The Osage Nation is a federally recognized Midwestern Siouan-speaking tribe in the United States that originated in the Ohio River valley in what is present-day Kentucky. They were eventually removed to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where their reservation is today.
Official Tribal Name: The Osage Nation
Address: Pawhuska, OK
Official Website: www.osagenation-nsn.gov/
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
Wah-Zha-Zhi, according to the Osage website.
Ni-u-kon-ska, meaning mid-waters
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name: Osage
Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Misspellings:
Formerly known as the Osage Tribe
Name in other languages:
Region: Great Plains
State(s) Today: Oklahoma
The Omaha originated in the Ohio River valley in the area that is present-day Kentucky. After years of war with the invading Iroquois, they migrated west to avoid the Iroquois and/or to reach more game. Scholars are divided in whether they think the Osage and other groups left before the Beaver Wars. Some believe that they started migrating west as early as 1200 CE. The Osage migrated with other Siouan tribes west of the Mississippi River to their historic lands in present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. At the height of their power in the early 1700s, the Osage had become the dominant power in their region, controlling the area between the Missouri and Red rivers.
Reservation: Osage Reservation
Tribal Headquarters: Pawhuska, OK
Population at Contact:
Registered Population Today: Today, the Osage Nation has 13,307 enrolled tribal members, with 6,747 living within the state of Oklahoma.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
A person must establish, through required documentation, that they are a lineal descendent of a person on the 1906 Osage Allotment Roll. A minimum blood quantum is not required.
Address: The Osage CDIB Department, 627 Grandview Avenue, Pawhuska, OK 74056
Main Fax: 918-287-5502
The current governing body of the Osage nation contains three separate branches; an executive, a judicial and a legislative.
By its new constitution in 1994, the Osage voted that original allottees and their direct descendants, regardless of blood quantum, were citizen members of the Nation. Due to court challenges, this constitution was overruled.
In 2004, President George W. Bush signed Public Law 108-431, An Act to Reaffirm the Inherent Sovereign Rights of the Osage Tribe to Determine Its Membership and Form a Government. After this, the Osage Government Reform Commission formed to develop a new government. The Reform Commission held weekly meetings to develop a referendum that Osage members could vote upon in order to develop and reshape the Osage Nation government and its policies. On March 11, 2006, the Constitution was ratified in a second referendum vote. By a 2/3 majority vote, the Osage Nation adopted the new constitutional form of government. It also ratified the definition of membership in the Nation
Name of Governing Body: Osage Tribal Council
Number of Council members:
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers:
Language Classification: Siouan => Western Siouan => Mississippi Valley => Dhegiha (Cegiha) => Kansa–Osage => Osage
Language Dialects: Originally, the Osage and other Dhegian-Siouan peoples lived in the Ohio River Valley, and likely split into the Osage, Ponca, Omaha, Kaw and Quapaw tribes in the course of their migration west to the Great Plains. The tribes likely became differentiated in languages and cultures after leaving the lower Ohio country.
Number of fluent Speakers: The last fully fluent speaker, Lucille Roubedeaux, died about 2005. As of 2006, about 15-20 elders were second language speakers of Osage. The Osage Language Program, created in 2003, provides audio and video learning materials on its website.
Origins: The Osage originated in the Ohio River Valley.
Bands, Gens, and Clans
Traditional Allies: West of the Mississippi River, the Osage were sometimes allied with the Illiniwek and sometimes competing with them.
Traditional Enemies: The Iroquois drove them out of their original homelands in the Ohio River Valley. The Osage attacked and defeated indigenous Caddo tribes to establish dominance in the plains region by 1750, with control over half or more of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, which they maintained for nearly 150 years.
Ceremonies / Dances:
Annual I-Lon-schka Ceremonial Dance, held each June – The term I-Lon-schka is literally interpreted to mean the “playground of the eldest son.” Every four years a new drum keeper is chosen. To be chosen is one of the highest honors in the Osage Tribe. One drumkeeper is chosen from each of the three Osage districts. The drum keeper is always the oldest son of an Osage family. The drum, considered the heart beat and lifeline of the tribe, is over 100 years old, and is considered to be the center of Osage ceremonial life.
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
Animals: They were recorded in 1690 as having adopted the horse, and often acquired more in raids on other tribes and from trading with the French.
The Osage held high rank among the old hunting tribes of the Great Plains. From their traditional homes in the woodlands of present-day Missouri and Arkansas, the Osage would make semi-annual buffalo hunting forays into the Great Plains to the west. They also hunted deer, rabbit, and other wild game in the central and eastern parts of their domain.
The women cultivated varieties of corn, squash, and other vegetables near their villages, and they harvested nuts and wild berries. In their years of transition, the practices of the Osage had elements of both Woodland Native American and Great Plains peoples.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Following the Louisiana Purchase, the United Foreign Missionary Society sent clergy to The Osage Nation, supported by the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Associated Reformed churches. They established the Union, Harmony, and Hopefield missions. Their cultural differences often caused conflicts, as the Protestants tried to impose their culture. The Catholic Church also sent missionaries; the Osage were attracted to their sense of mystery and ritual, but felt the Catholics did not fully embrace the Osage sense of the spiritual incarnate in nature.
During this period in Kansas, the tribe suffered from the widespread smallpox pandemic of 1837-1838, which caused devastating losses among Native Americans from Canada to New Mexico. All clergy except the Catholics left the Osage during the crisis. Most survivors of the epidemic received vaccinations against the disease.
The Osage believed that the loyalty of Catholic priests, who also died in the epidemic, created a special covenant between the tribe and the Catholic Church but did not convert in great number. Honoring this special relationship, in 2014 numerous Osage elders went to St. Louis to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary of the European founding. They participated in a mass at St. Francis Xavier (College) Catholic Church of St. Louis University on April 2, 2014, as part of planned activities. One of the con-celebrants was Todd Nance, the first Osage ordained as a Catholic priest.
In 1843 the Osage asked the federal government to send “Black Robes”, Jesuit missionaries to educate their children; the Osage considered the Jesuits better able to work with their culture. The Jesuits also established a girls’ school operated by the Sisters of Loretto from Kentucky. During a 35-year period, most of the missionaries were new recruits from Ireland, Italy, Holland and Belgium. They taught, established more than 100 mission stations, built churches, and created the longest-running school system in Kansas
Education and Media:
Because the Osage Nation does not require a minimum blood quantum, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs restricts federal scholarships to persons who have 25% or more blood quantum in one tribe, the Osage Nation tries to support higher education for its students who do not meet that requirement.
Osage Chiefs and Famous People:
Chief Pawhuska –
Cody Deal (b. 1986) – television and film actor, best known for his role in the original movie, Almighty Thor.
Larry Sellers – Healer, linguistic mentor, and American actor/stuntman of Osage/Cherokee/Lakota heritage.He commonly portrays Native American characters such as his role on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman as Cloud Dancing (for which he received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and The Naked Indian spirit from Wayne’s World 2.
Maria Tallchief – Maria Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and became a classical ballerina and contributed greatly to the success of ballet in the United States. She danced with the New York City Ballet as it created a new American dance style. Its director George Balanchine choreographed ballets just for her.
Marjorie Tallchief – Sister of Maria Tallchief and also a professional ballerina. Both sisters were prima ballerinas who performed in many countries throughout the 20th century.
Louis F. Burns (1920-2012), historian and author, a leading expert on Osage history, customs, and mythology. Author of thirteen books, including A History of the Osage People.
Dennis McAuliffe – journalist and writer, assistant foreign editor of the Washington Post. Since investigating the 1925 death of his Osage grandmother during the “Reign of Terror” and publishing Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation (1994), he has become an enrolled Osage member; and been active in teaching Native American students in journalism. From 2003-2009, he led “Reznet,” a website he founded to teach and mentor journalism online to Native American students at a variety of universities; he also teaches at the University of Montana and in the summer American Indian Journalism Institute.
John Joseph Mathews (c. 1894–1979) – author and historian; World War I veteran who became one of the Nation’s most important spokesmen and writers. After study at the universities of Oklahoma and Oxford, he wrote classic histories of the Osage. He also published a 1934 novel portraying the social breakdown due to the early 20th-century oil boom.
Carter Revard – poet, author, and Rhodes Scholar, also specialist in medieval British literature.
William Least Heat-Moon (b. 1939) – Professor of English and best-selling author. In his autobiographical Blue Highways: A Journey into America , Heat-Moon occasionally refers to his Osage ancestry.
Todd Nance – the first Osage ordained as a Catholic priest, ordained May 25, 2013 at Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa.
Guy Erwin (b. 1958) – first openly gay bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (elected 31 May 2013).
Scott BigHorse – Osage Principal Chief (January to June 2014); previously elected to the Oklahoma House; served (2006-2008); elected in 2010 to the State Senate.
Charles Curtis, Vice-president of the United States under Herbert Hoover, 1/8 Kaw, 1/8 Osage, and 1/8 Potawatomi ancestry, a descendant of Osage chief Pawhuska.
David Holt – (politician), serves in the Oklahoma State Senate; he is the first Osage elected to state office since 2006.
Major General Clarence L. Tinker (1887–1942) – US Army airman who died during World War II while on a Pacific combat mission during the Japanese attack on Midway Island, June 1942. Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is named for him. He was the highest-ranking Native American in the US Army and the first general killed in World War II.
The Osage and Quapaw suffered extensive losses due to smallpox in 1801-1802. Historians estimate up to 2,000 Osage died in the epidemic. Smallpox epidemic on the Osage Diminished Reserve.
The 19th-century painter George Catlin described the Osage as: “the tallest race of men in North America, with either red or white skins; there being few indeed of the men at their full growth, who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet.”
In 1673 French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were among the first Europeans to encounter the Osage as they explored southward from present-day Canada in their expedition to the Mississippi River. Marquette’s 1673 map noted that the Kanza, Osage, and Pawnee tribes controlled much of modern-day Kansas.
The Osage called the Europeans I’n-Shta-Heh (Heavy Eyebrows) because of their facial hair. As experienced warriors, the Osage allied with the French, with whom they traded, against the Illiniwek during the early 18th century.
The first half of the 1720s was a time of more interaction between the Osage and French. Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont founded Fort Orleans in their territory; it was the first European fort on the Missouri River. Jesuit missionaries were assigned to French forts and established missions to the Osage, learning their language. In 1724, the Osage allied with the French rather than the Spanish in their fight for control of the Mississippi region.
In 1725, Bourgmont led a delegation of Osage and other tribal chiefs to Paris. The Native Americans were shown the wonders and power of France, including a visit to Versailles, Château de Marly and Fontainebleau. They hunted with Louis XV in the royal forest and saw an opera. After the French and Indian War (a part of the Seven Years’ War in Europe), France was defeated and ceded its lands east of the Mississippi River to England. It made a separate deal with Spain, which took nominal control of much of the Illinois Country west of the great river.
By the late 18th century, the Osage did extensive business with the French Creole fur trader René Auguste Chouteau from St. Louis, then part of territory under Spanish control after the Seven Years’ War. In return for the Chouteau brothers’ building a fort in the village of the Great Osage 350 miles (560 km) southwest of St. Louis, the Spanish regional government gave the Chouteaus a six-year monopoly on trade (1794–1802). The Chouteaus named the post Fort Carondelet after the Spanish governor. The Osage were pleased to have a fur trading post nearby, as it gave them access to manufactured goods and increased their prestige among the tribes.
In 1804 after the United States made the Louisiana Purchase, the wealthy French fur trader Jean Pierre Chouteau, a half-brother of René Auguste Chouteau, was appointed as the US Indian agent assigned to the Osage. In 1809 he founded the Saint Louis Missouri Fur Company with his son Auguste Pierre Chouteau and other prominent men of St. Louis, most of whom were of French-Creole descent. Having lived with the Osage for many years and learned their language, Jean Pierre Chouteau traded with them and made his home at present-day Salina, Oklahoma, in the western part of their territory.
Osage wars with other tribes
The Choctaw chief Pushmataha had a notable career as a warrior against the Osage tribe. When the Western Cherokee (Arkansas Cherokee), who, like Sequoyah, voluntarily removed from the Southeast to the Arkansas River valley in the early 19th century, they immediately clashed with the Osage, whose hunting lands they were invading. The Osage ceded these lands to the federal government in the 1818 treaty referred to as Lovely’s Purchase after 600 warriors drawn from the United States, Choctaw and Cherokee nations carried out the massacre known as the “battle of Claremore Mound,” killing thirty Osage and capturing their horses and trade-worthy goods.
Despite its proclaimed goal of creating peace among Native peoples, the United States delivered these lands to the Cherokee aggressors, over the protest of Osage who hoped the land would serve as a buffer zone between them and the Cherokee invaders, one in which hunting rights were preserved for Osages even if other tribes settled there.
In 1833, the Osage clashed with the Kiowa near the Wichita Mountains in modern-day south-central Oklahoma, in an incident known as the Cutthroat Gap Massacre. The Osage cut off the heads of their victims and arranged them in rows of brass cooking buckets. Not a single Osage died in this attack. Later, Kiowa warriors, allied with the Comanche, raided the Osage and others. In 1836, the Osage prohibited the Kickapoo from entering their Missouri reservation, pushing them back to ceded lands in Illinois.
In 1867, because of their scouting expertise, excellent terrain knowledge, and military prowess, Osage scouts were used by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in his campaign against Chief Black Kettle and his band of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in western Oklahoma near the Washita River. Custer and his soldiers took Chief Black Kettle and his band by surprise in the early morning. They killed Chief Black Kettle, and there were additional deaths on both sides. This incident became known as the Battle of Washita River.
U.S. Interaction with Osage
The Osage began treaty-making with the United States in 1808, by the Osage Treaty and their first cession of lands in Missouri. This treaty created a buffer line between the Osage and new European-American settlers in the Missouri Territory and ceded 52,480,000 acres (212,400 km2) to the federal government. This 1808 treaty also provided for approval by the U.S. President for future land sales and cessions. In 1808 the Osage moved from their homelands on the Osage River to western Missouri. The major part of the tribe had moved to the Three-Forks region of what would become Oklahoma soon after the arrival of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This part of the tribe did not participate in negotiations for the treaty of 1808, but their assent was obtained in 1809.
The Nov. 10th, 1808 Treaty of Ft. Osage explicitly states the U.S. would “protect” the Osage tribe “from the insults and injuries of other tribes of Indians, situated near the settlements of white people….”.However, in a letter dated Aug. 21, 1808 sent from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson informs Lewis that he approves of the measures Lewis has taken in regards to isolating friendly Osages from those deemed as hostile and says that “we may go further, & as the principal obstacle to the Indians acting in large bodies is the want of provisions, we might supply that want, & ammunition also if they need it.” Meriwether Lewis anticipated war with the Osages, citing their raids on eastern Natives and European-American settlements. However, the U.S. lacked sufficient military strength to coerce segments of the Osage into ceasing their raids and decided on a strategy that essentially began with the Spanish where they would supply the warriors of other tribes with weapons and ammunition, provided they attack the Osage to the point they “cut them off completely or drive them from their country.”
This strategy actually appeared to be taking place prior to 1808 as in Sept. 1807, Lewis had persuaded the Potawatomie and Sac & Fox to attack an Osage village where three Osage warriors lost their lives. The Osage blamed the Americans for the attack, but instead of retaliation they opted to attend a buffalo hunt after a “skillful trader” intervened.
The Osage occupied land in present-day Kansas and in Indian Territory which the US government later promised to the Cherokee and four other southeastern tribes. When the Cherokee arrived to find that the land was already occupied, many conflicts arose with the Osage over territory and resources.
Between the first treaty and 1825, the Osages ceded their traditional lands across Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma to the US in the treaties of 1818 and 1825. In exchange they were to receive reservation lands and supplies to help them adapt to farming and a more settled culture.
They were first moved onto a southeast Kansas reservation called the Osage Diminished Reserve, where the city of Independence, Kansas later developed. The first Osage reservation was a 50 by 150-mile (240 km) strip.
White Squatters continued to be a frequent problem for the Osage, but they recovered from population losses, regaining a total of 5,000 members by 1850. The Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in numerous settlers arriving in Kansas; both abolitionists and pro-slavery groups were represented among those trying to establish residency and affect whether or not the territory would have slavery, and Osage lands became overrun with Anglo settlers. In 1855, the Osage suffered another epidemic of smallpox, because a generation had grown up without getting vaccinated.
Subsequent treaties and laws through the 1860s further reduced the lands of the Osage in Kansas. During the years of the Civil War, they were buffeted by both sides, as they were located between Union forts in the North, and Confederate forces and allies to the South. While the Osage tried to stay neutral, both sides raided their territory, taking horses and food stores. They struggled simply to survive through famine and the war. During the war, many Caddoan and Creek refugees from Indian territory came to Osage country in Kansas, straining their resources.
Although the Osage favored the Union by a five to one ratio, they made a treaty with the Confederacy to try to buy some peace. As a result, after the war, they were forced to make a new treaty with the US during Reconstruction, and give up more territory in Kansas to European-American settlers. By a treaty in 1865, they ceded another 4 million acres (16,000 km2) to the United States and were facing the issue of eventual removal from Kansas to Indian Territory.
Removal to Indian Territory
Following the American Civil War and victory of the Union, the Drum Creek Treaty was passed by Congress July 15, 1870 during the Reconstruction era and ratified by the Osage at a meeting in Montgomery County, Kansas, on September 10, 1870. It provided that the remainder of Osage land in Kansas be sold and the proceeds used to relocate the tribe to Indian Territory in the Cherokee Outlet. By their delays in agreeing to removal, the Osage benefited by the change in administration; they sold their lands to the “peace” administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, for which they received more money: $1.25 an acre rather than the 19 cents previously offered to them by the US.
The Osage were one of the few American Indian nations to buy their own reservation, and they retained more rights to the land and sovereignty as a result. The reservation, of 1,470,000 acres (5,900 km2), is coterminous with present-day Osage County, Oklahoma in the north-central portion of the state between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma and Indian Territory map, circa 1890s, created using Census Bureau Data.
The Osage established three towns, which were the center of their three major bands at the time of removal: Pawhuska, Hominy and Fairfax. They continued their relationship with the Catholic Church, which established schools operated by two orders of nuns, as well as mission churches.
It was many years before the Osage recovered from the hardship suffered during their last years in Kansas and their early years on the reservation in Indian Territory. Although they had money held by the US government from the sale of their land, for nearly five years during the depression of the 1870s, the Osage did not receive their full annuity in cash; like other Native Americans, they suffered through the reduced rations that the government supplied during this period. Some people starved. Many adjustments had to be made to their new way of life.
During this time, Indian Office reports showed nearly a 50 percent decline in the Osage population. This resulted from the failure of the US government to provide adequate medical supplies, food and clothing. The people suffered greatly during the winters. While the government failed to supply them, outlaws often smuggled whiskey to the Osage as well as the Pawnee.
In 1879, an Osage delegation went to Washington, DC and gained agreement for payment of all their annuities in cash; they were the first Native American nation to gain this. They gradually began to build up their tribe again, but suffered encroachment by white outlaws, vagabonds, and thieves.
By the start of the 20th century, the federal government and progressives were continuing to press for Native American assimilation, believing this was the best policy for them. Congress passed the Curtis Act and Dawes Act, legislation requiring the dismantling of other reservations, and allotted lands in 160-acre portions to individual households, declaring the remainder as “surplus” and selling it to non-natives.
20th-century to present
As the Osage owned their land, they were in a stronger position than other tribes. The Osage were unyielding in refusing to give up their lands and held up statehood for Oklahoma before signing an Allotment Act. They were forced to accept allotment, but retained their “surplus” land and apportioned it to individual members. Each of the 2,228 registered Osage members in 1906 (and one non-Osage) received 657 acres, nearly four times the amount of land (usually 150 acres) that most Native American households were allotted in other places. In addition, the tribe retained communal mineral rights to what was below the surface. As development of resources occurred, members of the tribe received royalties according to their headrights, paid as a percentage of the land they held.
In 1906, the Osage Allotment Act was passed by U.S. Congress, as part of its effort to extinguish Native American tribal rights and structure, and to prepare the territories for statehood as Oklahoma. In addition to breaking up communal land, the Act replaced tribal government with the Osage National Council, to which members were to be elected, to conduct the tribe’s political, business, and social affairs.
Although the Osage were encouraged to become settled farmers, their new land was the poorest in the Indian Territory for agricultural purposes. They survived by subsistence farming, later enhanced by stock raising. They discovered they were fortunate to have lands covered with the rich bluestem grass, which proved to be the best grazing in the entire country. They leased lands to ranchers for grazing and earned income from the resulting fees. Their royalty income from grazing rights led the Indian Commissioner to call them “the richest people in the country” in the early 20th century.
The Osage had learned about negotiating with the US government. Through the efforts of Principal Chief James Bigheart, in 1907 they negotiated to retain communal mineral rights to the reservation lands. These were later found to have great amounts of crude oil, from which tribal members benefited from royalty revenues from oil development and production. The government leased lands on their behalf for oil development; the companies/government sent the Osage members royalties that dramatically increased their wealth by the 1920s. They are the only tribe today to retain a federally recognized reservation within the state of Oklahoma.
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