The Osage Indians
by George Sabo III
The Osage Indians lived along the Osage and Missouri rivers in what is
now western Missouri when French explorers first heard of them in 1673.
A seminomadic people with a lifeway based on hunting, foraging, and gardening,
the seasonal movements of the Osage brought them annually into northwestern
Arkansas throughout the 18th century.
Osages hunting buffalo, by George Catlin.
Three principal hunts, each organized by a council of elders, were held
during the spring, summer, and fall. The men hunted bison, deer, elk,
bear, and smaller game. The women butchered the animals and dried or smoked
the meat and prepared the hides. The women also gathered wild plant foods
and at the summer villages tended gardens of corn, beans, squash, and
pumpkins. Surplus products, including meat, hides, and oil, were traded
to other Indians or to Europeans. The Osages acquired guns and horses
from Europeans during the eighteenth century, which enabled them to extend
their territory and control the distribution of European goods to other
tribes in the region.
Most men shaved their heads, leaving only a scalplock extending from
the forehead to the back of the neck. The pattern of a man's scalplock
indicated the clan he belonged to. Men wore deerskin loincloths, leggings,
and moccasins, and bearskin or buffalo robes when it was cold. Beaded
ear ornaments and armbands were worn, and warriors tattooed their chests
Women kept their hair long and wore deerskin dresses, woven belts, leggings,
and moccasins. Clothing was perfumed with chewed columbine seed and ceremonial
garments were decorated with the furs of ermine and puma. Earrings, pendants,
and bracelets were worn, and women decorated their bodies with tattoos.
Osage communities were organized into two divisions called the Sky People
and the Earth People. According to their traditions, Wakondah, the creative
force of the universe, sent the Sky People down to the surface of the
earth where they met the Earth People, whom they joined to form the Osage
tribe. Each division consisted of family groups related through the males,
called clans, that organized social events and performed rituals for special
occasions. Each clan had its own location in the village camping circle
and appointed representatives to village councils which advised the two
village leaders - one representing each tribal division.
Villages were laid out with houses on either side of a main road running
east and west. The two village leaders lived in large houses on opposite
sides of the main road near the center of the village. The Sky People
clans lived on the north side of the road, and the Earth people clans
lived on the south side. Council lodges for town meetings were also constructed
in the larger villages.
Detail from "Osage Dreams," by Charles Banks Wilson. Courtesy of
Osage houses were rectangular and sheltered several families. Measuring
up to 100 feet long, they were constructed of saplings driven into the
ground and bent over and tied at the top. Horizontal saplings were interwoven
among the uprights, and the framework was covered with hides, bark sheets,
or woven mats, with smokeholes left open at the top. Most houses had an
entrance at the eastern end. A leader's house had entrances at both ends.
Village life followed rules and customs established by a group of elders
known as the Little Old Men. To join the ranks of the Little Old men,
serious-minded individuals had to undergo training that began during boyhood
and lasted for many years. Little Old Men passed through seven stages
of learning, at each stage acquiring mastery of an increasingly complex
body of sacred knowledge.
Ceremonies were performed for important activities and events, including
hunting, war, peace, curing illnesses, marriages, and mourning the dead.
Many ceremonies required elaborate preparations and participants would
often wear special clothing and ornaments or paint elaborate designs on
their bodies. Each clan had specific ceremonial duties that in combination
served to sustain the wellbeing of the tribe.
Osage lands in Arkansas and Missouri were taken by the U.S. government
in 1808 and 1818, and in 1825 an Osage reservation was established in
southeastern Kansas. Today there are about 10,000 Osages listed on the
tribal roll, many of whom live in and around Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Din, Gilbert C. and Abraham P. Nasitir
Imperial Osages: Spanish-Indian Diplomacy in the Mississippi
Valley. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
Mathews, John J.
The Osage and the White Maní_ Road. University of Oklahoma
Children of the Middle Waters. University of
Sabo III, George
of Our Children: Historic Indians of Arkansas. Arkansas Archeological
Wilson, Terry P.
Osage. Chelsea House Publishers, New York.
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