Customs Of The Osage People


An Osage Village

An Osage Village

 I am writing this from the Osage point of view, written by memory from the writings of an Osage descendant, Louis F. Burns. I have found his book to be the most comprehensive. If you are a student or researcher, please consider Mr. Burns as my main reference here. While searching the internet, I have found several inaccurate sources with widely varying information.

This brief overview generally deals with the Osage nation prior to the “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803. After 1803, everything changed for the Osage people at such a quick pace that they were unable to adapt and survive as the proud nation that I write here about.

Osage Territory (1700's)

 For centuries, the Osage possessed the most prime real estate on the continent. The four-state area that they claimed during their height of power is a humid, temperate climate, encompassing just about every type of geography; wetlands, mountains, and bluegrass plains of the buffalo. Their enviable position in the center of the nation fashioned their customs and religious practices.

 The Osage style of government is thought to have been used by our founding fathers as a model for our present American style of government. The Osage had developed a special relationship with the French, and a group of the natives were taken to France a full half-century before our war of independence. A famous French treatise on this style of government was written shortly after this event and this treatise was indeed part of the model for our present constitution. Although no written proof of credit to the Osage is found, the similarities are beyond coincidence. Not the least of these is the concept of “inalienable rights” of each individual.

 At the top of the Osage government there was a powerful group of elderly ‘wise men’, who were referred to as “The Little Old Men”. The Little Old Men shared power and were made up of men from varied factions of the nation. It was their job to make judicious decisions based on petitioning from various counsels of “Grand Chiefs”. These Grand Counsels were specific to areas of tribal life. For instance, a Grand Counsel on war-making and another one meant just to lobby for peace.  At the more local, or “band” level, there was also some allowance for their own government. There were Chiefs and Councils at all levels. Sound familiar? This system was known to be in effect as early as the 1500′s.

 The government reflected the Osage personality. Slow to action and deliberate in all things, the system eventually became so top-heavy that it was cumbersome and had to be modified to meet the changing times. As such, The Little Old Men had a decreasing power as they approached 1800.

 The Osage had no concept of individual land ownership. The land was claimed by the entire nation. As a nation of hunters, these claims of territory were fiercely defended by warriors whose full time job was policing their claims. These small ‘war parties’ were not without rules.

Intruders were generally watched from a distance without them knowing they were observed. They were subsequently categorized and then dealt with. Although the whites considered these Osage people cruel savages, the punishments usually were comparable to the white’s justice.  

Three classes of intruders were considered. First was the traveller. If you were observed to be just passing through, and you took only what game and resources you needed to survive your journey, you would probably not even know you were watched. Minding you manners would save your life. Second was the hunter/trapper. These intruders were considered the worst, and were just common poachers as far as the Osage were concerned. White men would promptly hang a cattle rustler, and Osage warriors took it one step further. Poachers were beheaded and the heads displayed as a warning to any others with the same ideas. Third consisted of two different types of offenders who were treated similarly; settlers and traders. If traders were not poachers, they were not killed. If they were not trading directly with the Osage, they were however, robbed of their trade goods and sent on their way. The message was clear; Osage controlled the early merchants. Approved traders (mostly French) were encouraged.  Unapproved traders were harassed out of the area. Any trade with other native nations was not approved, as the Osage were constantly at war with them on all sides. Agricultural settlers, white or native, were treated much the same. Since the Osage were primarily concerned with hunting, and hunting territory, small groups of settlers were tolerated on their eastern border, along the Mississippi river. They were subject to some harassment though, and stealing their horses was fairly common. If they were not inter-married with the Osage, they were usually harassed until they left the area.

 At the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the Osage Indians lived in most of Missouri, northern Arkansas, eastern Kansas and northeast Oklahoma. They were thought to have descended from one branch of the Omaha Sioux and migrated from the lower Ohio River Valley. They were divided into three clans: the Great Osage, Little Osage, and Arkansas Osage. Their first experiences with Euro-Americans came in the mid 1600′s when French trappers and traders encountered them. Early records from the Trading Post that was to become St. Louis indicate that early Americans traded with the Osage at nearly twice the rate of all the other Native Americans combined.

 The Osage had a special relationship with the French from the very first encounters. This has been attributed to the temperament and manners of the French explorers, more than anything else. The official French government policy was to subdue the Osage and make them proper colonial subjects. The actual practice was nothing like this. Several French were married to Osage women, and are now the ancestors of many thousands of Osage people. Apparently the Spanish and English did not have the good sense to treat the Osage as equals, and subsequently were nearly completely shut out of the lucrative fur trading, unless done by proxy through the French. Osage warriors were known to attack British soldiers on sight.

Osage girls married immediately upon reaching puberty, unlike boys, who married in their late teens. When the oldest daughter in a family married, her husband also got marriage rights to all of her younger sisters if he so chose. However, this did not happen often; polygamy was rare. A distinction was always made between the first born daughter and those that came after. Marriages were arranged by the girls parents, and though inter-marrying with other clans, tribes and even whites was done, it was not the norm. When a daughter was married away into other clans, it was a political advantage and the family ties were never forgotten. The marriage to a first-born daughter was the highest honor. When a baby was born, the town would have a naming ceremony to make it a “real” person. As the children grew up, girls were educated mainly by their mothers in domestic arts, horticulture, and gathering. Children of native and white mix were considered “real” people as long as they followed Osage traditions. If they did not adhere to Osage customs, they were allowed to move about the clans and villages as they pleased, but they were not “real”, as such, they were not spoken to, or spoken of at all. Usually these ignored offspring would live with their French relatives.

The Osage were not an agricultural society, but the women did keep gardens at semi-permanent villages. They grew maize, squash, pumpkins, gourds, and beans, as well as gathering wild fruit, berries, acorns, and nuts. In autumn they would harvest the crops and preserve them for winter. Families lived in lodges made of wood and reeds, or of tall poles covered with animal hides. The lodges were thirty to forty feet in length, with two doorways and an opening at the top for venting campfire smoke. They were permanent, yet villages were regularly moved just short distance when conditions warranted, such as sanitation, gardening, flooding and draught. Osage warriors left them twice a year, once in the summer and once in the fall, when they headed west to hunt buffalo. Although some women travelled with the buffalo hunt, the main job of women in the villages was to grow crops and gather food, as well as raise children and take care of the home. The only time the Osage used “Teepee” style shelter was when they hunted far out on the plains, away from woodlands.

There were ceremonies in all seasons for naming, mourning, peace, planning, and harvesting, where women would dance in the rituals, but singing, priesthood and religous ritual and authority were only the dominion of men. Women commonly got tattoos, especially to remember their husbands, if their husbands were killed. If a man committed a notable act of bravery he earned the right to tattoo his wife and daughters. Mothers taught their children well-defined rules of behavior. They raised their kids gently, disciplining them using ridicule and rewards, never physical punishment. Osage women carried their babies on boards on their backs, because it was convenient. As a result of this the babies’ heads were flattened in the back and stayed that way for life.

 The mode of burial among the Osages was to place the corpse in a sitting posture on the ground, at most only in a slight excavation, and pile around it a heap of stones for its protection. When the early settlers came here many such graves were seen in which the skeleton was remaining intact, and in some instances the flesh scarcely yet having entirely disappeared.

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4 Comments

Filed under AMERICANA, History, Kansas, Labette County, Missouri, Native American, Oklahoma, Ozarks, The Four States, WAR

4 responses to “Customs Of The Osage People

  1. Interesting stuff. It’s always good to read your factual articles – it makes a change from all the blatant nonsense on our blog.

    The Osage sounded an eminently sensible race of people.

    ….apart from that bit about trusting the French, but hey – not everyone’s perfect.

    • Thanks for the kind words. About the French, I think it was a ‘marraige of convenience’. They needed each other as trading partners in order to survive here. My own Kansas county, Labette, is named for a French trapper/trader I believe. Many ofthe surrounding counties have indigenous names like Neosho andCherokee. The Osage’s best alliance was with the “Black Robes” a.k.a The Jesuits. I have quite a lot to say about that subject, but have not found the time to write what may be a fairly lengthy post on this. And of course, the Jesuits were multi-national.

  2. fascinating stuff,particularly about theirsimilarities ingovernment, trace.

  3. Superb piece. Us here this side of the ocean really have no clue regarding these amazing histories. I learnt everything about injuns from cowboy films.
    Looking forward to your history of the Native Indian experiences with those black robes. Could never stand them jesuits myself.

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