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The Osages in the Red River Valley

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Men in front of a round house
Osage Nation dancers at the turn of the century by their round dance hall in today's Osage County, Oklahoma (OHS).

While the Osage Nation claims to have held territory from the Ohio to the Red River Valley of the South, other tribes dispute this... and history does not bear out their claims. While the Osages continuously raided into the Red River Valley, they never had a true foothold along the river's watershed. Their empire, as it was, extended to the Arkansas River. And although their influence did not extend to the Red River, they were one of the most successful tribes west of the Mississippi River. This is a European-American estimation, of course -- successful means "wealthy."

The Osages are a Dhegia Sioux tribe whose linguistic cousins include the Kaws, Omahas, Poncas, and Quapaws. Their original homelands were along the southern Ohio, middle Mississippi, and eastern Missouri rivers. Their name in their language is Ni-U-on-Ska, "People of the Middle Waters."

The Osages may have been a Mississippian tribe that interacted and/or inhabited the Cahokia Mounds before the 14th century. De-centralization, perhaps due to climate changes, may have made them into nomads. The tribe fought with the Iroquois and allied themselves with the Illinois. This period of extensive warfare militarized the Osages. They formed a warrior-centrist society that valued raids and territorial claims. European invasion exacerbated their aggression, and by the 18th century, they had pushed into today's Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and even reached Santa Fe. By the American period, the Osages held fast to the lands of Oklahoma above the Quachita Mountains and along the Arkansas River to, at least, the 100th meridian.

The Osages terrified the Caddos and the Wichitas; continuous raids by the Osages left their own confederacies weakened. The tribe itself was weakened by the American disregard for the land claims. Their portion of Indian Territory, unbeknownst to them, became the new homelands of the Cherokees after this tribe was removed from their own homelands in the 1830s. The Osages were forced into northern Indian Territory (today's Kansas) but after the Civil War, re-settled in the northeastern portion of their former homelands. This final removal proved brutal to the Osages; a number of women and children died, most likely due to disease.

Unlike the Comanches who were also a warrior-culture, the Osages practiced agriculture and, by the turn of the 20th century, they had become successful ranchers. They lived in the fertile eastern plains and held their lands communally. Then, after 1905, the Osages were forced to divide their land into individual allotments. However, due to the money made from range-leasing to Texas ranchers and their own livestock trade, the Osages bought the allotment rights and thus, owned their reservation outright. This ownership gave the Osages the ability to sell or lease their own land, and generated wealth and educational opportunities that other tribes did not enjoy.

The allotments coincided with the discovery of oil. Practically overnight, the Osages became even wealthier from dividends generated by the wells. In one of the most horrific crimes in U.S. history, unscrupulous white men married Osage women who owned head rights. Then, they killed the women and their families in order to take control of the land. The nascent FBI investigated and uncovered the murders, but wariness of outsiders in the Osage Nation continued. David Grann's book, "Killers of the Flower Mooon," describes the murders and the subsequent investigation, and a movie of the same name by Martin Scorcese attempts to illustrate the fall-out. This crime -- and it was acknowledged as a crime-- is a chilling reminder of the evils some Anglos perpetrated against Native Americans.

David Gann is not the first person to write about this, though. He stands on the backs of giants. Angie Debo, Oklahoma's first woman doctoral historian, described the schemes perpetrated by Texas men onto Choctaw people in her dissertation, "And Still the Waters Run." She was ostracized for this: she called out the men who stole the lands designated for the Choctaws in her foreword for the "WPA Guide to Oklahoma." Many of these men were prominent in Oklahoma politics, and she was never able to gain a teaching assignment. Her research was based on what Kate Barnard, Oklahoma's first Commissioner of Charities and Corrections and the first woman in Oklahoma to gain an elected office, discovered: that white men fashioned themselves as guardians of native, "orphaned" children, whose allotments were then probated and exploited for their mineral, timber, and grazing rights. Like Angie Debo, Kate Barnard faced real harassment from the oil men who held the political power. They raided her offices and removed her office's budget entirely. She died destitute. Her story and championship is chronicled by Connie Cronley in her book, "A Life of Fire."

The Osage Nation is one of the few tribes that has possibly re-gained their pre-European contact population figures (since no one took a census back then, the jury's still out on this). The nation volunteers to the U.S. armed forces a higher rate than most other ethnic populations, and traditions like dances, crafts, meetings, and life way classes are upheld in the nation's capital of Pawhuska (Osage County) and in other places.

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