Osage History

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compiled and edited by Karen Elliott

The Osage were scarcely monolithic politically and socially like a modern nation-state. There had always been two major groups, the Little Osages and the Great or Grand Osages, with separate settlements on opposite sides of the Missouri Valley. The Little Osages had one village and the Great Osages four separate but related villages--the Big Hills, the Heart Stays, the Thorny Thickets, and the Upland Forests. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the political structure of the tribe was clear: each village was divided into the Tzi-sho (Sky People) and the Hunkah (Earth People), whose chiefs shared civil authority over all five villages. The two hereditary chiefs of the Upland Forest village acted as titular leaders of the Osages, speaking for the whole tribe in relations with outsiders, other Native Americans, and white people.

The tribal government never wielded complete and absolute control over individual Osages. The heads of the twenty-four patrilineal cans exercised considerable power in their role of religious leaders. Moreover, each clan occupied a specific area within the villages, acted as a separate military unit in times of war, and conducted independent raids against enemy tribes. In clan leaders, village headmen and tribal chiefs, the Osages, like other American Indians, relied on proven ability, hereditary status, and charisma to command loyalty and exercise authority. Coercion, even in the midst of battle, was virtually unknown as a means of maintaining discipline and control. This diffusion of power and leadership provided great flexibility and individual freedom in Osage society, but it rendered the Indians extremely vulnerable to the machinations of European intruders whose governments were more structured and hierarchical. Osage life was strictly regulated by tribal custom and the keepers of tribal custom were chosen from tribal elders and they were known as the Little Old Men. They set standards of conduct, advised in times of peace and war and contemplated spiritual matters. They created ceremonies and rituals to ensure orderly tribal existence.

The chiefs usually accepted the advice of the Little Old Men. If a chief was unable to govern, the tribal council could choose another to replace him. One of their most important tasks was to keep the peace. This system of government worked well for the Osages until they came under the influence of the Europeans.

In the late 18th century Osages grew in numbers and prospered while trading with the Europeans. The rapid growth led to a break in unity and loss of power of the hereditary chiefs and the Little Old Men, as other clan and tribal leaders led expeditions especially into what is now known as Oklahoma. The Osages were encouraged by Auguste Chouteau, cofounder of St. Louis, who had a trading relationship with the Osage, to relocate into the area known as Three Forks where a new trading post was located. This created in a geographic and political split among Osages with followers of Pawhuska refusing to go and the followers of Claremore moving into the new village.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, due to the westward movement of other tribes and whites, the U.S. pressured the Osages to give up their land and move to a reservation in the southern part of present-day Kansas. In September 1870, the Osages were persuaded to sell their Kansas reservation and purchase a reservation in Indian Territory. Joseph Paw-ne no-pashe negotiated an agreement that the land would not be allotted to individuals as it had in other tribes. The efforts were in vain. In 1906 the government divided the reservation into individual holdings.

In 1871 the first Osages moved to the new reservation. The first agent, Isaac Gibson, attempted to convert the Osages to farming and some Osages did become successful farmers. However, many resisted farming and continued hunting. Once the buffalo disappeared, many Osages were starving. When the agent Cyrus Beede arrived in 1876, he met with the Osages and found that funds and supplies had not been distributed equally. He appointed a council of five Osage whose members would transact all business between the tribe, the agent and the government. The council would assist two popularly elected tribal leaders, a governor and a chief counselor. Beede's government was basically a failure and when the next agent, Laban J. Miles, arrived the people were still starving.

The Osage were so discouraged with the rations they were receiving they asked Miles to give them cash instead. Miles was reluctant but finally let the business council go to Washington where they negotiated an agreement on July 1, 1879, that each man, woman and child would receive $160 annually to be paid in 4 installments, a good sum when the average daily wage was $1. Pleased with their success the chiefs and leaders decided to organize the Osages as a nation with a written constitution. In 1871 a grand council with James Bigheart as the presiding officer, drew up a Constitution describing the workings of a National Council. The council was composed of 3 representatives from each of five districts. They could levy taxes, discuss meanings of treaties and, when requested, serve as a board to settle tribal disputes. A principal chief and assistant principal chief would head the council. The principal chief was responsible to all of the bands. He could veto laws passed by the council, but a 2/3 vote of council could override his veto. The council members and principal and assistant chiefs were elected every two years.

The first popular election occurred in 1882. The agent was pleased but the Indian Office refused to recognize the Osage's constitution, although some Washington officials did acknowledge the council's authority on numerous occasions. All Osage requests for withdrawal of tribal funds from the U.S. Treasury were first approved by the National Council. However, the Indian Office could refuse the tribe's requests. During the 1880's the tribe prospered under the constitutional government. In the 1890's the Osages and other tribes came under pressure from the U.S. government to divide their reservations into individual allotments to facilitate Oklahoma statehood. Statehood required that lands had to be held individually. In the summer of 1893 the government met with the Osages to discuss allotment. The five member committee which included Bigheart and his son refused allotment saying the constitution forbade it. Although they couldn't convince the committee to accept allotment, they were able to get the committee to open the proceedings to all Osages and by the end of summer nearly all mixed bloods and some full bloods favored allotment. The major opposition to allotment contended that the rolls were full of many non-Indians who were fraudulently listed. The government said only 25 were illegal but the anti-allotment group said it was more than 500. Investigations a century later proved the anti-allotment group were right, however, there was no way to prove it then because of ill-kept records and fire in 1893 that destroyed the National Council building. The Osages were more independent from the U.S. government than other tribes due to their quarterly interest payments from the sale of their Kansas land, as well as grazing and timber fees. The U.S. Government, fearing this independence, abolished the tribe's constitutional governmenton April 1, 1900. In its place a council of 15 Osage men was set up to conduct tribal affairs under the direct supervision of the commissioner of Indian affairs. This did not end Osage resistance to the government's civilization plan or to allotment.

The Osage were the last Indians, either in Indian Territory or Oklahoma Territory, to give up the reservation. The decision in 1906 to give up communal ownership had as much to do with population and acculturation as federal Indian policy. The full bloods had dwindled to 838, and the number of mixed bloods had climbed to 1,156. They realized that resistance to allotment would only delay, but not avoid, the loss of their land and life-style.

In 1894 oil was discovered on the Osage reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had granted Henry Foster, an oil speculator, the right to explore for oil on the reservation. In 1896 the Osage National Council accepted his lease. By 1904 there were 155 oil-producing wells and 18 gas wells on the reservation. The terms for the renewal of his lease in 1906 gave the Interior Dept. the right to set the oil royalty, and limited his claim to the eastern half of the reservation.

The discovery of oil intensified interest in how allotment would be made. The National Council decided to allow allotment of the reservation, and on June 28, 1906, Congress passed the Osage Allotment Act. Full-bloods were very concerned that it benefit only Osages. The law stated that all persons enrolled as Osage before January 1, 1906 and born between then and July 1, 1907, would share in the division of land and resources. Because of matrilineal descent among the Osages, children born to Osage women and non-Indian men were included, but not those born to Indian men and non-Indian women. The headrights could be inherited, including by non-Indians.

The Osage Allotment Act was unique in stating that the subsurface mineral rights would be shared equally by the whole tribe, and not owned by the person whose land they were on. Osage children born after the roll was closed were considered Osages but could not share in the tribe's income. This led to two classes of Osages, the haves and have nots. By 1935 most of the land had passed from control of the Osages, who were allowed to sell or lease their lands. The depression hit the Osages hard with payments falling. Many Osages who had left the reservation now returned to Osage County where they knew they would be cared for. A census in 1939 revealed that of the 3,362 enrolled Osage, more than 1/3, 1,148 received no money at all from tribal sources. Mixed-bloods and full-bloods turned to the tribal council for relief.

Chief Fred Lookout represented the old ways and council member, John Joseph Mathews, represented the new. Lookout, who served as chief for 32 consecutive years, had to change his outlook in 1934 because the mixed bloods could now control the council. Lookout, wanting to have a full-blood leader or at least one that appeared to be full-blood, worked with the other full-bloods and mixed-bloods to change the definition of full-blood to someone who was one half or more Osage. Some Osage with less than one half blood quantum were considered full-blood if they looked full-blood and/or their cultural behavior resembled full-bloods.

The April 1933 Indian New Deal, which passed as the Indian Reorganization Act, was resisted by many Oklahoma Indians, although both Lookout and Mathews favored it. However, Oklahoma Indians were not included in it. Two years later Oklahoma Indians were included in the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, which excluded only the Osage. However, the tribe did participate in some relief and recovery programs.

During the 1930's, Lookout allowed Mathews and the other mixed-bloods to deal with the outside world while he tried to appease the full-bloods. World War II began a period of political, social, and economic change for Osages. While allotees were in the majority, politics remained fairly stable, but once the have nots out numbered the haves the old discontents between family, clans, mixed-bloods, and full-bloods resurfaced. In 1917 Chief Lookout and other council members had favored a resolution which would allow alloteešs children born after July 1, 1907 to participate in all future oil and gas royalties. It met with disfavor and the resolution died.

In the 1920's Osage women prospered and sought B.I.A. help to obtain voting rights for Osage women. Though the Bureau urged the council to allow women to vote they refused. Osage women tried again in 1938 and failed. It was only in 1941 that the tribe allowed women's suffrage. It was not until 1976 that a woman was elected to the council.

The 1906 allotment act specified that the council was to exist until January 1, 1959. A 1957 bill extended its life to January 1, 1984. Several dissatisfied groups tried to use the legislation to promote voting rights to all adult Osages without headrights. All attempts failed and Congress extended the life of the council indefinitely before the bill expired in 1984.

During the 1960's and early 1970's dissatisfaction increased because only allotees or headright holders could vote and hold office. Many young and unalloted Osages were resentful because they felt they had a greater biological or cultural claim than some headright holders. In 1964 representatives of these groups formed a group called the ONO (Osage Nation Organization). Members had to be over 21 years and have at least one quarter Osage blood quantum. One of the ONO leaders believed that the Osage tribe had ceased to exist when the Secretary of the Interior had abolished their Constitution, citing the tribešs exclusion from the New Deal as proof. Leroy Logan, a full-blood and ONO founder, referred to the "no-bloods" (those non-Osage who were fraudulently enrolled in 1907) who, he said, "stole our name and our tribe". The ONO wanted voting rights for all Osage over 21 and to limit membership on the council to tribes people with at least 1/4 Osage blood. They hoped for a council similar to other tribes where council members had to be 1/4 and sometimes even 1/2, and would function like a true council representing the needs of all tribal members and not just function as a business council. In 1971 a federal commission investigated the existing Osage government and recommended changes to provide equal representation for all tribal members, but in the first 25 years of the ONO's existence no changes were made.

In 1964 Congress passed legislation extending the mineral rights indefinitely.

In 1991 four Osages, William S. Fletcher, Juanita West, Charles Pratt, and Elizabeth Woody, sued the U.S. Government to restore the 1881 Osage constitution and to get a new representative government for the Osages. This case was known as Fletcher vs. U.S. and in 1994 Judge James O. Ellison ruled that the 1881 constitution was valid and extant. A referendum was held in early 1994 with 65% of all Osages voting in favor of a new government. In June 1994, elections were held and the Osage National government was established with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In 1997 the Osage Tribal Council filed an appeal and in July, 1997, the 10th Circuit Court in Denver upheld their appeal and abolished the new National government. (Information from The Osage, by Terry P. Wilson, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1988, and from The Underground Reservation: Osage Oil, by Terry Wilson, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1985, compiled by Karen Elliott.)

Last updated: April 30, 2003
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