The most powerful tribal group in the early history of Missouri was referred to as the Wah-Zha-Zhe, which actually derived from a name for one of its moiety divisions, “The Water People.” The tribal group as a whole originally called themselves Ni-U-Ko’n-Ska, meaning “Children of the Middle Waters.” Later, the Europeans exploring the waterways referred to them as the Osage Indians.
The Osage language is part of the Dhegiha-Siouan family, which also includes the Kaw, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw. A long time ago, they lived along the Ohio River as one people. Around 400 to 500 AD, the combined group migrated down the Ohio to the confluence with the Mississippi River. Some began to split off after 900 AD, as others occupied and developed communities in the lush river valleys. The ancestral Osage were the last remaining Dhegiha group at Cahokia, east of present-day St. Louis. The Osage name for Cahokia is Ni-U-Ko’n-Ska Dsi, meaning “Home of the Children of the Middle Waters.” In approximately 1350 AD the ancestral Osage migrated up the Missouri River. They hunted across the Ozark Plateau to the Arkansas River and westward into the Great Plains.
The Osage say that their ancient ancestors once lived in the sky before encountering the earth. The sun is their grandfather, while the moon is their grandmother. They speak of descending from the “above world” and landing in the “middle world.” The Great Elk helped them to survive in times of confusion and disarray. Dangers arose from the “below world” that could set human beings adrift. A narrow plane of existence between earth and sky consisted of a visible world with physical objects as well as an invisible world of spiritual forces. Only by death, say the Osage, could a creature escape the snares of the earth.
Osage stories tell of war and strife, although other themes emerge as well. After coming to the earth, their ancestors formed a grand division called Tzi-zho, or Sky People, and another grand division called Hun-ga, or Land People. A hereditary line of chiefs established order for the two divisions. A select group of elders known as No’-ho’-zhenga, or the Little Old Men, preserved heralded customs and traditions. They spoke repeatedly of a “move to a new country,” an expression that suggests an organizational change but not necessarily a relocation to an unknown place. The Osage venerated Wa-kon’-da, the supreme mystery force of the cosmos that brought the universe together.
The Osage way of life represented a blending of indigenous cultures that could be identified as characteristic of both Plains and Woodland inhabitants. Males hunted for game and engaged in warfare. It was not uncommon for adults to be well over six feet tall. Men wore their hair in a roach style, shaving their heads except for a scalp lock about two inches high and three inches wide that ran down to the nape of their necks. A male wore a breechcloth, leggings, moccasins, and blanket coverall that he draped over his shoulder. When addressing someone, he lowered the blanket and tied it around his waist.
Once acquired from the Spanish or other tribal groups, the horse became important to the Osage way of life. The Osage name for horse is ka-wa, which translates roughly as “mystery dog” and may have derived from the Kiowa, a tribal group that introduced them to the animal. The Osage secured horses through trading, stealing, and capturing. Riding horses permitted the Osage to travel far and wide. For the Osage, to bring in a horse was an achievement equal to the taking of a scalp from a dead enemy.
The spring hunt began in March and lasted until May, when the Osage began to plant their crops of corn, beans, and pumpkins. Men also hunted in the summer, returning to their villages in late August or early September when women harvested their crops and gathered walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, grapes, papaws, roots, and acorns. Hunting continued in the fall, but hunters remained close to their villages during the cold months of January and February. They wielded bows and arrows, lances, wooden clubs, tomahawks, and knives on the long and short hunts. The bison provided meat, hides, and bones for tools and ornaments. In addition, the deer, elk, bear, wolf, raccoon, fox, wildcat, porcupine, weasel, muskrat, and beaver supplied raw materials for their subsistence economy.
As the Osage households adapted to Missouri’s environment, women maintained the lodges, gathered the firewood, processed the hides, cured the meat, cooked the meals, and reared the children. A female wore a buckskin dress, robe, leggings, and moccasins. Her hair flowed loosely down her back, while she painted the part in her hair red to symbolize the path of the sun across the sky. Mothers placed babies on cradleboards, which tended to flatten their heads. Village lodges were oval with a domed roof and covered with woven cattail mats. Some permanent lodges housing large families were a hundred feet long. Their entrances were positioned to the east, so that the Osage could say prayers to the sun in the morning.
The Osage practiced rituals that prepared them for war. Warriors believed that those killed in battle would spend their afterlives in the Happy Hunting Ground with abundant game and horses. They strove to earn honors through daring acts, or what the French later called “counting coup.” Singing and dancing created a festive air on special occasions. While the Little Old Men provided spiritual leadership and conducted war ceremonies, individuals sought supernatural visions through prayer and meditation. Only after contemplation and deliberation did the Osage go to war.
With the leadership of chiefs, the Osage exhibited customs and traditions that profoundly shaped social relations. There was a mourning ceremony that could take place at the request of the grieving family so as to take the life of an enemy and to send this individual with the deceased into the afterlife. If a person from within the tribe killed a fellow Osage, then gifts would be exchanged to make peace. If the family of the deceased chose to continue to seek vengeance, then they would be exiled from the community. Retaliation was not an appropriate option in the Osage way of life.
After Europeans began to arrive, their presence produced dramatic changes among the Indians of the Mississippi valley. Disease and dislocation took a terrible toll on peoples such as the Osage, who numbered as many as fifteen thousand at the time of contact. The Osage adapted their economic and political patterns to the new demands of global empires during the eighteenth century. They offered skins, hides, furs, tallow, oil, and food to French traders. Deer leather or “bucks” served as a currency. Another item of commerce was Indian captives or slaves. The Osage acquired metal goods such as knives, awls, hoes, and needles that made their lives easier. Brass kettles replaced Osage pottery, while Osage production of utilitarian objects began to languish. The combination of horses, rum, firearms, and ammunition encouraged Osage households to alter their subsistence economy. Osage communities used their power, strength, and skill to become the dominant brokers between the French in Louisiana and various tribal groups to the north and west.
The Osage expanded their hunting and trading forays, but they faced unexpected challenges. The Big Osage band dwelled along the headwaters of the Osage River, the Arkansas Band resided in the Three Forks region of the Arkansas River, and the Little Osage Band thrived along the Missouri River. The chiefs and warriors became more influential in politics, trade, and diplomacy. Defending territorial claims extending for almost a hundred thousand square miles, they attacked anyone who threatened their hegemony. Neighboring tribes fleeing from disease and warfare nevertheless sought refuge and game on Osage lands.
The Osage had gained power under the jurisdiction of French and Spanish governments, but the US government reorganized the borderlands after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1808 William Clark negotiated a treaty with a handful of the Osage, whereby they ceded some two hundred square miles of land between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers. In return, the federal government promised to maintain a permanent trading post with a blacksmith shop and mill for the Osage and to give the tribe an annual grant of $1,500. Because of this bargain, Clark later admitted that “if he was to be damned hereafter it would be for making that treaty.” The trading post, Fort Osage, established on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River in what is now Jackson County, would remain a vital outpost until 1822, except for a brief period when it was abandoned during the War of 1812.
As more settlers poured into the Missouri Territory in the years following the war, the various Indian tribes living there were pressured to relinquish their claims to ancestral lands. Clark, who had become the territorial governor in 1814, took the lead in the arrangements. He persuaded Native delegations to exchange their homeland in Missouri and to relocate farther west to present-day Kansas and Oklahoma. Cherokee settling in increasing numbers along the Arkansas River also encroached upon Osage claims, which produced violent clashes between them for years.
After statehood, Missourians pressed the US government to remove all Indians from their midst. Treaties in 1818 and 1825 were signed with the Osage, who grudgingly ceded their lands south of the Missouri River in exchange for cash payments and tracts of land out of state. The Osage Trail, which once had facilitated trade with St. Louis, became one of the routes Osage families used for removal to their Kansas reservation. In a final armed confrontation that came to be known as the Osage War, Missouri state militia assaulted hunting parties of Osage, Shawnee, and Delaware in 1837, driving them out of the state.
The Osage were assured that their Kansas reservation would remain their home forever. They numbered some 8,000 in 1850, but their population fell to 3,150 in 1870. The decline of the buffalo herds impoverished them. On July 15, 1870, Congress added provisions to an Indian appropriation bill that permitted the Osage to buy nearly 1.5 million acres inside the Cherokee Outlet of Indian Territory. After obtaining a deed and trekking southward, migrants built several camps and settlements, the most significant at Pawhuska. During this time many Osage ceremonies waned, and communal gatherings adopted the I’n-Lon-Schka dances of the Ponca and Kaw. Some adopted the Peyote religion, which combined elements of Christianity with pan-Indian spiritualism. By 1906 the Osage had been forced to allow the lands around the Osage Hills to be allotted to individual tribal members, although they retained collective mineral rights after Oklahoma statehood.
In the 1920s the Osage suddenly became the wealthiest people per capita in the world following the discovery of oil on their allotments. Their newfound wealth brought swindlers, thieves, and predators, who colluded at times with those called “guardians.” According to federal law, full-blood Osage were required to have “guardians” to manage their finances and to disperse payments to “wards.” The guardians included non-Indian men and women, who came to marry tribal members in order to position themselves to inherit the wealth of their spouses. With oil money at stake, at least twenty-four Osage were killed from 1921 to 1925, with some estimates reaching much higher. The Osage managed to retain only a fourth of 2,229 original head rights, the term for the mineral rights issued to individual tribal members.
Despite the adaptations to a new way of life, the Osage people never abandoned their identity or nationhood. Established in 1938, the Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska is the oldest tribally owned museum in the United States. The same spirit that guided the Osage near the Missouri River in the past survives in Oklahoma today.
Bailey, Garrick, ed. The Osage and the Invisible World: From the Works of Francis La Flesche. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Burns, Louis F. A History of the Osage People. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Edwards, Tai S. Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018.
Mathews, John Joseph. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
Rollings, Willard H. The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony of the Prairie-Plains. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Wolferman, Kristie C. The Osage in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Published July 1, 2020; Last updated March 10, 2021
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