Osage Indians are a people with a rich history. They refer to
themselves as the Wazhazhe. When Europeans first met the Wazhazhe,
using rough French phonetics, they translated the name of one division
of the tribe, the Wazhazhe, into the word "Osage." Osage has been the
name that the European-Americans have used to identify the tribe.
Osage also called themselves by their ancient name, NiuKonska, which
may be translated as "Little Ones of the Middle Waters." The
traditional history of the Osage puts them in the Mississippian culture
situated in central and eastern North America, existing for thousands
of years before the Europeans arrived. The Osage lived in permanent
villages along the Missouri and Osage Rivers in Missouri, building
hunting camps on the Great Plains. The tribe grew corn, squash, and
pumpkins to supplement the buffalo and venison, the mainstay of their
diet. The Osage developed a highly complex culture that reflected an
intellectual tradition equally sophisticated and imaginative as any in
The Osage were often described as war-like since they
guarded their land with such ferocity. The ability to obtain firearms
at an early date gave the Osage a major advantage in their conflicts
with those who intruded upon their lands. The Osage occupied a
strategic location between the tribes to the west and the advancing
European-American frontier. They were able to control the trade between
these tribes and the Europeans until the nineteenth century.
tribe began a period of treaty-making with the United States in 1809.
This period lasted until 1870 and resulted in the minimization of the
Osage homeland. The Osage gave up over 100 million acres of land during
this period. They moved to the new reservation in 1872 and settled in
three main areas that corresponded to the ancient divisions of the
tribe. The main settlement areas were at Pawhuska, Hominy and Gray
Horse. The capitol of the nation was established at Pawhuska and
remains there today. This movement to a new reservation fulfilled an
ancient prophesy that included the prediction that the new land would
provide immense wealth. This prophecy came true and the Osage prospered
throughout the twentieth century.
The Osage had a very unique
social structure designed to maintain social balance and control. The
basic structural units of the tribe were its twenty-four patrilineal
clans, called ton-won-gthon or u-dse'-the ("fireplaces"). Clans were
both social and religious units. Every clan had a set of zho'-i-the, or
"life symbols," which included animals, plants, celestial bodies, and
natural occurrences such as storms and thunder. Although tribal clans
are commonly referred to by specific names, Osage clans did not have
specific names like other tribes, but could be referred to by direct or
metaphoric reference to any of their life symbols. As a result, there
were different terms or names for every clan. Based on the basic belief
that the cosmos is divided into two parts, the Sky (Father) and the
Earth (Mother) clans were divided into two groups or "moieties". Nine
clans were grouped as the Sky People, and fifteen clans were grouped as
the Earth People. Together they symbolically represented all of the
forces of the earth.
Each clan was divided into sub-clans,
each in turn associated with some particular life symbol of the clan
and called by reference to this life symbol. There was some ranking of
sub-clans and they frequently differed in their ritual significance.
One sub-clan in each clan was designated as the "Sho-kah" sub-clan
whose members acted as the official messengers for the clan. Clan
membership was of great significance in that an individual was Osage by
virtue of membership in a clan. Each clan had its own set of personal
names usually, but not always, a reference to one of the clans life
symbols. Also, each clan had its own specific ritual in which a clan
name was given to each individual.
Clan membership regulated
marriage. A person had to marry a member of one of the other or
opposing moieties. A member of one of the nine Sky clans had to marry a
member of one of the fifteen Earth clans and vise versa. Just like all
life was the product of the interaction between the sky and the earth,
so every Osage child was the product of a union of the Sky People and
the Earth People.
An Osage Legend
What is the meaning of life? Why is it that people grow old and die?
he was young, those questions troubled the mind of Little One. He asked
the elders about them, but their answers did not satisfy him. At last
he knew there was only one thing to do. He would have to seek the
answers in his dreams.
Little One rose early in the morning and
prayed to Wah-Kon-Tah for help. Then he walked away from the village,
across the prairie and toward the hills. He took nothing with him, no
food or water. He was looking for a place where none of his people
would see him, a place where a vision could come to him.
One walked a long way. Each night he camped in a different place,
hoping that it would be the right one to give him a dream that could
answer his questions. But no such dream came to him.
At last he
came to a hill that rose above the land like the breast of a turkey. A
spring burst from the rocks near the base of a great elm tree. It was
such a beautiful place that it seemed to be filled with the power of
Wah-Kon-Tah. Little One sat down by the base of that elm tree and
waited as the sun set. But though he slept, again no sign was given to
When he woke the next morning, he was weak with hunger. I
must go back home, he thought. He was filled with despair, but his
thoughts were of his parents. He had been gone a long time. Even though
it was expected that a young man would seek guidance alone in this
fashion, Little One knew they would be worried. "If I do not return
while I still have the strength to walk," he said, "I will die here and
my family may never find my body."
So Little One began to follow
the small stream that was fed by the spring. It flowed out of the hills
in the direction of his village, and he trusted it to lead him home. He
walked and walked until he was not far from his village. But as he
walked along that stream, he stumbled and fell among the roots of an
old willow tree. Little One clung to the roots of the willow tree.
Although he tried to rise, his legs were too weak.
"Grandfather," he said to the willow tree, "It is not possible for me to go on."
the ancient willow spoke to him. "Little One," it said, "all the Little
Ones always cling to me for support as they walk along the great path
of life. See the base of my trunk, which sends forth those roots that
hold me firm in the earth. They are the sign of my old age. They are
darkened and wrinkled with age, but they are still strong. Their
strength comes from relying on the earth. When the Little Ones use me
as a symbol, they will not fail to see old age as they travel along the
path of life."
Those words gave strength to Little One's spirit.
He stood again and began to walk. Soon his own village was in sight,
and as he sat down to rest for a moment in the grass of the prairie,
looking at his village, another vision came to him. He saw before him
the figure of an old man. The old man was strangely familiar, even
though Little One had never seen him before.
"Look upon me," the old man said. "What do you see?"
"I see an old man whose face is wrinkled with age," Little One said.
"Look upon me again," the old man said.
Little One looked, and as he looked, the lesson shown him by the willow
tree filled his heart. "I see an aged man in sacred clothing," Little
One said, "The fluttering down of the eagle adorns his head. I see you,
my grandfather. I see an aged man with the stem of the pipe between his
lips. I see you, my grandfather. Your are firm and rooted to the earth
like the ancient willow. I see you standing among the days that are
peaceful and beautiful. I see you, my grandfather. I see you standing
as you will stand in your lodge, my grandfather."
man smiled. Little One had seen truly. "My young brother," the old man
said, "your mind is fixed upon the days that are peaceful and
beautiful." And then he was gone.
Now Little One's heart was
filled with peace, and as he walked into the village, his mind was
troubled no longer with those questions about the meaning of life. For
he knew that the old man he had seen was himself. The ancient man was
Little One as he would be when he became an elder, filled with that
great peace and wisdom which would give strength to all of the people.
that day on, Little One began to spend more time listening to the words
his elders spoke, and of all the young men in the village, he was the
happiest and the most content.