The Power of Osage Storytelling

The Power of Osage Storytelling

The Osage elders’ teachings about life and death were about both the seen and unseen. “We follow the drum,” they said. “This little drum helps make the big drum go,” they said.

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My generation knew the big drum as where we dressed in our finest traditional clothes and enjoyed the intimacy of our families. Across four-day long ceremonies, each of us carried into the day and night our own beliefs, as formed around the order of the dance. Our parents’ generation grew up during WWII and the Korea Conflict.

They ventured out into the world to seek the American Dream of a fine house, two cars to park in the garage, a large yard, good jobs, good schools for their children, and the freedom to dream and build on those thoughts, which in turn became hopes. When able, they traveled back to the dances to the sound of the big drum, and often, one of their parents rode along. My grandma, for example, would sit quietly in the back seat with my brother and me as she looked out the car window teaching us to count in Osage. She would say the names of things we could see and touch. She left it to her brothers to teach us the ways of the sweat lodge and much about what we could not see. None of them spoke of the “Osage Reign of Terror”—a time before my parents were born—a time in the 1920s and 30s when Grandma and her brothers were young and just starting to build their own lives.

But we must talk about our stories; for the Osage people are incredible storytellers. And in thinking about the release of the movie Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s clear how essential they are in helping us connect our past and our roots to our present. Not only do we rely on them—we are immersed in them. This knowledge of the Osage is passed down generation-by-generation. This is mine.

Read More: What ‘Killers of The Flower Moon’ Doesn’t Show About Osage Nation’s Legacy

When the family station wagon pulled into the Osage Capital of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, my parents would drop Grandma and me off at the loan company where Grandma could pay on her loan with her “Payment” from her Osage headright, a share in the Osage mineral estate producing oil, gas, and other minerals. She would then borrow more money. We would sit in the waiting area with other Osage in this ritual we observed every three months. I knew what was coming as one of my great-aunts was invited up to the loan officer’s desk and I watched as she spoke in that distinct sound of the English language with that heavy accent which only comes from a full-blood Osage speaking a second language, that second language being English. She was born in the 1890s and, like most of the Osage of her time, went from living on the fringe of survival to fabulous wealth from their lands and minerals. Now, there we were—only 40 years later—waiting in line at the loan office.

A few years later, I watched the drama of going to “the Agency,” where the Mahi-ta (Superintendent of the Osage Indian Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior) presided over the federal management of the Osage lands and minerals, and the Osage money. I had asked the elders why we called the Superintendent Mahi-ta, which in the Osage language translates as Long Knife. They said, “Because in our grandparents’ day, the Superintendent carried a sword.” Anyway, we needed a new lawnmower, and for an Osage to access any of their money, there had to be an order from the Superintendent, approved by the Agency lawyer and other staff. Her request for use of her own money was outside of the normal regular allocation of her quarterly allowance, disbursed every three months, but I was confident we would succeed! After all, she had plenty of money in her Agency account, and she never asked for any more than her quarterly payment except some Christmas money. She swore me to secrecy on that Christmas money as, by then, I was her driver, and being the oldest grandson, I had her trust.

As the morning drew on, I became nervous about our chance of success. We had completed the interview with the Agency lawyer, the Solicitor. He was pleased to hear I was doing well at university. He was warm and cordial to Grandma. Outside his office, I could hear the Osage language spoken back and forth by other Osage who were there on similar missions. Then the moment came, and we were summoned back to the Superintendent’s office. The Mahi-ta pronounced a store downtown had a fine selection of lawnmowers, and from the description I gave for the size of our yard, he had selected the right one for us.

“Just go to the store, and they will have it ready for you.” We were reassured and went to the store. I loaded the lawnmower into the trunk of the large Buick I was driving (“poor man’s Cadillac,” Grandma called it). Halfway back to the house in Tulsa, I just could not shake off the facts of this process we experienced that morning and for all my memories of similar events. We never did learn of the price of that lawnmower. Yet, Grandma was happy. Mahi-ta was happy. The Agency Solicitor was happy, the merchant was happy. Why was I unhappy with what had happened?

Now, take that experience at “the Agency” and multiply it by thousands or tens of thousands among the Osage people. In 1990, I was elected Assistant Principal Chief of the Osage. We raised our right hands as the Mahi-ta delivered the Oath of Office. Today, our Osage Supreme Court Chief Justice delivers the Oath of Office.  

The elders once told us the way we dance, the way we sing, the way we speak to one another all have the element of respect. For our big drum, the men dance with the otter as part of what we wear. The elders said we try to be quick in life like the otter.

We dance with bells on our legs making a sound like rain with the thunder and lightning of the big drum. 

The little drum is another story.

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