American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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"Osage" is the French version of "Wazhazhe," the name for one of the Osages' three historical bands (Great Osage, Little Osage, and Arkansas Osage). Their self-designation was Ni-U-Ko'n-Ska, "Children of the Middle Waters." In the late seventeenth century, Osage Indians lived along the Osage River in western Missouri. Osage is a member of the Dhegiha division of the Siouan language family.

Wakonda was considered to be the supreme life force, with which people might connect through the acquisition of supernatural visions. Shamans provided religious leadership. There was a secret religious society to which both men and women belonged. Ceremonies revolved around planting, peace, and war. The oral history of the tribe was recounted in the Rite of Chiefs.

Two divisions, Sky/Peace (Tzi-sho) and Land/War (Hunkah) people, encompassed a total of twenty-one patrilineal clans, each of which held distinctive ceremonial and political functions. Each of the two divisions had a peace and a war chief. In certain cases, clan leadership was hereditary. There was also a council of older men to make laws and arbitrate disputes. From the nineteenth century on, the tribe was divided into three political divisions (bands): Great Osage, Little Osage, and Arkansas Osage.

The Osage located their villages along wooded river valleys. They built oval or rectangular pole-frame houses, thirty-six to 100 feet long, fifteen to twenty feet wide, and ten feet high, covered with woven rush mats or bark. People lived in teepees while on buffalo hunts. Women grew corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans, and they gathered foods such as persimmons, wild fruits and berries, and acorns and other nuts. In addition to buffalo, men hunted deer, wild fowl, beaver, and wildcat.

Osage orange was considered the best wood for bows. The people also built carved wooden cradle-boards, cattail and rush mats, and buffalo hair bags. By around 1700, the Osages were supplying the French with Indian slaves (mainly Pawnees and then Apaches), in exchange for guns, among other items. In the later eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, Osages had a surplus of horses to trade, in part because they did not require as many as did the truly nomadic Plains buffalo hunters. Being short on winter pastureland, they generally traded most of their horses in the fall, restocking again in the spring.

Most clothing was made of deerskin. Women wore a shirt and a cape; men wore leggings and a breechclout. Men wore their hair in a roach. Men also wore body paint, jewelry, and scalp locks. Through acts of bravery, a warrior gained the privilege to tattoo himself and his wife and daughter(s).

A group of Siouan people, known as Omahas, split into five separate tribes after they reached the Mississippi in the late sixteenth century from the Wabash and Ohio River regions. The initial exodus was prompted in part by pressure from the Iroquois. Those who continued north along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers became known as the Osages, Kaws, Poncas, and Omahas; the people who headed south were known as Quapaws.

The French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet encountered the Osages in 1673, when the Indians were living in two villages along and nearby the south fork of the Osage River. Around 1700, the Osages acquired horses and began hunting buffalo. In the early eighteenth century, the Osages formed a strong alliance with the French, who gave them special trade treatment in exchange for pelts and slaves. Osage warriors helped the French fight Fox Indians, the English, and various other enemies. During the mideighteenth century, the Osages were well armed and powerful, able both to defend their farming villages and to hunt buffalo on the western Plains. The Spanish, a presence in the later eighteenth century, also tried to stay on good terms with the Osages, despite Osage raids on their outlying settlements.

In 1802, half of the Great Osage band, under Chief Big Track, moved to the Arkansas River in Oklahoma to be near a trading post opened by the friendly Chouteau family. Thereafter they were known to non-Indians as the Arkansas Osages. In 1808, however, following the large-scale arrival of non-Indians in the region, the Osages ceded most of Missouri and northern Arkansas to the United States. The Little and Great bands then moved to the Neosho River in Kansas.

By treaties in 1818 and 1825, the Osages ceded all of their lands except for a reservation in extreme southern Kansas, to which all bands had relocated by 1836. In the 1850s, in alliance with Plains tribes such as the Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches, they fought and lost a battle to stem the tide of eastern bands, such as the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, who had been moved to their lands by the United States. During the Civil War, the Osages fought for both the United States and the Confederacy. Following that war, Osage men scouted for the United States in its wars against the Cheyennes in 1868–1869.

By 1870, the Osages had sold their Kansas lands and bought roughly 1 million acres of land from the Cherokees in northeastern Indian Territory (Oklahoma). There, they settled in five villages and retained a structure of twenty-four clans and two divisions. Many Osages embraced the Native American Church in the 1890s.

Large oil deposits were discovered on the reservation in 1897, and the Osages became very wealthy during the 1920s. In 1906, influenced by the prospect of oil wealth, the Osages created and implemented a voluntary allotment plan, dividing the tribal land individually, with the tribe retaining mineral rights. By the 1960s, however, half of the allotted parcels were lost. Although the oil wealth conferred many benefits, it also brought a large measure of corruption, through which people were cheated out of land and money, as well as greatly increased substance abuse. There was a general decline in revenues during the Depression and a resurgence during the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s.


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