Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Osages, Dhegiha Siouan speakers, believed in the beginning that there was chaos in the universe. Amid the chaos, the all-powerful, mysterious, and invisible life force, Wakonda, created order by organizing the universe into air, land, and water, creating the Middle Waters. Wakonda brought three groups together, and they became the Wa-zha-she, the "Children of the Middle Waters," or the Osage nation.

The location of the Osage creation is cloaked in myth and metaphor, but many believe that they formed as a distinct people in the forests along the Ohio Valley and were pushed onto the prairies by Iroquois attacks. Others argue they were survivors of the Oneota cultural complex of the Plains river valleys. By 1673 the Osages were dwelling along the Osage River (in present-day Missouri), and throughout the eighteenth century they hunted in the Ozark Highlands and out onto the Great Plains. They occupied the region from the Republican River in Kansas south to the Red River of Oklahoma and Texas until the early 1830s. In 1839, to make room for the removed eastern tribes, the Osages were forced onto a reservation in southern Kansas. In 1870, as whites invaded their reservation, they were moved south into Indian Territory.

The Osages were semisedentary people who inhabited wooden longhouses in prairie villages in the spring and fall and spent summers in the Plains and winters in the forest. In the spring, after planting their crops, they left their villages to hunt in the Great Plains. In early July they returned to the villages to harvest their crops and store them for winter. They returned to the Plains in September, where they hunted until winter and then traveled back to the forests. They remained there until spring, when they gathered again to renew their seasonal cycle.

Osage men wore deerskin breechcloths and covered their legs with buckskin leggings. They rarely wore anything on their upper bodies, and only in the winter did they wrap themselves in buffalo robes. Osage women wore red and blue dyed buckskin leggings and buckskin tunics. The Osages became well known for their silk ribbon reverse appliqué, in which they cut silk in elaborate patterns and sewed them in layers onto their blankets and clothing.

The Osages believed that all things of the universe were manifestations of Wakonda. They sought to live in peace and harmony with the universe. Clan elders possessed sacred songs, rituals, and bundles, and they used them to sanctify important events and solicit the support of Wakonda.

The basic political unit of the Osages was the village, and according to Osage oral traditions, in the beginning all of the Osages lived in a single village along a river. The village contained twenty-four clans and was divided into moieties, the earth people and sky people. Each moiety had a hereditary leader, and these two chiefs shared power with clan elders. Together they made up the village council, which led the people. For a variety of political, economic, and social reasons, as the Osages moved west they separated into three major bands, with the two northern bands, the Big and Little Osages, occupying southern Kansas, and the Arkansas Osages, occupying the Verdigris River valley, just north of the Three Forks of the Arkansas.

The Osages were a numerous people. The earliest account of their population dates to 1719, when Claude-Charles DuTisne estimated there were 200 warriors and 200 lodges in the single village he visited. In 1817 superintendent of Indian Affairs William Clark reported 6,000 Osages. Great epidemics struck the Osages in the 1830s; hundreds died, as they were simultaneously stricken with cholera and smallpox. Later, on their reservation, pneumonia and tuberculosis continued to take a toll, and their population fell to 4,000 by 1870. By 1906 they numbered only 2,000.

In the early twenty-first century, there are now about 10,000 Osages on the tribal roll, but due to the unique nature of the Osage allotment, there are two distinct forms of membership. Osage lands were allotted individually in 1906, but because they had purchased their 1,470,559 acres from the Cherokees and possessed fee simple title to the land, the government had to negotiate with them before they could make more allotments. While allotting the surface rights individually, the Osages successfully preserved communal ownership to the mineral rights to all of their lands. They retain these today. The mineral rights were divided equally into 2,229 shares for the individuals on the roll on July 1, 1907. These shares–headrights–would never be divided, and subsequently, children born to Osage parents were recognized as members of the tribe but were not given additional shares in the tribe's income. After allotment, their reservation became Osage County, where 30 percent of Osages live today. Another 30 percent lives elsewhere in Oklahoma, and the remainder lives in other parts of the United States.

Willard Hughes Rollings

University of Nevada Las Vegas

Mathews, John J. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

Rollings, Willard H. The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

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