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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 17, 2004 - Issue 111


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Art of the Osage


Art of the Osage, organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum, is the first major exhibition to explore the art and culture of the American Indian people known as the Osage. The exhibition also brings focus to the vibrant story of the Osage, whose history traces to the great Mississippian culture of North America. From the 17th to the 19th century, the Osage inhabited the Upper Louisiana Territory amid the Mississippi, Missouri, Osage, and Red Rivers, where their formidable presence was significant in the country's westward expansion.

The Saint Louis Art Museum presents Art of the Osage in a year celebrating the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as the centennial of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The exhibition opens in the midst of the Three Flags Festival commemorating the formal transfer of the Louisiana Territory, which occurred in St. Louis on March 9-10, 1804. Representing the Osage people at the event, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation James Roan Gray will mark the seminal role of the Osage in the history of the United States.

The refined artistic tradition of the Osage reflects the sense of continuity and purpose that has long united the Osage people in the values of spirituality and community. Rich in meaning and complex in its commitment to tradition and utility, Osage art is infused with aesthetic vigor bound to exquisite simplicity.

Unlike nomadic tribes, the Osage lived in permanent homes, cultivating the bounty of the prairies, woodlands, and plains. For more than a century before the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Osage controlled nearly half of the region's fur trade. The dominance of the Osage in this land of rivers, fiercely protecting its abundant natural resources, was an important factor in the founding of St. Louis in 1764. So significant was their influence that Meriwether Lewis arranged for several Osage chiefs to travel to Washington in 1804 for an extended visit with President Thomas Jefferson. The Osage homeland is now centered in the rich oil lands of Oklahoma, where the last Osage reservation was established in 1872. There the Osage continue to preserve the vitality of their artistic and cultural traditions, while prospering in the business and political arena of contemporary America.

The "purposeful beauty" characteristic of the Osage aesthetic is evident in the more than 100 objects featured in the exhibition. The works of art come from public and private collections in the United States and Europe and were selected according to the highest aesthetic standards with the guidance and support of the Osage community. Interpretive and contextual materials were developed in collaboration with active Osage historians and artists. With objects spanning 250 years, the exhibition encompasses two major periods of Osage art: the Old Era (1750-1900) and the New Era (1900 to the present).

Works of art from the Old Era include objects created for child rearing, hunting, domestic industry, and warfare. Highlighting the domestic arts and child rearing are objects such as hand-carved cradle boards decorated with brass bells and finger-woven straps, as well as dolls dressed in high Osage fashion. The hunting arts are exemplified by dramatic split-horn headdresses with trailing horse hair and feathers. A group of boldly painted shields, riding quirts, and war clubs illustrates the level of artistry dedicated to the accoutrements of warfare. A particularly rare riding quirt depicting a warrior with a bow and spear shows how quickly Osage artists adopted the pictorial style of artists such as the notable Karl Bodmer, who collected the quirt in 1834.

The New Era is represented through the defining activities of the modern Osage, including the In'Lon Schka dances, weddings, the War Mother's Society, and the Native American Church. The arts of the New Era reveal the strength of tribal identity in brilliantly colored and patterned sashes, stunning beaded vests, feast bags, and silver ornaments, all made for the In'Lon Schka dances. Plumed hats, ornate military dress, and refined horse regalia represent the Osage wedding arts. A particularly wonderful Osage wedding coat demonstrates how Osage artists adapted western apparel using ribbon appliqué, horse hair, and trade cloth to create elegant and masterful works within the Osage aesthetic tradition. The War Mother's Society is represented by a group of blankets with images of planes, tanks, and flags that are woven, beaded, and sequined. The importance of the native American Church is illustrated with fine examples of sacred staffs, peyote fans, and rattles.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the University of Washington Press, includes rare black-and-white historical photographs dating from the 1870s as well as excerpts from recorded interviews with members of the Osage Nation. Catalogue contributors include exhibition curator John Nunley, the Morton D. May Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Saint Louis Art Museum; Garrick Bailey, professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa; Daniel Swan, senior curator of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa; and Sean StandingBear, Osage oral historian and artist. Cultural reviewers for the catalogue are Kathryn Red Corn, director of the Osage Tribal Museum, and Leonard Maker, distinguished Osage elder. The project has been strongly supported by Principal Chief of the Osage Nation James Roan Gray and former Principal Chief Charles Tillman, Jr.

Through August 8, 2004
Shoenberg Exhibition Galleries
General Admission: $10
Seniors & Students: $8
Children (ages 6-12): $6
Members & children under 6: Free Admission is free to all on Ford Free Fridays. Each paid admission includes an audio tour. Audio tours are available on Fridays for $3 and are free every day for Members. For ticket information, please call (314) 655-5299.

Generous support for the Art of the Osage exhibition and catalogue has been provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, The Edward L. Bakewell Jr. Fund, and The Aileen and Lyle Woodcock Fund for the Study of American Art.


Approximate Diameter: 24 in. (61 cm)
hide, feathers, cloth, metal, and pigment
Osage Tribal Museum

The Osage went to war only after careful deliberation and ritual preparation. The smoking of a sacred pipe symbolized consensus among the clans, whose priests, chiefs, officers, and warriors then selected the time and place to attack. Osage war parties struck with lightning speed and delivered deadly blows to their adversaries. This ensured that there would be no chance for the enemy to regroup, and it communicated to other tribes the dangers of encroaching on Osage territories and resources.

Battles often took place on horseback, when weapons included rifles as well as bows and arrows. In hand-to-hand combat, warriors used clubs with deadly blades. Osage warriors protected themselves with shields that were imbued with sacred power and used riding quirts to encourage their horses to full speed. They wore ritual dress and applied black paint, representing death, to their faces. Their red and black headdresses, known as roaches, stood for the destructive nature of prairie fires and the ashes left behind. The lone feather of a roach headdress represented the Osage warrior who stood tall amid death and destruction.


11 x 12 x 40 1/2 in. (27.9 x 30.5 x 102.9 cm)
wood, brass, beads, brass bells, yarn, paint, and cloth
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Child Rearing
The most valued people in Osage society are children. The strong sense of order among Osage people traditionally has resulted in strict rules concerning the rearing of children according to gender and birth order. In previous generations, firstborns of either gender were educated to become community leaders, while their siblings were brought up to take service roles.

Infants were tended by their mothers, who kept them safe on cradleboards, soothing them with the sound of bells and entertaining them with dazzling beads and finger-woven pieces. As toddlers, girls played with toy cradleboards and dolls that they learned to dress in proper male and female attire. Boys played with pull toys and model bows and arrows, which helped them prepare for their adult roles. Young boys were ritually dressed at dances to indicate their social development. In addition to the child's parents, many relatives and clan members were involved in the raising of children to help ensure the success of the next generation.

Bear Claw Breastplate

Approximate: 18 x 10 in. (45.7 x 25.4 cm)
bone, bear claws, hide, and metal
Osage Tribal Museum

Domestic Industry
Osage men and Osage women contributed to domestic industry. Women were more concerned with everyday dress and accoutrements, while men produced objects related to warfare and other sacred rituals.

Hunters supplied hides, bone, sinew thread, and fur to the women after the bison hunts. Other materials for domestic industry were secured from European fur traders who offered beads, trade cloth, metal, paint, and silks in exchange for hides. Women prepared the hides through a process known as brain tanning. This was a technique in which brain matter from the animal was spread on the stretched hide until it became soft and supple. After this process, the women cut the hide into shapes and sewed it into leggings, bags, and moccasins. Many items were decorated with glass beads, wool, quillwork, and paint. Items intended for ritual use, such as clan priest turbans, incorporated materials considered sacred, including otter fur, bird beaks, and feathers.

Bison Headdress

28 3/8 x 15 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (72 x 40 x 20 cm)
bison hide, horn, feathers, beads, and brass
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

In the Old Era, hunting was necessary to provide food, fur, and other commodities for use among the Osage and for export to the world market. Hunting expeditions for bison were conducted in late spring after squash, beans, and corn had been planted and again in the early fall after the crops had been harvested. The power and temperament of bison made the hunt a dangerous enterprise, and competing tribes on the hunting grounds presented additional dangers to the Osage.

There were strict rules imposed for the hunt. A chain of command determined who would strike first, who had rights to specific animals, and how the various pieces of the animals were to be distributed. Hunters on horseback frequently used short bows to wound the bison, while hunters on foot used long bows to deal the lethal blows.

While little is known about the ritual preparations for hunting, pictorial records indicate that men of other Indian tribes wearing full bison dress and horned headdresses danced to entreat the bison spirits to give of themselves and feed their people.

Mirror Board

13 x 6 x 1 in. (33 x 15.2 x 2.5 cm)
wood, metal, paint, and glass
Osage Tribal Museum

The Osage have always understood dancing as a tradition that unites the community and provides a sense of social identity. As Osage leaders looked for new ways to celebrate Osage identity, they became interested in the contemporary dances of their sister tribes in the region. Two of those tribes-the Ka and the Ponca-transferred their drums and dances, including the E-Lon-schka, to the Osage people at the three Osage villages of Gray Horse, Hominy, and Pawhuska. The E-Lon-schka dances became central to Osage ritual and communal life. Today the dances are held on three weekends in June, one at each of the Osage villages.

The E-Lon-schka dances take place on an earthen floor under an arbor consisting of a large, corrugated roof without walls. Singers gather around the drum at the center of the arbor. Male dancers in traditional dress move counterclockwise around the drum. Headdresses, leggings, tail pieces, vests, moccasins, belts, silver body ornaments, and ribbon shirts constitute typical dance suits. Later, the women and young girls enter the arbor, dressed in skirts and blankets decorated with colorful ribbonwork. Their subtle and stately movements are in strong contrast to the animated and athletic dances of the men. The Osage embrace the E-Lon-schka dances to solidify their community and pass Osage traditions on to their children.

Wedding Coat
20th century

42 x 61 in. (106.7 x 154.9 cm)
wool and silk
Denver Art Museum Collection, Native Arts Acquisition funds, 1963.157

In the Old Era, weddings were arranged between clans of the opposite sides of the tribe. For example, a bride from the Sky people might be matched with a groom from the Earth people. Today many Osage marry for romantic reasons, frequently outside the tribe. Horses used to be the gift of choice for special occasions and dowries, but fine Pendleton blankets and cash are more popular today. Brides and their bridesmaids still dress in military-style suits with ribbon appliqués, finger-woven sashes, and ostrich-plumed hats. Many Osage couples now prefer to be married wearing Western-style clothing and in Christian churches. The children of Osage unions are taught the Osage way which they, in turn, will adapt to changing times.

War Mothers Blanket

77 3/4 x 59 in. (197.5 x 149.9 cm)
wool, cloth, and glass beads
Osage Tribal Museum

War Mother's Societies
Following World War I, the Osage found a way to honor their sons and daughters who had served in foreign wars. They developed the War Mother's Societies, which sponsor Soldier Dances. These events replace the old dances associated with warfare.

Soldier Dances are held on the Saturday before Mother's Day and on Veterans Day at the various VFW lodges in Osage County. The ceremony begins as the flags are presented to those seated at tables along the walls. This is followed by women dancing to celebrate the bravery and commitment of their sons and daughters. The dancers wear beautiful blankets decorated with patriotic symbols and emblems. Names of soldiers and their units may also be stitched or appliquéd on the blankets, which are treasured by families in the community.

Gourd Rattle

25 x 3 x 3 in. (63.5 x 7.6 x 7.6 cm)
glass beads, copper, brass, bronze, gourd, protein combination, and plastic
Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

Native American Church
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new religion swept through many American Indian societies. Known as the Native American Church, it combines elements of Christianity with many of the rituals and traditions of older Indian religions. Osage elders adapted this religion to suit their own purposes. Consistent with the Old Era religion, the new church was laid out along the east-west path of the sun, with the door to the church opening to the east.

Services are held to celebrate the special occasions of life and to soften the hardship of death. In ceremonies that begin at sundown, men sit around a fire, talk, and sing songs to the accompaniment of a drum. Women and children seated along the church walls observe the service. Feather fans are used in blessings. Gourd rattles with beautiful bead decorations, drums, singing, and the crackling of a sacred fire at the center of the church create a richness of sound. After the meeting, members, relatives, and invited guests conclude the service with a meal.

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