Osage author John Joseph Mathews (1894–1979), “The Heavy Eyebrows with their dried sweat and armpit odors made some of the Little Ones sick.… Until recently they have wondered why … white men in general … kept their body odors imprisoned by collars and trousers.” The Osage found the Europeans undignified and, therefore, unthreatening.
1693: Osage begin trading with French.
1750–1825: The Osage are forced to move westward—a move averaging one hundred miles every ten years. By 1825 they are settled on a large reservation in southern Kansas.
1871: The Osage begin their move to their reservation in present-day Oklahoma.
1897: Oil is discovered beneath Osage land.
1920s: Fifteen to twenty Osage are murdered in the Osage Reign of Terror.
2004: A bill passes that allows Osage to set their own rules for tribal membership.
2006: The Osage create a congress.
Plains culture in full flower
The Osage and French got along well together because each group had something the other wanted. The area was rich in fur-bearing animals. The French wanted luxury furs, deerskins, and bearskins to satisfy the growing demand for these products in Europe. Osage skins and furs were especially desirable because they had an excellent way of preparing the skins. The Osage liked the items they got in trade from the French: fine fabrics, as well as guns, ammunition, clubs, and axes they could use for hunting and against unwanted Europeans and other Native American tribes.
Before the arrival of the Europeans Osage warriors had occasionally raided the villages of other tribes to steal horses. Now, with their appetites tempted by French trade goods, the Osage ranged into land claimed by other tribes to expand their fur trade.
The Osage were known far and wide as fierce warriors and clever traders. Until the end of the 1700s everyone—other tribes, the French, the Spanish who arrived in the 1760s, and other Europeans—recognized that the Osage were in control of Missouri, Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and Kansas. Tribes not aware of Osage control soon learned they were in Osage territory when they saw the severed human heads on stakes that served as territorial markers.
In 1802, just before the Louisiana Purchase (in which the United States purchased a vast area of land from the French) brought the Osage under the control of the United States, nearly half the Osage people left their villages for a new home farther south. This resulted in the tribe being split into two factions that no longer lived close together. The division into two parts affected their ability to protect their territory against enemies. It made them less able to withstand the pressure of American settlers heading West.
Under U.S. control
After the Louisiana Purchase the American government and its citizens forced the Osage to move even farther west. Between 1808 and 1825 alone the Osage were forced to hand over nearly 100 million acres of their land to the U.S. government in exchange for $166,300, primarily in the form of livestock, horses, farm equipment, and other goods. They were informed that if they wished to be friends and trading partners with the United States, they had to cooperate.
The Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery) interrupted Americans’ westward push, but when the war was over migration started up again with renewed vigor. That same year the Osage gave up two more large tracts of land—nearly four million acres—to the U.S. government. They were given six months to relocate to a 12-million-acre reservation in southeastern Kansas, far from their traditional homeland. Three years later the Osage were forced to sell their remaining eight million acres to the government, who in turn would offer it for sale to settlers.
Even before the land could be sold American settlers moved onto it illegally, claiming squatter’s rights. (Squatters occupy a piece of public land in order to gain ownership of it.) Between 1865 and 1869 more than two thousand settlers had crossed the boundaries of the Osage reservation and were squatting on some of the best farmlands there.
Osage author Dennis McAuliffe Jr. discussed one famous squatter family in his book Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation : the Ingalls family. Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957) chronicled her life growing up in the American West in the Little House on the Prairie series. McAuliffe notes that Wilder described the Osage as skeletal figures who were “beggars and thieves,” failing to realize the Natives “were hungry because white men such as her father were burning their fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes and threatening them with death if they returned, stealing their food and horses, even robbing their graves—all to force them to abandon their land.”
Troubles in Kansas
Settlers demanded that the U.S. government remove the Osage people. Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77) sent Indian agent Isaac Gibson to resolve the Native American problem fairly. Gibson confirmed Osage claims that Americans were stealing horses and ignoring Native Americans’ rights. Gibson reported: “The question will suggest itself, which of these peoples are the savages?”
Meanwhile the Osage were also being attacked by other tribes. Soon they could no longer hunt buffalo on the western Plains. Abandoning their reservation seemed their only choice. Osage leaders asked Gibson’a assistance, and with his help laws were passed in 1870 that provided for Osage removal to yet another reservation. Land was available for purchase from the Cherokee (see entry). The U.S. government offered to buy the Osage reservation in Kansas for $1.25 an acre (Washington’s previous offer two years earlier had been 19 cents an acre). The Osage agreed to sell. While other Oklahoma tribes lost a great deal of land, the nearly $9 million settlement for their land made the Osage the richest Native Americans in America.
With their money the Osage bought a new reservation in northeastern Indian Territory (present-dayOklahoma), and they moved there in 1871. Although they were unhappy about leaving the graves of their children behind in Kansas, the Osage were content with their new reservation. There they had abundant game and buffalo, and no one bothered them.
The Osage refuse allotment
In 1887 Congress decided that Native Americans were not assimilating (becoming like white Americans) fast enough, and the General Allotment Act was passed to speed up the process. The law allowed the president to divide reservations into parcels called allotments. Each Native American would receive an allotment from land formerly owned by the whole tribe. Leftover acreage would be sold to non-Native Americans.
The Osage could not agree among themselves whether to accept allotment. Many mixed-blood members of the tribe pushed for it, but in 1896, before a decision was made, oil was discovered on Osage land. In 1906 the Osage negotiated their own allotment act with Congress. They agreed to accept the policy of individual 160-acre allotments. Because they had bought and paid for their land, however, they refused to make surplus land available to American settlers. The excess land on the reservation after allotment was divided equally and given to each member of the tribe, which then numbered 2,229 people.
Land divided into “headrights”
Each of the 2,229 Osage received an allotment of 657 acres of land; the allotment was called a “headright.” But individual ownership applied only to the surface land. It did not extend to mineral (oil) rights. Any underground riches were held in common by all members of the tribe. Each headright was worth 657 acres of land in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma, and one annuity share, or one two-thousandth of the total of all income derived from the production of oil and natural gas beneath the reservation, regardless of who owned the land above. According to the terms of the agreement the number of headrights would forever remain 2,229. Headrights could be passed on to an owner’s heirs, even if they were not Osage, or could be divided among the heirs. Some Osage might even own more than one headright.
As it turned out the Osage were living on top of one of the biggest oil fields in the United States. After the fields were tapped the Osage became some of the richest people in the world. At once greedy people began to close in, hoping to cash in on some of the Osage wealth. Some even married Osage headright holders solely to enjoy their newfound riches.
By the 1920s the Osage were flaunting their wealth. They bought expensive cars and other trappings of rich American society. McAuliffe vividly described the new lifestyle they embraced, complete with opulently dressed, free-spending men and women who excited the envy and mockery of newspaper readers all around the world. He described their “mansions, filled with the finest in furniture, paintings, sculpture, china, and other luxury items—but often no occupants. Many Osage preferred sleeping outside on their lawns, or they continued their nomadic traditions of frequent and seasonal traveling—but this time in style.”
But hard times were not over for the Osage. In the “Osage Reign of Terror” of the 1920s, which claimed McAuliffe’s grandmother as a victim, murder after murder on the reservation finally brought in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Between one and two dozen Osage were murdered or “disappeared” from their oil-rich lands. The FBI eventually succeeded in securing sentences of life in prison for the offenders in what became one of the FBI’s most celebrated caese.
Osage “Reign of Terror”
Between 1921 and 1923 more than a dozen people from the Osage Indian Reservation died under suspicious circumstances. The Osage Nation called in the FBI to investigate. Four undercover agents, pretending to be herbal doctors, cattle buyers, and salespeople, discovered the culprit: William Hale, a wealthy rancher often called “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale and his nephews, Ernest and Roy Burkhart, had come from Texas to work in the oil fields.
At his uncle’s urging, Ernest Burkhart married a full-blooded Osage woman, Mollie Kile, who had headrights. She, along with other members of her family, received a percentage of the money generated by the rich oilfields on the reservation. Because those rights could be inherited, Hale and his nephews killed Mollie’s mother, sisters, and other relatives for the insurance money as well as headrights to an estimated one half million dollars a year.
Bill Hale, his nephews, and the ranch hands who assisted in the murders were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1929. They were not, however, the only ones who resorted to murder to cash in on the wealth brought by oil headrights. Some have estimated that as many as sixty wealthy Osage died during the 1920s, and much of their land ended up in the hands of local white businesspeople and lawyers.
The Osage in the twentieth century
During the twentieth century oil wealth has come and gone again from Osage lands. During the Great Depression (1929–41), an economic slowdown during the 1930s, oil income decreased considerably. The international energy crisis of the 1970s renewed interest in Osage oil and brought the tribe new wealth. The boom continued into the 1980s and fell off again in the 1990s. The Osage overspending in the 1920s gave way to a wiser use of oil wealth so it is available during hard times.
The Osage have maintained more of their culture than some tribes in Oklahoma have been able to do, partly because of the poverty other tribes have experienced, and because, with their oil income and ownership of their land, the Osage people have been able to remain apart from others.
The Osage creation story speaks of four original groups of people who at some point in the distant past united on Earth into one tribe. They were the Land People, the Sky People, the Water People, and the Isolated Earth People. During a time when there were no enemies to fight and plenty of food had been gathered, certain old men had the leisure to contemplate the meaning of life. These wise men devised a religion for the Osage. From then on, Osage wise men were referred to as the Little Old Men.
The Osage believed the Earth was sacred. It is possible that their warlike and ferocious nature, which was often noted by European settlers, was due to their belief in their role as Earth’s caretakers.
The ancient Osage discovered the Great Mysteries, which would, according to Mathews, “send the wind howling like wolves, and … send down balls of ice to pound their heads, and breathe snow across the land.” The Osage wasted no time in trying to understand these mysteries and the struggles they had endured adjusting to life on Earth (where everything was chaos). Mathews suggested the Osage simply accepted that they were here, as were the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.
After contact with Europeans
After contact and intermarriage with Europeans, most Osage religious ceremonies had to be abandoned because many clan members had married outside the tribe. Spiritual confusion resulted, leaving the Osage more open to the teachings of Christian missionaries. Many converted to Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Some Osage followed the teachings of a Paiute (see entry) called Wovoka (c. 1856–1932) who brought the Ghost Dance religion to them in the 1890s. The Ghost Dance instilled hopes that, if it were practiced well, the world would become as it had been before the Europeans came to the Americas—buffalo and other game would return in plenty, dead ancestors would come back, there would be a return to traditional Native American values, and white men would be gone forever. Wovoka introduced the Osage to peyote (pronounced pay-OH-tee ), a substance from cactus; when consumed it creates visions, which many Native Americans believe are spiritual paths. Some Osage took up the new religion with enthusiasm, and peyote meetings are still held on the reservation.
The Osage spoke a branch of the Siouan language called Dhegiha Sioux. The Sioux (see entries) were the largest group of tribes on the Plains, and the term Dhegiha Sioux was used for eastern tribes who had been forced by more aggressive tribes to migrate to the Plains. There were four dialects (varieties) in the Siouan language family. The Osage spoke the same dialect as the Iowa, Kansa, Missouri, Omaha, Oto, Ponca, Quapaw, and Winnebago tribes. Classes in the language are held on the reservation.
Because the Plains tribes lived in a widespread area and had come from all over the East, it was rare for groups like the Osage to understand the languages of other groups from the Siouan language family. Because trade among tribes was common, however, it became necessary for the Plains tribes to develop a sign language, which proved effective in communicating with other groups.
- mi … “sun”
- mihóndon … “moon”
- ni … “water”
- ník’a … “man”
- shónge … “dog”
- wak’ó … “woman”
- win … “one”
In the early times Osage groups were governed by a war chief and a peace chief who guided tribal affairs with advice from the Little Old Men, the wise, elderly warriors who contemplated Osage life and spirit.
In 1881 the Osage people wrote a constitution and established a tribal government loosely patterned after that of the U.S. government. A chief and assistant chief ran the council of three representatives from five districts. The chief had veto power, but a two-thirds vote by the council could override him. Conflicts soon arose when mixed-bloods (the offspring of intermarriages with the French and others) became numerous in the tribe. Their views often clashed with those of full-blood Osages.
In 1900 the U.S. government declared that the Osage tribal government no longer existed, but its members ignored the government’s order. In 1906 Congress returned governing authority to the tribal council. It was also decided that only the 2,229 Osage who had headrights (and afterwards, their heirs) could vote in tribal elections, hold tribal office, and receive money from oil proceeds. This system created many problems for the tribe, and divisions among members of the tribe grew wider. Tribal membership grew, but more and more people were ineligible to vote. As headright holders died they passed shares in their headright to their children. Thus, a mother might leave her headright to her three children, and the three children then would have one-third of a vote in tribal elections. (For more information on headrights, see “Land divided into ‘headrights.’”) Control of oil wealth was a major issue.
This resulted in a situation where nonvoting Osage, who were often the children of officeholders (and headright holders), attempted to gain a voice in tribal affairs. At the same time tribal elders and officeholders feared that nonvoters planned to wrest their headrights from them.
A lawsuit in 1991 challenged the tribal voting restrictions. A lower court ruled in 1993 that the Osage had to form a new government and open up voting to include more people. In 1994, however, only 56 people were on the voting list, and the tribal council considered them the entire tribal membership. The 1996 membership roll, though, showed an Osage population of fourteen thousand. An appeal was filed in a higher court, and in 1997 it was decided that only the U.S. Congress can order a change in tribal government. The right to vote in tribal elections was still restricted to headright owners.
Although it had won the case the Osage Tribal Council announced plans to allow more people to have a say in who represents them on the council. The council, however, stated: “we are equally committed to a protection of the mineral [oil] estate, and will adamantly defend the right of shareholders to have the exclusive control over their mineral assets.” In other words, although more people may be allowed to vote, they will have no say in how oil money is distributed.
In 2006 the Osage Nation created a congress. This legislative branch has twelve members, and all sessions are open to the public. Agendas are posted before each meeting, so the tribe is aware of the issues that will be decided. Congresswoman Debbie Littleton explained this policy by saying, “We need to make sure that this government is driven by the will of the people of the Osage Nation.” In addition to the congress, the Osage Tribe is governed by an elected president and vice-president and the eight-member Osage National Council.
Once the Osage acquired guns and horses from the Spanish and French in the seventeenth century, they no longer depended on farming for their survival. They could travel great distances to hunt buffalo. They eagerly took up fur trading with the French, which changed their way of life. Throughout the year Osage villages traded with the French and British. The early summer, before the hunt began, was a favorite time for trading. The Osage provided animal skins and dried meat in exchange for brass cooking utensils, whiskey, weapons, ammunition, British cloth, and fine French ribbons and lace.
In the early twenty-first century, in addition to the money from oil, the reservation economy is based on ranching, farming, and the service industry. Many people are employed by the tribal government and in the casinos. The discovery of oil on their reservation land, plus their landholdings, have combined to make the Osage the wealthiest Native Americans in the United States.
In traditional times the education of Osage children was the responsibility of the entire village. Boys were instructed in hunting and warfare. Girls learned the domestic arts, gardening, and the gathering and preservation of food. Grandmothers were responsible for moral instruction. Discipline for unacceptable behavior began with ridicule and progressed to exclusion from the group—the most severe punishment.
Catholic priests and nuns established a mission school for Osage Indians in Kansas in 1847. Boys were instructed in manual labor, while girls were taught domestic skills. After the move to Oklahoma many Osage children attended government-run boarding schools both on and off the reservation. There they endured an almost military-style education. They wore uniforms and marched from class to class. Their day began at 5:45 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. with the playing of “Taps,” the bugle call or drum signal that army camps use to signal “lights out.” Osage parents were vocal in objecting to this way of educating their children. They especially resented their children being forced to perform chores. The boarding schools were finally phased out in favor of public schools.
The Osage built two styles of dwellings according to the environment and their activities. On the prairies where they farmed they built lodges or longhouses—circular or rectangular structures ranging from 30 to 100 feet (9 to 30 meters) long, 20 feet (6 meters) wide, and 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) high. They built them with frames made of hickory poles that they covered with mats (and later with buffalo skins). They overlapped the mats like shingles to help the buildings shed water. Osage women were responsible for gathering rushes to weave into mats, a task that took a great deal of time. They also used mats to make furniture and beds.
In the center of the lodge was a fireplace, which was vented through a hole in the roof. The fire’s central location in the lodge was symbolic of the center of the universe, and the fire served not only for warmth and cooking but also as a communal gathering place. Dried roots, mats, and ears of corn as well as cooking utensils, hunting supplies, and medicine bags were strung about the room. Sacred pipes hung from the walls and were taken down and smoked as a welcome to visitors. Lodges faced the rising Sun so that those exiting in the morning could begin their prayers to Grandfather Sun. Approximately ten to fifteen people occupied the lodge or longhouse.
During the hunting season, the tribe built semipermanent structures that could be taken down and moved. Sometimes they carried along some of the building elements from the permanent lodges and used those in the construction. They laid hickory poles in a circle and gathered the ends at the top with flexible branches. Bark and rushes, leaves and moss covered the outside. Later, when horses made buffalo hunting possible, the Osage covered their lodges with buffalo skins.
In some villages there was a Lodge of Mystery, to which the Little Old Men retired for discussions. This building was built in the same way as the residential lodges, but only the finest animal skins were used to cover it.
The Osage hunted, gathered, and planted gardens. For hundreds of years, whether living in the East or near the Plains, Osage women planted squash, corn, beans, and pumpkins. Once they had planted a garden in spring and the young plants had established themselves, the Osage moved to another environment to take advantage of the available plants and animals. Every healthy man and woman set off on this expedition, leaving behind the old and feeble to watch over the food preserves from the previous year’s hunt and harvest.
The travelers gathered wild nuts and berries, persimmons, pawpaws (fruit from the pawpaw tree, which is common in the eastern and southeast United States), plums, grapes, roots, and potatoes, which they preserved for winter use. They hunted deer, bear, elk, wild turkey, and small game. When they knew their gardens were ready the Osage returned to their villages to harvest.
Clothing and adornment
Many of the early traders and travelers who encountered the Osage wrote of their striking appearance. The men were extremely tall and very fond of personal adornment. Osage men wore their hair “roached,” a style in which the sides and back of the head are shaved, leaving a lock about two inches high at the top. This strip of hair might be further ornamented with the long hairs from a deer’s tail. One or two strands were left long to be decorated with feathers and beads. The Osage also plucked or shaved their eyebrows. Some tattooed around their eyes and mouth and painted their shoulders, arms, and chest. Most men pierced their ears; some inserted bones in their ears to make an even larger hole for earrings. They also wore necklaces of wapiti teeth and moccasins trimmed with squirrel tails. (A wapiti is a large deer.)
Warm-weather wear for men usually consisted of a loincloth (apronlike pieces of fabric) secured by a belt. In cold weather they wore buffalo-skin capes or trade blankets. The fringes on their deerskin leggings were intended to resemble eagle feathers, since the Osage believed they had originally landed on Earth like an alighting eagle. Warriors decorated their leggings with scalplocks, pieces of scalp with hairs attached, which they removed from an enemy’s head during battle.
Osage women favored tattooed breasts, and some wore a long shirt that covered one shoulder. Women and girls might also have worn an apron-like garment made of deerskin. They strung beads into necklaces and wore several long strands. Single women wore their long hair in decorated braids, while married women pulled theirs back and tied it with a leather thong. Sometimes a woman painted the part in her hair red to symbolize the Sun moving over the Earth.
Once trade with the Europeans began Osage women used cloth, yarn, and colored beads to decorate clothing. They trimmed blankets with silk and satin ribbonwork and wore them over their shoulders like shawls. Beadwork, along with animal claws, teeth, and bones, adorned their garments. Soon beads replaced quillwork (designs made with dyed porcupine quills) on moccasins and clothing.
Medicine men or women occasionally served as religious leaders, but they were most highly regarded for their knowledge of extracting drugs from plants and herbs. Medicine men were paid for their services to the sick. When their herbal remedies failed and the patient got no better, medicine men called upon mysterious forces. To get a spirit’s attention, they wore special clothing made of bear or snake skins and sometimes decorated with deer hooves. Medicine men generally performed a ritual song and dance over the patient, accompanied by the music of rattles.
One of the medicine man’s most important responsibilities was putting together medicine bundles for warriors. These contained herbs and other items to ward off evil spirits and curry favor with good spirits. A different mixture was required for each warrior. Medicine bags were made from the skins of birds, animals, or reptiles. Renowned painter of Native Americans George Catlin (1796–1872) remarked that “the value of the medicine-bag to the Indian is beyond all price … for he considers it the gift of the Great Spirit.”
Osage women are known for their beautiful finger weaving and for their ribbonwork. In ribbonworking the women cut intricate designs of ribbons and then sew them in several layers onto clothing and ceremonial objects such as dance blankets.
How the Spider Symbol Came to the Osage People
One day, the chief of the Isolated Earth People was hunting in the forest. He was not just hunting for game, he was also hunting for a symbol to give life to his people, some great and powerful animal that would show itself to him and teach him an important lesson. As he hunted he came upon the tracks of a huge deer. The chief became very excited.
“Grandfather Deer,” he said, “surely you are going to show yourself to me. You are going to teach me a lesson and become one of the symbols of my people.”
Then the chief began to follow the deer’s tracks. His eyes were on nothing else as he followed those tracks and he went faster and faster through the forest. Suddenly, the chief ran right into a huge spider’s web that had been strung between the trees across the trail. It was so large and strong that it covered his eyes and made him stumble. When he got back up to his feet, he was very angry. He struck at the spider, which was sitting at the edge of the web, but the spider dodged aside and climbed out of reach. Then the spider spoke to the man.
“Grandson,” the spider said, “why do you run through the woods looking at nothing but the ground? Why do you act as if you are blind?”
The chief felt foolish, but he felt he had to answer the spider. “I was following the tracks of the great deer,” the chief said.”I am seeking a symbol to give life and strength to my people.”
“I can be such a symbol,” said the spider.
“How could you give strength to my people?” said the chief. “You are small and weak and I didn’t even see you as I followed the great deer.”
“Grandson,” said the spider, “look upon me. I am patient. I watch and wait. Then all things come to me. If your people learn this, they will be strong indeed.”
The chief saw that it was so. Thus the spider became one of the symbols of the Osage people.
Bruchac, Joseph. “How the Spider Symbol Came to the Osage People.” Native American Animal Stories. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.
Osage society was organized into a complicated system of clans, or family groups. Originally there were 14 clans, but these were later expanded to 24. Clans were further divided into Sky People and Land People. The Osage believed all members of a clan were descended from a common ancestor and were related. The common ancestor could have been a plant, animal, or a natural phenomenon. Clan leaders, who inherited their positions through their fathers, shared a limited rule over the entire Osage Nation. Each clan controlled the part of the village in which it lived, and the clan functioned as a military unit during wartime.
Courtship and marriage
When Osage boys and girls reached puberty they were considered ready for marriage. Osage women usually married immediately, but men waited until they were at least in their late teens. A man’s parents chose a mate for him from another clan. The groom’s parents asked four “good men” to determine that the bride was indeed from a different clan and to set up the exchange of gifts that was the main event of a simple wedding ceremony. Divorced and widowed women were outcasts, suitable only as mates for white men.
In the earliest times it was the custom for Osage newlyweds to move in with the groom’s parents. When the Osage took up hunting and raiding, the custom was reversed, and the couple moved in with the bride’s parents. A household that included men from several different clans had an advantage: when some clans left on hunting and raiding expeditions, others could stay behind and contribute to the household.
Babies and children
Osage infants were tied to boards, which their mothers carried on their backs. An infant was bound so tightly to the board that the back of its head was flattened; this was considered an attractive feature.
After the naming ceremony a young child was considered a “real” person and member of a clan. This was the occasion when a child acquired a special clan hairstyle that he or she wore until puberty.
Festivals and ceremonies
Other than child-naming, important occasions that required elaborate ceremonies included a weeks-long preparation for war, the celebration of a warrior’s success in battle, the celebration of peace, and mourning for those who died in battle.
The Osage have held their most important dance every spring since 1884. It is called I’N-Lon-Scha, the Playground of the First Son. Each year they choose a boy to be drum keeper, which is considered a great honor. His family keeps the drum for a year and is in charge of hosting the last dances in the four-day spring event. At those last dances the host family lavishes gifts on their guests.
The Osage were among the first Native Americans to send their men and women off to fight in World War II (1939–45). Before the servicepeople departed the tribe held a ceremony and bestowed warrior names on them.
Current tribal issues
Oil wealth has affected the lives of Osage in ways never experienced by other Native Americans. Terry Wilson reported in Native America in the Twentieth Century that “Osage politics is still almost completely shaped by the overriding concerns of oil leasing and headright payments.”
At issue for the Osage in the late 1990s was the placement of the centuries-old remains of deceased Native Americans held by the anthropology department at Missouri University at Columbia. The Osage Nation pressed for the return of the remains. The university contended that the remains would give students an opportunity to learn more about Native American history. The Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that passed in 1990, however, gives tribes more say in what happens to the remains of their ancestors as well as any burial goods found with the bodies.
dancer Maria Tallchief (1925–) she joined the Ballet Russe, a world-famous Russian ballet troupe, and worked under the renowned choreographer (composer and arranger of dance steps) George Balanchine (1904–1983). In 1946 she married Balanchine and moved to Paris with him. Tallchief was initially treated with disdain in Paris. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, but Tallchief’s talent quickly won over French audiences. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. In 1949, she became the first Native American to become prima ballerina at the New York City Ballet, and that year she danced one of her greatest roles in the Balanchine-choreographed version of the Firebird. In 1965,Tallchief retired from performance to teach ballet. Ten years later she headed the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, and in 1987 she founded the Chicago City Ballet. In 1996 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Other notable Osage people include: Charles Brent Curtis (1860–1936), the first Native American to be elected vice president of the United States in 1929; Corine and Leona Girard, mixed-blood sisters, were active during the 1920s in the fight to obtain voting rights in tribal affairs for Osage women; John Joseph Mathews (1894–1979), the author of the first university-published book to be sold by the Book-of-the-Month Club and a major figure in Osage tribal politics; and Andrew “Buddy” Redcorn, the most-decorated Native American in the Vietnam War.
Bailey, Garrick A., ed. The Osage and the Invisible World: From the Works of Francis La Flesche. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Bailey, Garrick A., and Daniel C. Swan, et al. Art of the Osage. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.
Burns, Louis F. Osage Indian Customs and Myths. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
———. A History of the Osage People. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Liebert, Robert. Osage Life and Legends: Earth People/Sky People. Happy Camp, California: Naturegraph Publishers, 1987.
Mathews, John Joseph. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
McAuliffe, Dennis. Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation. Beltsville, MD: Council Oak Books, 1999.
McAuliffe, Dennis, Jr. The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: An American History. New York: Random House, 1994.
Stewart, Philip. Osage. Philadelphia, PA: Mason Crest Publishers, 2004.
Wilson, Terry P. “Osage.” Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.
“The Osage.” Fort Scott National Historic Site, National Park Service. (accessed on August 5, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy
ETHNONYMS: A-ha-chae, Bone Indians, Crevas, Huzaas, Ouchage, Wasashe, Wasbasha
Identification. The Osage are an American Indian group who currently live mainly in Oklahoma. The name "Osage" is derived from "Wa-sha-she," or "water people," the name of one of the Osage phratries. The original Osage name for themselves was "Ni-u-ko'n-ska," or "people of the middle water."
Location. At the time of earliest European contact, the Osage villages were located along the Osage river in what is today southwestern Missouri. During the late eighteenth Century, the Osage hunting territory encompassed most of Southern and western Missouri, northern and western Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Kansas. Today, most Osage live in Oklahoma.
Demography. In 1976 the Osage population numbered 8,842. Of this number, only 156 were full-blood Osage, while over 75 percent of the population was less than one-fourth degree Osage in ancestry. During the late eighteenth century, the Osage numbered about 6,500.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Osage language belongs to the Dhegiha branch of the Siouan family.
History and Cultural Relations
Linguistic, archaeological, and mythological data present an unclear picture of precontact Osage history. The Osage, Kansa, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw collectively constitute the Dhegihan Siouan speakers. These languages are so close as to be mutually intelligible. The myths of these groups describe a westward migration out of the Ohio valley and define the order in which the groups split off from one another. Precisely when this migration took place is not clear, since archaeological data seem to indicate that the Osage had lived in southwestern Missouri for some time prior to French Contact in 1673. Native groups bordering the Osage in 1673 included the Caddoan-speaking Pawnee, Wichita, and Mento in the Arkansas River valley to the south and west, the Siouan-speaking Oto, Missouri, and Kansa along the Missouri River to the north and west, and the Algonkian-speaking Illini peoples far to the east along the Mississippi River. During the early historic period, Osage relations with most of these peoples were volatile. The greatest conflict was with the Caddoan-speaking peoples with whom they were at war from the late seventeenth until the late nineteenth centuries. Starting in the 1680s, the Osage were in regular Contact with French traders, whose supply of guns made them the most militarily powerful tribe in French Louisiana.
In 1803 Louisiana was purchased by the United States. To find homes for dislocated eastern tribes as well as European-American settlers, the United States negotiated a series of treaties with the Osage. In 1808 the Osage ceded most of their lands in present-day Missouri and Arkansas. The Western Cherokee were given a reservation in Arkansas and quickly came into conflict with the Osage over hunting territory. In 1817 a Cherokee war party attacked an Osage Village, killing eighty-three men, women, and children and taking over one hundred captive. The following year a new treaty was negotiated, and the Osage ceded much of eastern Oklahoma. In 1821 the Cherokee again attacked an Osage village, and in 1825 a new treaty ceded all the Osage lands except for a tract in what is now southern Kansas.
In 1870 the Osage agreed to allow the government to sell their Kansas reservation to White settlers for $1.25 per acre. Part of the money was used to purchase a new, smaller Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where they moved in 1871. The remainder of the money was deposited in the U.S. Treasury, and the interest used for the betterment of the Osage. In 1897 oil was discovered on the Osage reservation. In 1906 the Osage allotment act was passed, and the reservation opened to White settlers. Surface rights were divided among tribal members, but the tribe retained and still retains title to mineral rights, including the vast oil and natural gas deposits. The Osage reservation also retained its legal status as an allotted reservation.
The Osage were divided into five bands; the Upland Forest, the Big Hills, the Thorny Thickets, the Hearts-Stays, and the Little Osage. Each of these bands occupied a permanent Village located in the bottomlands near their fields. Each village was arranged symmetrically with a main east-west path that separated it into a northern and a southern half. In the very middle of the village, on opposite sides of the path, were the houses of the two village chiefs. Warfare and removal during the early nineteenth century led to fragmentation of the Villages, until at one time there were seventeen. Each village, however, remained identified with one of the bands. After the move to Oklahoma in 1871, the five band-village Communities were reestablished. Osage dwellings were originally rectangular wigwam-type structures covered with mats, hides, and/or bark. Today three bands exist, the Thorny-Thickets at Pawhuska, the Big Hills at Gray Horse, and the Upland Forest at Hominy. The Hearts-Stays and the Little Osage were absorbed by the Thorny Thickets. Each band has a 160-acre village with a dance arbor and community building. All Families live in American-style houses, some in the band village but most in nearby towns or on rural farms and ranches.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The early Osage economy was based on horticulture, hunting, and the collection of wild food plants. Maize, beans, and squash were the most important crops. Although bison were the most Important game animals, elk, deer, and bear were also significant. Persimmons, prairie potatoes, and water lily roots were staples in their diet. During the eighteenth century, the fur trade and Indian slave trade became important aspects of their economy. Horses, first adopted by the Osage in the late seventeenth century, facilitated bison hunting, which became the dominant feature of the Osage economy in the mid-nineteenth century. The last Osage bison hunt took place in 1875. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they were dependent upon per capita payments from interest paid on the Kansas land sale money in the federal Treasury. This income and other properties made the Osage the "richest People per capita in the world." Oil income from the 1897 discovery peaked in 1924. In 1906 each of the 2,229 allotees had received a headright, which entitled its owner to 1/2229th of the income from tribal mineral rights. Individuals born after the roll was closed could acquire a headright only by Inheritance or purchase. Headlights can be divided, but today only a minority own any part of one, though a few individuals own multiple headlights. Most of the wealthier individuals today are older women. The present economy is based on oil income and wage labor.
Industrial Arts. Historic crafts included leatherwork, beading, finger weaving, ribbonwork, and some metalwork using German silver. Today a limited amount of weaving, ribbonwork, and beading is produced for domestic use.
Trade. From the late seventeenth until the late nineteenth centuries, trade was a critical part of their economy. During the first half of the eighteenth century, they were a major supplier of Indian slaves to the French. Starting in the last half of the eighteenth century, the trade shifted to horses, beaver pelts, and deer and bear skins. By the mid-nineteenth Century, they were trading primarily in bison robes and hides.
Division of Labor. Farming, collection of wild food plants, and their preparation and storage were primarily the work of women. Women were also primarily responsible for hide work, making clothes, cooking, and raising children. Hunting was a male activity, and politics, warfare, and ritual activities were dominated by men. Important ritual positions are still limited to males, and few women have held tribal political offices.
Land Tenure. Aboriginally, each of the five bands appears to have had its own hunting territory. At least within their band's territory, individuals had rights to hunt where they wished. Farmland was owned by the family who cleared the land. In 1906 tribal reservation land was allotted to Individuals, with each man, woman, and child receiving 658 acres. The tribe reserved three 160-acre "Indian villages" where any member of the tribe could claim an unoccupied lot and build a house. Individual trust land amounts to about 200,000 acres today.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Osage were divided into twenty-four patrilineal clans. These clans were grouped into phratries and exogamous moieties. Fifteen clans formed the hon-qa or "earth" moiety, which included the wa-sha-she or "water" phratry and the hon-ga or "land" phratry. Nine clans formed the tsi-zhu or "sky" moiety. Each clan had between three and five hierarchically ranked subclans. Most political positions as well as ritual positions and prerogatives were considered the property of particular clans. Each also had its own prescribed area in the village. Clans owned sets of male and female personal names that were given to their members. Today, the only significant function of the clans is in the naming of children.
Kinship Terminology. Traditionally, Osage kin terms were of the Omaha type.
Marriage. Individuals could not marry into either their own moiety or their mother's clan. Ideally, marriages were arranged by the extended families of both individuals, Commonly without their knowledge. Marriages were important and elaborate social affairs with major gift exchanges between the families. The husband of the oldest sister in a family had a prior claim on all younger sisters, and sororal polygyny was common. Both the levirate and the sororate were also Common practices. Traditionally, the Osage may have been patrilocal in residence; however, by the early nineteenth Century matrilocal residence was typical.
Domestic Unit. The ideal family lived in an extended Family unit headed by the son-in-law. Today, most are nuclear families, with extended family households usually found only among the wealthier families.
Inheritance. Traditionally, household property was passed to the son-in-law upon marriage. Ritual positions and items were usually passed from father to eldest son. Women normally favored their oldest daughters. Today there is still some bias favoring the oldest children. Most property is inherited bilaterally, conforming to laws of the state of Oklahoma.
Socialization. Children were raised in a world with welldefined rules of behavior. Physical punishment was rare, and children were controlled through a combination of ridicule and rewards.
Social Organization. Status was conferred on the basis of birth order, age, subclan membership, and personal conduct. Birth order was of major significance, and the first, second, and third sons and daughters had names indicative of their position. A woman's status was in large part dependent upon her husband's status. Since mixed-bloods were usually the children of non-Osage fathers, they did not have a clan affiliation and thus no position within society. By the late nineteenth century, mixed-bloods formed a separate and distinct group whose life-style and values were basically European-American. Today, status is based in part on the prestige of the family and in part on relative wealth.
Political Organization. The five bands were autonomous units. Although there was no overriding political structure, band leaders frequently conferred and acted in concert. Each band had two ga-hi-ge, or chiefs, a tzi-zhu, or sky chief, and a hon-ga, or earth chief. The chiefs were chosen from among the male members of particular lineages and clans. To assist them, the chiefs had ten a-ki-da, or "soldiers," who were also chosen from particular clans. The chiefs and soldiers dealt only with day-to-day problems and led the village on hunts. The true power was in the collective decisions of the non-honzhin-ga, or "little old men," individuals who had been initiated into the clan rituals and had the right to perform such rituals. Each of the clans had its own set of "little old men." They were responsible for and controlled all religious rituals and all external relations including warfare. During the early nineteenth century, the Osage began to fragment politically. Some families continued to follow traditional hereditary chiefs, but others turned to "big man" war leaders. The "little old men" lost influence to younger aggressive warriors. In 1881 the Osage Nation was organized with a constitution based on that of the Cherokee. In 1900 the Indian Service unilaterally abolished the national government. The 1906 Allotment Act provided for a new tribal council to be elected by adult headlight owners who vote the number of headlights they own.
Social Control. Gossip and ostracism were and are two informal forms of control. Little is known about witchcraft other than that the last witch died in the early part of the twentieth century. The chiefs and their soldiers were primarily responsible for the maintenance of peace within the Village. Physical force and punishment could be used, and on occasion individuals were executed for murder. The 1881 constitution established courts and police. The 1906 Allotment Act made no provision for a tribal judicial system.
Conflict. There were and are sharp political divisions and bitter disputes among the Osage. These disputes, however, have rarely threatened the overall cohesiveness of the tribe. The major division today is between the descendants of the turn-of-the-century mixed-blood and full-blood families. Since today there are few actual full-bloods, the division is based more on social and cultural differences than on biology.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Osage religion was pantheistic. All life forms and changes in the universe were the product of a single mysterious life-giving force called Wa-kon-tah. Humans were merely one manifestation of Wa-kon-tah. Clans were totemic, in that the members of a particular clan were more closely associated or linked to some manifestation of Wa-kon-tah than others. The Osage never claimed to fully understand this force and how it worked. There were spirits, and through visions humans communicated with them and gained their support. Some humans could turn themselves into animals. Power derived from supernatural knowledge was neither "good" nor "evil." The Peyote religion was brought to them in the 1890s. The Osage Peyote church was based on Christianity and totally rejected traditional religious beliefs and practices. By the 1910s, traditional religious ceremonies were gone. Only a few Osage Peyote churches exist today, and these are now affiliated with the Native American church. Most Osages belong to main-line Christian churches—Catholic, Baptist, and Quaker.
Religious Practitioners. The "little-old-men" were Formally trained and initiated priests. Every major ritual consisted of prayers, and certain acts and items. The rituals had twenty-four parts, one for each clan, and only a "little-oldman" from that clan had the authority to perform his clan's portion of the ritual. The last of the "little-old-men" died in the early 1970s. The Peyote churches were established on the basis of extended families, and the head of a family was Usually formally installed as "road man" for the church. Only Certain men had the authority to create new churches and install "road men"; the last man who undisputably had such authority died in the early 1960s. Today the Peyote churches follow the Native American church structure.
Ceremonies. The Osage had both crisis and calendrical rituals. Most of what is known concerns crisis rituals—child naming, mourning, war, peace, and initiation rituals for "little-old-men." Little is known about calendrical rituals. A spring ritual cleansed the village and prepared for planting. There was a planting ritual and in the late summer a green corn ceremony. The Osage had sacred fires and at one time a ritual renewal of fires. There is even some mention of human sacrifice during the early historic period.
Medicine. Little is known about traditional medicine. There were rituals designed to promote long life and health. A wide variety of herbs were used in treatment of illness.
Death and Afterlife. Death was natural in that all things die. What they feared was premature death of a child or young adult. Traditional Osage religion focused on living, not death. The Osage sought continuity through their children and family. Death was associated with night, and they had no well-developed concept of what happened after death. One appeal of the Peyote religion was that it gave them an explanation for what happened after death.
Bailey, Garrick (1973). Changes in Osage Social Organization, 1673-1906. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, no. 5. Eugene: University of Oregon Press.
La Flesche, Francis (1921). The Osage Tribe: Rite of the Chiefs; Sayings of the Ancient Men. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 36th Annual Report (1914-1915), 35-604. Washington, D.C.
La Flesche, Francis (1939). War Ceremony and Peace Ceremony of the Osage Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 59. Washington, D.C.
Mathews, John Joseph (1961). The Osages, Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
OSAGE. Originally part of a large Dhegian-Siouxan speaking body of Indians, the Osages lived on the lower Ohio River. Attacks from aggressive tribes to the east drove the group west of the Mississippi River in the early seventeenth century. By about 1650, the Dhegians comprised five autonomous tribes: Quapaws, Kansas, Omahas, Poncas, and Osages. The Osages inhabited a region that straddled the plains and the woodlands of western Missouri. Culturally adaptable, the Osages kept old practices when useful, and adopted new ones when necessary. Osage women continued to plant crops in the spring, but men increasingly hunted deer and buffalo commercially on the plains during summer and fall.
The Osages organized themselves into two patrilineal groupings, or moieties, one symbolizing the sky and peace, the other focusing on the earth and war. Each moiety originally had seven, and later twelve, clans. Some clans had animal names, and some were named after natural
phenomena or plants. Villages had two hereditary chiefs, one from each moiety. Osage parents arranged their children's marriages, with the bride and groom always from opposite moieties, and the new couple lived in the lodge of the groom's father. Over time, however, the custom changed, and the couple would live with the bride's family. The Osages believed in an all-powerful life force Wa-kon-da and prayed at dawn each day for its support. Religious ceremonies required the participation of all clans.
The French made contact with the Osages in 1673 and began trading, particularly in guns. The Osages needed firearms to fend off attacks from old enemies like the Sauks, Fox, Potawatomis, Kickapoos, and Illinois, and put great energy into commercial hunting and trading livestock and slaves in order to buy them. Further, they used their geographic location to block tribes to the west, the Wichitas, Kansas, Pawnees, Caddos, and Quapaws, from joining the arms race. The Osage were able to control the region between the Missouri and Red Rivers through their superior firepower and great numbers—for much of the eighteenth century, the Osages could muster about one thousand warriors.
By the eighteenth century, the tribe had split into three bands: the Little Osages along the Missouri River, the Arkansas along the Verdigris River, and the Great Osages on the upper Osage River. By the 1830s, there were at least five bands. American expansion in the early nineteenth century moved more than sixty thousand already displaced eastern Indians (Chickasaws, Cherokees, Delawares, and others) west of the Mississippi, overrunning the Osages. In 1839, a treaty with the U.S. government forced the Osages to remove to Kansas. Wisely, the Osages made peace with the Comanches and Kiowas and leapt into the prosperous trade in buffalo hides.
White settlers, especially after the Homestead Act of 1862, encroached on Osage lands, and, by 1870, the tribe had ceded its remaining territory in Kansas. Proceeds from the sale of Osage lands went into a government trust fund and the purchase of a 1.5 million acre reservation from the Cherokees in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The decades after 1870 saw the dissolution of the old political forms; pressure from "civilizing" missionaries; and increased tension between full-blooded and mixed-blood Osages. The Osage Allotment Act of 1906 divided oil revenues from their Oklahoma fields among the 2,229 members of the tribe, with the provision that no new headrights be issued. Oil revenues peaked at about $31,000 per headright in 1981. The 1990 census showed 9,527 people who identified themselves as Osage.
Rollings, Willard H. The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Sturtevant, William C., and Raymond J. DeMallie, eds. Handbook of North American Indians: Plains. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.
O·sage / ˈōˌsāj/ • n. (pl. same or O·sages) 1. a member of an American Indian people formerly inhabiting the Osage River valley in Missouri. 2. the Siouan language of this people. • adj. of or relating to this people or their language.